The Television Series: Notes From VIFF Industry Panels

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Thu, 10/08/2015 - 17:17

It’s both an exciting and scary time for content creators, no more so than in the field of the television series. In 2015, there are 400 original scripted series on television. How do you break through the noise to secure funding, and make a success for your show?

VIFF Industry last Friday morning, had a couple of sessions looking at this. Tim Goodwin, Chief TV Critic at The Hollywood Reporter, prefaced the panel by dubbing the current era as “the platinum age of television”. In the first of two panels he quizzed some of the “gatekeepers” on what they are looking for when they commission those shows.

The panel consisted of Nataline Rodrigues, Director of Original Programming at Rogers; Mackenzie Lush, Director of Creative Affairs at Entertainment One; Kate Lambert, VP Series Development, Fx Networks; and Bill McGoldrick, Execute VP, Original Content for Syfy.

A key starting point is to know what kind of content fits with a particular network’s brand and what commissioning editors are looking for now before you pitch them. The panelists talked generally about their different audiences and the kind of programming that they want to see more of: Rodrigues said Rogers is looking for down-to-earth, character-driven, non-procedural drama skewed to a younger audience; Lush said that E-One is looking at “everything”, in Canada and globally.

Syfy’s McGoldrick complained that all his competitors now seem to be in the genre business, but he’d like to see more “quieter” sci-fi in the Twilight Zone vein. (He also mentioned he’s not on the look-out for a surfing detective show, even though he’s been pitched many a time.)

Lambert said that she’s looking for - and this was something that all the panelists emphasised - “auteur” filmmakers and something that has originality of tone, that pushes the boundaries, that’s “just great”. She’d like to see more shows with strong female leads.

Rodrigues reminded us that networks want to know that this is going to be a good partnership with the auteur filmmaker, where he or she is ready to listen although not just to passively agree all the time with all their changes.

Lush pointed out that she liked ensemble dramas because the audience has more than one protagonist to relate to - if they don’t like one character they can switch their focus to another. She added it’s important that they be characters that you understand and even are conflicted about (plenty of examples such as Breaking Bad and House of Cards).

Lush added that she’s also looking for shows in unconventional settings, not including space. She mentioned the small town murder has been done to death. It was probably reassuring to the VIFF Industry audience that where in the past Canada had to stand in for somewhere else, it’s okay now for Canada to play Canada. Audiences want the specificity of experience that comes from certain locations. “Embrace the location,” she said.

She did add a word of warning about producing in Canada. While you can be shooting a show a few months after a script gets greenlighted, Lush pointed out that “development in Canada, in case anybody didn’t know, can go on for years.”

Panel 2: “Specific Voices”

Having heard the views of the show buyers, it was time to hear from the people who head up some successful television series. Not surprisingly, their insider tips and guidelines struck a similar note to the previous panel.

Warren Littlefield, Executive Producer on hit series Fargo, now going into its second season, remembered the days when “a pitch was a writer and an idea”.

“That just doesn’t exist anymore,” he said, describing how you now have to put together a whole package. There’s the “revered property” (Fargo was inspired by the Coen brothers’ feature and the Coens were executive producers), big name stars (Billy Bob Thornton in season one and Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson in season two) as well as a clear view of the trajectories of the characters through each 10-episode season. Among many other things.

Simon Davis Barry, the creator / executive producer of Vancouver-set time-travelling drama Continuum was asked about how much of the mythology of the show he shared in his first pitch. He pointed out that his natural tendency is to want to talk about everything, but cautioned that you don’t need to “sell the universe”, just the character’s journey.

“You’ve got 25 minutes max with the buyer leaning forward and listening,” added Littlefield. You should know the mythology, but talk about it when it comes up in the Q&A.

Continuum’s fourth and final season just started in September, which begs the question of how you stay true to the show and the incident of past seasons. On the one hand, said Barry, you want to pitch the crazy ideas, but you also need “to evolve within the dynamic that you have created”.

Littlefield talked about respecting the “incredible bond and trust” you have with the audience, while at the same time surprising them and scaring them.

The other panelist was Christopher C Rogers, co-creator and executive producer of Halt and Catch Fire, a period drama centred around the personal computer start-up culture of 1980s Texas. It’s just finished its second season.

Halt and Catch Fire was the first prime-time show for creators Rogers and his co-writer Christopher Cantwell and the second script that the pair wrote together. Their inexperience wasn’t seen as a problem by AMC who bought the show. “Passion is the piece of it you need to bring,” said Rogers. They were also surrounded by experienced hands, including a showrunner in Season One and then given freer rein in the second season.

Rogers said that while they always had the “runway of technology” to follow with the narrative, there was a changing dynamic from season one to two. With the first season, the series spent a lot of time finding itself, said Rogers, then in the second season Rogers says the show’s creators were responding to the good feeling in the room, “our own happiness”.

The panel acknowledged that social media campaigns by loyal legions of fans may help get your show greenlighted for further seasons (Barry said the network even asked him to control Continuum fans after they threatened to boycott Outlander en masse).

Rogers confided that he was waiting for AMC to call - any moment now - to possibly greenlight a third season. He had left his phone on just in case. The audience, egged on by Littlefield and the rest of the panel, tweeted their support.

However, the call didn’t come by the end of the session. It's a tough old business.

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