New cinema? It’s on television
by Michael G. Meyer
- Complex plots and well-rounded characters: television dramas are the new cinema. They are overtaking classic early-evening sitcoms. And if America is in the lead, Europe is catching up, thanks to the interesting plots it has managed to deliver
Wide shot of the American desert. Burning sun. Two groups face each other. Cars are in the background. Men are armed to the teeth. It is a scene similar to that found in western movies, coming just before a violent confrontation. Cut. We are looking across a massive New Zealand landscape. The camera follows the edges of a crystal lake and stops in front of a group of men by the riverside. They also seem to be up to no good. Their expression is far from reassuring. The two scenes are so impressive, they seem made for cinema. And yet they are both taken from television series. The first from Breaking Bad, and the other from Top of the Lake, by director Jane Campion, who decided to turn to television after working in film for years.
The characters are ambiguous, the plots are multiple and intertwined, the narrative voices original; but there is no worry about whether or not the spectator has lost himself in the episode. Modern television series are like books, leaving characters space to develop. Figures like Walter White (Breaking Bad), Don Draper (Mad Men), Dexter Morgan (Dexter) and Nicholas Brody (Homeland) were up until a few years ago inconceivable: a meth dealer, an alcoholic advertising man, a serial killer and an American soldier suspected of being a terrorist.
Jane Campion, Netflix and life after Breaking Bad
“It’s not just Americans, we also give great importance to the distinctive style of a director,” says Caroline Torrance, producer and director of the fiction section of BBC Worldwide. Torrance admits that without funding sources and international cooperation, it would be impossible to meet the public’s high expectations and the high costs associated with quality productions. For example, BBC Worldwide makes a lot of productions with American public television channel PBS. Top of the Lake was produced by the BBC in cooperation with Screen Australia, Screen New South Wales, the New Zealand Screen Production Incentive Fund (SPIF) and an Australian producer.
In Campion, the director was left with a maximum amount of creative freedom – something that has come to define quality productions. Screenwriter Beau Williams says he had no interference at all when it came to House of Cards, a series which was vastly successful and was played through streaming on Netflix, the online film rental channel. Netflix allocated $100 million to finance both seasons of the series – a gigantic amount, which has been compensated for with international sales alone.
Quality series can do a lot for local economies too. This aspect was not lost on the state of New Mexico, which put money on the table to attract Breaking Bad to the region. Albuquerque took advantage of benefits for years thanks to money spent by the set as well as fans coming to the area for tourism. Now everyone is waiting for the spin off Better Call Saul to generate money – continuing in this new trend of filming series outside of California. Indeed, if in 2005 89% of all American television series were produced in California, in 2012, the percentage fell to 37%. For producers, tax breaks and incentives are an increasingly important criteria when it comes to choosing where to film because they alleviate budgets considerably, something that is particularly relevant when it comes to costly productions. Incentives in California are currently nothing like as good as other places around the country.
European topics: homicides and mafia
In Europe, the situation is slightly different because co-productions are quite normal. On this subject, it is worth mentioning the incredible success of Danish productions in recent years: The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge. “It is impossible to impose quality, it is often a question of luck,” says Piv Bernth, production director for the Danish state broadcaster. She says 90% of the budget from the series generally comes from the national television and radio channel. If too many producers were to sit at that table, it would be to the detriment of the product. That the Danes are now considered the conceivers of television series with an international reach can be seen by the fact that Americans instantly made remakes of The Killing and The Bridge (The Bridge – America). Through drama series The Borgias (from the inventor of the television novel, Tom Fontana), Europeans have again proven that they are able to stand up to Americans. The series were filmed with their support, and an American version was made thereafter called Borgia.
Continuing to analyse the European context, one notes that Germany, for example, generally plays a role of co-financier. Broadcasting editors seem to shy away from financing German products. Weißensee is the only series that obtained international reach, producer Regina Ziegler says. This Romeo and Juliet style story, which takes place in Eastern Germany in the 1980s, has been successful in Russia, Asia and even America. But for now, this is only an exception for Germany. In Italy, Europe’s recent history is generally a source for inspiration. Romanzo Criminale is the second fiction series commissioned by Sky Italia and is the film version of a book written by judge Giancarlo de Cataldo, a cult hit in Italy. The series is set in Italy between 1977 and 1989, a time also known as the Years of Lead for its string of politically motivated murders and terrorist attacks. It is the story of the Banda della Magliana, a group of gangsters who managed to impose a complete monopoly selling heroin in Rome. Once more in this case, you can recognise cinema traits in the storytelling and in a tendency to focus on the main characters.
Another series produced by Sky Italia is Gomorra, based on the book by the same name by Italian anti-mafia journalist Roberto Saviano. The topic – already used in a film – has now become a series, which was presented at the MIPCOM in Cannes and has been sold across the world. German, Dutch, British and South American broadcasters pushed for it. Gomorra is not for the faint: strong images tell the story of mafia gangs. Many scenes were filmed in Scampia, a real, degrading neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. The theme is an expression of something that is profoundly European.
But despite these excellent examples, when it comes to quality series, Europe is still behind compared to the American market. Great initiatives have been launched to change this: the European TV Drama Series Lab from the Erich Pommer Institute in cooperation with Media X Change, for example; or the international degree SERIAL EYES at the German cinema academy for Berlin’s cinema and television (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin), in collaboration with the London Film School and the Script Lab RACCONTI by Italian regional film fund, BLS. These programmes are not just about training great series professionals but also motivating European broadcasters to find the courage – when it comes to series creation – to take on new roads to tell the European story, and its many stories.
The article was taken from TAKE #4 Magazine with the generosity of BLS, South Tyrol’s Film Fund and Commission.
(Translated from Italian)