Are International Co-Productions The Future of TV Drama?

The global market is becoming an important factor in TV drama — not just at the distribution level, but at the production level.

The Night Manager, a spy drama miniseries starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, and based on the John Le Carre novel of the same name, will air its final episode this Sunday in the UK. But its initial run won’t stop there. Indeed, the series is a transnational co-production between the UK’s BBC and America’s AMC (along with production company The Ink Factory). As such, it made its U.S. premiere on AMC on April 19.

Costing $30 million to make (that’s $5 million per episode), the TV drama was filmed all over Europe (including Spain, Morocco, Switzerland, and Egypt), and the high price tag shows. The Night Manager is gorgeous to look at. The fact that it wasn’t all filmed within the confines of Los Angeles, Vancouver, or Atlanta will probably make American viewers retroactively reflect on how limited-in-setting so much of the TV we consume truly is.

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Of course, that’s slowly changing — especially when it comes to prestige TV drama. The past few years have seen a rise in the number of international co-productions, aka television shows that are funded by more than one country and, therefore, generally have bigger budgets and more diverse filming locales. Though international co-productions have been around for decades — most prominently, in America, in the form of PBS Masterpiece — they have experienced a recent upsurge, especially if you’re looking at it from an American perspective.

At MipCom, an annual TV trade show where representatives of TV studios and broadcasters from across the world gather to buy and sell new programs and formats, TV executives discuss the “new golden age of drama” as one grounded in international co-production. Marianne Gray, a producer at Yellow Bird, speaks about the transition from a European perspective:

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European production, it needs to be more of a co-production sort of thing because we don’t have the budgets of the U.S. shows. English-speaking drama out of Europe. That seems to be the big ticket right now, even for American broadcasters.

 Lee Morris, a producer at the BBC, also speaks on the subject from a British perspective:

All major dramas, BBC dramas, generally speaking, would have been mostly financed by the channel. I think that’s what’s different from previous times. It’s not possible for the BBC to fund it themselves and, actually, they don’t need to do that, either, because clearly the project has international appeal.

This rise in international co-productions isn’t always visible to the viewer who generally cares less about how the thing they love has appeared before them and more that it has, and that there is more like it. From this side of the pond, many international co-productions come off as English-language imports from the UK or New Zealand. For instance, it might surprise some viewers to know that shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock have both benefitted from American funding.

American TV is no longer just buying already-made foreign English-language and European TV or remaking foreign hits; American production companies and networks are getting invested in these international shows’ very production processes. 

What Makes a Production International or Transnational?

For the purpose of this article (and to better understand the increasingly complicated world of international co-production), I’ve divided TV drama production into four, not-always-distinct categories:

1. Nationally-funded productions designed solely to cater to a domestic audience. (As the American and European domestic TV market becomes more and more competitive, the international market — along with distribution to cable providers, home video, and VOD services — is becoming an increasingly important factor in which TV dramas get made, and in which TV dramas get renewed.)

2. Nationally-funded productions with a global audience. (This includes TV dramas that start with mostly a domestic audience in mind but later develops an international audience and even international partners, i.e. Denmark’s Borgen orFrance’s Engrenages/Spiral.) 

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3. International co-productions that keep most creative control in the hands of one country’s TV production team. (This includes shows like Sherlock, Downton Abbey, and Hannibal.)

4. Transnationally-funded productions with multiple, international markets as equal, defining factors. (This includes shows like The Night Manager, The Last Panthers, Top of the Lake, conceptualized from their onset as produced by and catered to multiple countries.)

To put it another way, there is a difference between a show like Sherlock,which was conceptualized as mostly a British production with some international funding (from Amercia’s PBS Masterpiece arm) that doesn’t translate to much transnational creative control vs. a production like The Night Manager,which was conceptualized as a collaborative co-production with funding, scripting, and casting decisions made with a global — or at least British/American — context in mind.

Because of its sizable audience, the United States is still the most sought-after partner for international co-productions. This includes the curious case of Hannibal,which was an international co-production between France’s Gaumont International Television, Sony Pictures Television, and NBC. Gaumont fronted much of the production bill for Hannibal, making the show relatively cheap for NBC to buy and broadcast. However, when NBC pulled out, the show became much less profitable for Gaumont to make, as they no longer had an American broadcaster to reach the sizable American viewing audience.

Showtime entertainment president David Nevins spoke to Variety about the factors that go into deciding whether a project might make a good international co-production, saying:

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When we have something that we feel is going to have equal relevance in multiple markets because of the show’s setting or shared cultural history, that’s probably when a co-production makes the most sense. When you are doing a show that’s intrinsically American set in an American city, there’s no need for a co-production. We only do it when there’s some defined financial advantage.

The Evolution of Transnational & International TV Co-Productions

Though transnational and international co-productions are on the rise for American TV, international co-productions (especially with the UK) have a long history in the U.S., and that legacy has a name: PBS’ Masterpiece(formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre). Masterpiece,considered the longest-running primetime TV drama series in America, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 by renewing its partnership with BBC Worldwide (the commercial branch of the BBC). 

For 40 years, the public television program has been either buying distribution rights to or straight-up co-producing British programs with UK broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, and Channel Four through WGBH Boston, PBS’ single largest producer of content. Examples of this include recent mega-hits Sherlock, a BBC/WGBH Boston co-production, and Downton Abbey,which WGBH co-produces with UK-based production company Carnival Films.

Rebecca Eaton, the current executive producer of Masterpiece,spoke with The Guardian last year about the enduring legacy of British programming on American public television…

British accents, the way you talk, the orderliness, appeals to us unruly Americans … You are at a different stage, at the end of your empire, looking back on it. The way you approach British culture, revere writers, literature, that appeals … Masterpiece is like the little black dress of British drama: we are always in fashion, elegant in style, reliable. All in all, I think Masterpiece has put half a billion dollars into British drama. Either via financing it, acquiring rights or publicity, by flying over the casts to meet the American press.

According to the same article, the typical model for Masterpiececo-productions through WGBH involves putting up 10 percent of the budget. This grants Masterpiece/WGBHthe right to be consulted on casting and other creative decisions, but the final word ultimately lies with the major U.K. producer. Masterpiecethen has the option of doubling their investment in exchange for more rights.

Commercial TV Enters the International Co-Production Game

What was once a relatively non-competitive international co-production playing field for Masterpiece has gotten much more crowded in recent years. Several commercial American production companies, networks, and online entities like Netflix and Amazon Prime have shown more interest in international and transnational co-productions than ever before.

For example, look at the recent British-American War & PeaceTV miniseries. Ten or even five years ago, this might have been a shoo-in for Masterpiece, but interest from The Weinstein Company kept the project away from PBS. Co-produced by The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide, and British-based production company Looking Point, War & Peaceaired in America on A&E, Lifetime, and The History Channel. The collaboration allowed the budget for an all-star cast and filming locations across Europe, in Russia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

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The success of War & Peacehas already inspired another international co-production. BBC Worldwide and The Weinstein Company are currently in talks to adapt Les Miserablesinto a TV miniseries, with War & Peacescriptwriter Andrew Davies attached to the project. 

Elsewhere in Europe (Italy, to be precise), Game of Thrones’Richard Madden is donning velvety, ruffled sleeves for the eight-part TV drama series Medici: Masters of Florence,the story of the famous Florentine family’s Renaissance-era rise to power. Dustin Hoffman also stars in the drama created by The X-Fileswriter/Man in the High Castlecreator, Frank Spotnitz. Mediciis being co-produced by Spotnitz’ American-based production company Big Light Productions and Italy-based production company Lux Vide. Filming in Rome and Florence will include unprecedented access to Palazzo Vecchio, the Basilica di San Lorenzo, and the Duomo.

Examples of other international co-productions currently airing on American TV include Outlander, Da Vinci’s Demons, Humans, Penny Dreadful, and The Missing.This is not to be confused with American-produced TV shows that happen to film in other countries for the financial benefit…

The Tangled Web of International TV Tax Credits

At what point does a TV drama become international? Game of Thrones,though it films outside of America, is an American drama in that it has American writers and American-based producers. It is also owned outright by HBO. However, the fantasy drama has a mainly international cast with filming based in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, part of the budget is technically paid for by Northern Ireland Screen, a governmental body in charge of promoting and encouraging filming in the region.

According to the International Business Times, Northern Ireland Screen reportedly paid $15.3 million of the show’s budget in its first four seasons, but brought an estimated $108 million of revenue into the area.

Game of Thrones’budget is further subsidized by Britain’s high-end TV tax credit (yes, “high-end” is actually in the title), which states, “For scripted television projects with a minimum core expenditure of £1 million per broadcast hour, the TV Production Company (TPC) can claim a rebate of up to 25 percent of qualifying UK expenditure.” According to The Guardian

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During its first nine months of operation – [the tax credit] kicked in on 1 April 2013 – British Film Commission statistics show that the UK TV tax credit attracted 31 applications, boosting the UK economy by £233m … The government will refund up to 20 percent of the UK spend of qualifying TV productions – those that have a budget of £1m an hour or more. The TV tax credit sprang from the UK’s longer-established tax credit for feature films – and from losing TV productions to countries with lower wages and costs. (Both BBC1’s Merlin and ITV’s Titanic were shot extensively in eastern Europe.)

In addition to Game of Thrones,the high-end TV tax credit has attracted Outlander, Galavant,and Da Vinci’s Demonsto the UK’s shores, but all examples are strictly American productions. In an era when international co-productions are becoming increasingly more common, there is still a business sense to keeping all of the risk, and potential reward, within the studio. Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. International Television, told Variety in 2013:

We’d rather not participate in co-productions. We’d rather take the risk and own the full reward. Rather than partnering with (producers in) a bunch of territories to lower our risk profile on the deficit, we would prefer to own and control our programming, take the risks and bet on success. It takes a lot of money to be in this business. You need to be pretty fiscally powerful. A lot of companies don’t have that financial ability so they need to syndicate, so to speak, their risk.

Tax Credits Within North America

Tax credits play a major role in the production of American TV on this side of the Atlantic too. Vancouver is known as “Hollywood North” because so many American TV and film productions have moved over the American-Canadian border to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate and the tax credits, which exist at both the national and provincial level. Dozens of American TV shows — from Arrowto Once Upon a Timefilm in Vancouver — and Toronto has attracted projects like Freeform’s Shadowhuntersand the upcoming Starz adaptation of American Gods.

The competition over TV filming locations has become more fierce in recent years with both power and benefit generally in the hands of the production companies and other industry-specific executives and employees. According to The Economist, drawing on research from non-partison think tank the Tax Foundation, film and TV tax credits don’t make economic sense for the vast majority of those involved:

Even when a state succeeds in luring film crews, they rarely boost the economy or tax revenues enough to justify the costs of the incentives. Film companies usually import their staff (stars, stuntmen, etc.) and export them again when the shoot is over. The local jobs they create (hairdressers, sound technicians, pizza deliverers) are mostly temporary. Second, since virtually all states are at it, the programs largely cancel out one another; no state gets a lasting advantage.

Though this article focuses on the effects of TV production tax credits at the state level within American borders, TV and film tax credits tend to work in the same way no matter where they are, benefitting the productions themselves and a small subsection of the larger economy, but not helping the average taxpayer.

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Tax credits can also be used as a tool of manipulation in the hands of corporate powers and interests, i.e. the production companies involved. In 2013, the production company behind Netflix’s House of Cardswas able to more or less hold the state of Maryland as an economic hostage, threatening to pull production out of the state if the tax credit cap wasn’t raised. As one writer in The Federalist explained it:

Last year, VEEP received $7.4 million [from the state of Maryland] for filming season four, and House of Cards was given $11.5 million to film season three, below the $14.4 million it received for season two. Of this $11.5 million, $7.5 million came from additional grants outside of the film production tax credit. This extra subsidy was gifted because Media Rights Capital, the production company behind House of Cards, threated to pack up and leave the state if it was not showered with more taxpayer dollars. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley negotiated the increase after a series of masterful manipulations seemingly inspired by the show’s main character, Frank Underwood.

Tax credits don’t necessarily create new jobs so much as move them. Sometimes, productions bring crew members with them, which doesn’t result in the creation of a new job for the local, tax-paying area or it creates a new job by taking it away from a different local economy that depends on it. When that move is not state-to-state, but over international borders, that represents an economic hit for America. This system gives all the power to the corporation, less power to the government, and even less power to the individual worker.

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On the other hand, cutting a film credit from a region that has grown dependent can be a hard decision to make given its immediate economic consequences, as was the case with North Carolina. The state lets its film and television tax credit expire at the end of 2014, resulting in the loss of several major productions, including Sleepy Hollow(which moved to Georgia). The region saw a sharp, immediate drop in film production activity, as both film and TV productions moved their business to other states offering better tax incentives.

Working Through Multinational Tension via TV Drama

The rise of multinational actors (in particular multinational corporations) is one of the defining issues of the contemporary era. What are we to do with these entities that often operate above the state level and with relatively little accountability? It’s interesting to apply this question to the international TV industry where national boundaries are becoming less important both in terms of production and market, with the English-speaking global audience representing a huge market for entertainment companies. The rise of digital streaming technology makes reaching that audience easier than ever before.

Because of their connection to this system, transnational TV dramas are, in some ways, perfectly suited to confront these anxieties about multinational actors — and have begun to, taking as themes international cooperation (or not), corporate corruption, and the lack of accountability at the global level. 

Broen/Bron,a Danish-Swedish TV drama, explores the relationship between those two countries when a body is found on a border bridge, half in Sweden and half in Denmark. The drama was so popular it has been remade in both America as FX’s The Bridge, this time set on the America-Mexico border, and in the UK/France as The Tunnel, this time set in the Channel Tunnel.

There’s also the interesting case of The Last Panthers,a six-part drama that starts with a jewel heist in the Balkans and takes its main characters on an action-packed chase across Europe that spans multiple countries and is told in multiple languages. The show is a collaboration between Canal+ (France) and Sky Atlantic (UK). Written by British scribe Jack Thorne (writer on Skins,and the man behind the new Harry Potterplay), and with a theme song composed by David Bowie, The Last Panthershas already aired in France and Britain, and is scheduled for an American premiere on the Sundance Channel this spring. 

Many of the narratives of these co-productions echo in theme what is happening behind the scenes in commercial and creative collaboration: i.e. Broen/Bron about a body found on a border, and how two countries’ police entities must work together (despite cultural differences) to solve the crime. As Michelle Hilmes, a professor of Cultural and Media Studies puts it:

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Here, perhaps, is one form that the transnational television coproduction might constructively take: interrogating the claims of nation and inflecting them with the intersectionality of identity that is the hallmark of contemporary existence—or, at least, of television viewing. We need to begin to examine the transnational dimensions of the national television ‘box’ precisely by exploring the boundary collisions inherent in transnational coproduction.

Might transnational TV dramas be the populist, artistic medium we need (or at least one of them) in an age partially defined by a failure of international order? At its heart, The Night Manageris a story about one Western man trying to overcome his guilt, powerlessness, and complicity in a geopolitical climate built on a broken system and fueled by economic liberalism. It’s the military industrial complex gone rogue and stateless, serving only the most powerful and heartless of corporate actors. It’s our worst multinational fears realized, and dealt with. It’s a progressive, western, white fantasy for the contemporary era.

Perhaps most importantly, though The Night Manager is partially set in Egypt and on the Syrian border, it doesn’t make its antagonists Arab (for the most part). In an age of ignorant Islamaphobia, The Night Manager’struly horrific villain is not the regional warlord, but rather the white, rich businessman taking gleeful advantage of this accountability vacuum — all under the guise of humanitarianism. The Night Managerdoesn’t always succeed in its characterization, but it does succeed as a story taking as theme one of the chief anxieties of our time: the failure of the state, part of a larger loss of faith in institution.

Potential Downsides to the Rise of International Co-Productions

In a global marketplace already dominated by English-language content, especially of the American and British variety, could the potential transition into an era of more international co-productions further homogenize the global market? Or will the fact that American and British production entities are bringing their money to other regions with fewer resources mean more diversity in the stories being told to a wider, global audience?

These are questions that some operating within the international TV market are considering. Will Gould, the head of drama at Tiger Aspect (Ripper Street), told The Guardian in a 2013 article:

Sometimes a script comes to your desk that has four or five different nationalities and a note saying ‘these nationalities will change depending on who is financing the project.’ I worry about creating drama purely by the funding. But if there is a valid dramatic reason for having all those characters, I am up for it.

There’s also the question of the clash between the public and the commercial. In most countries, television developed along much more public lines than in America, where commercial broadcasting pretty much reigned supreme from the get-go. In the UK, BBC1 is the country’s most-watched network, and it has a public mandate to “inform, educate, and entertain.”

The BBC holds some kind of responsibility to the state and its citizens. CBS, America’s most-watched network, only has a mandate to its shareholders. Does the teaming up of public broadcasters with international, commercial producers endanger/corrupt the responsibilities of public broadcasters to the financial goals of the commercial broadcaster?

Transnational TV drama co-productions may be a commercial function of a global market, but I still have hope that an increase in more transnational and international stories will be good for the American public. Sure, in a domestic market where more people watch Dancing with the Stars than The Americans,high-end TV drama is not going to change the hearts and minds of a country with isolationist tendencies in an increasingly interconnected world, but — as an art form that specializes in empathy — it might change a few.

This article originally ran on March 29th, 2016.