FremantleMedia Moves Into High-End Drama With ‘The Young Pope,’ ‘American Gods’

Henry Chu

Production giant FremantleMedia has long been associated with hit reality franchises such as “The X Factor” and “Got Talent” and soaps like Australia’s “Neighbors.” But a few years ago, the company made a flying leap onto the high-end drama bandwagon, with CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz pledging to increase revenue from scripted series to 50% from 30% in five years.

Since then, FremantleMedia has seen mixed results from an English-language remake of French hit “The Returned” (which didn’t last) and Cold War spy thriller “Deutschland 83” (which has). Two hotly anticipated series — “The Young Pope,” directed by Paolo Sorrentino and starring Jude Law, and “American Gods,” based on the novel by Neil Gaiman — are set to premiere within the next several months.

Sarah Doole, FremantleMedia’s director of global drama and a veteran of the BBC, spoke to Variety about the rewards and pitfalls of high-end drama and the possibility of a glut in the market. (Her comments have been edited for concision and clarity.)

Was it a realistic goal to have scripted programming account for 50% of FremantleMedia’s company revenue within five years?
We are on track. It’s looking really good in terms of the big shows we’ve got coming through. That ambition coincided with a boom in the marketplace: It is the golden era of high-end drama. The downside is that it is massively competitive. Your show isn’t going to cut through now unless it’s got absolutely top talent, on screen, off screen, so the stakes are high. If you get it right, then it’s the best time to be telling stories.

Someone recently compared the scramble for high-end drama to the subprime mortgage crisis. Are we seeing a bubble in the high-end drama market?
That’s a little bit extreme, but there is a danger. You have to do a really deep financial calculation on [whether] you will get your money back. But it’s also about what time period. If you do it over a two-year investment cycle, it’s probably not looking that good. If you look at a 12- or 15-year cycle, if the product is great quality, with a great cast, and made in a way that’s kind of future-proof, you will make your money back, because high-end drama sells over and over. I would hope those high-end dramas, over a 10-year cycle, might be turned over 10 to 15 times.

Given the ever-increasing budgets, are co-productions the only way to make high-end dramas?
It’s very unusual now that a show can be made for the license fee that the anchor territory’s paying. That then becomes a very complicated financial jigsaw to put together without compromising what made that story really interesting in the first place. Once you get into trying to manipulate the story just for the finance, we all know that ends up in not-very-compelling television.
If you go into a co-production, it is like a marriage, and because drama takes so long, that relationship might last three years. So you’ve got to be really sure as a producer that that’s a relationship you can sustain.

In the U.S. market what do you have foremost in mind when you consider shows, and is English language imperative?
Traditionally, for anybody in Europe, America has always been the goal in terms of bringing a partner on board. But you might have to compromise more than you might want to, and they might take the lead. At Fremantle, because we have this network around Europe, we can connect Europe together, sometimes without touching American money for co-production.
That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t sell to America later. We can be the portal that opens up those European stories to American audiences and broadcasters. Half of our catalog is in languages apart from English. The real breakthrough for us was “Deutschland 83.” That was a personal ambition for me: Could we get a really brilliant piece of German-speaking drama on American telly? At the time, everybody said, “You’ve got no chance.”

FremantleMedia’s strategy seems to be able to vacuum up smaller production companies around the world. Is that sustainable?
That has been Fremantle’s growth strategy from the beginning. What Fremantle does rather well is making each of those pieces of talent feel they can tell their own story. We operate under a label structure, a bit like Universal [Music] and Island Records. They’ve each got their story to tell and their own personality, but they have the benefit of the wider corporate structure in terms of finance, legal advice, strategy. We never try to impose a Fremantle creative perspective. Each story is different, and each territory that you’re telling a story in has a different cultural and anthropological environment.

How much have you been hampered by the difficulty in nabbing writing talent?
That is the gold dust of high-end drama. It hinges on having the best writing talent, and by “best,” I mean a writer who’s confident enough to tell a huge story, to set that vision right at the beginning. The high-end writers here in the U.K. are probably booked up three years in advance. So they may love your project, but they physically cannot write it for two years. Then you have to make the decision: We love the show so much we’re going to wait, [or] that story might be so current that I’m going to have to go with a different writer. Those are tough creative challenges, which every one of our producers around Europe, in the U.K., and in America is wrestling with.

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