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UK Producers Invade Miami Beach
by Cathy Corcoran
“Finding a new favorite TV show is like falling in love,” said Shane Allen, of BBC TV. “You have that moment where you realize you’re absolutely mesmerized. You just can’t get enough of those characters. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Allen, a guest of British streaming service Britbox, is in town to speak at the NATPE’s Wednesday session New European Content Opportunities: The UK.
He and other UK producers and execs are here to explore relationships with U.S., Latin American, and other international partners and co-produce programming that can air anywhere around the globe. His title is Controller of Comedy Commissioning for the BBC.
British comedy? Some would say there’a no such thing.
“Bollocks to that!” Allen said. “In the old days, comedies like Are You Being Served? and Benny Hill sometimes left American audiences scratching their heads at their offbeat humor.” Back then, the BBC used to fully fund their own programs, which tended to be narrowly focused and made specifically for British audiences. “Now, we’re doing shows we know will travel,” he said.
“A show like Benny Hill is hopelessly dated, especially with its pratfall humor and its attitudes toward women,” Allen said. “Today’s comedies are edgier single camera auteur pieces. They can go to darker places, and invite the audience to get emotionally engaged.” And many of them are co-produced with American or other international companies.
Take the offbeat comedy Fleabag, for instance, a series that follows the show’s creator and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as she lurches around London. Winner of the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series, Fleabag received an extremely rare 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Their critics’ consensus said, “Clever and viciously funny, Fleabag is a touching wildly inventive comedy about a complicated young woman navigating the aftermath of trauma.”
BBC produced the pilot, then partnered with Amazon to produce two seasons of the series. BBC retained exclusive rights to air the series in the UK, while Amazon aired both seasons internationally. Though fans would have loved the show to continue, Waller-Bridge said she had had enough of that story. She moved on to create Killing Eve, a drama series about a female assassin and the British Intelligence operative, played by Sandra Oh, who is assigned to track her down. Produced by the BBC, the show airs on BBC America, AMC, and Hulu, and was nominated for both Golden Globe and Emmy Awards.
“We are fortunate to have a huge domestic talent base of actors and production people here in the UK,” said Kenton Allen, CEO of London’s Big Talk Productions. “We’re extremely flexible too. We can pitch to any production company and any distributor anywhere.”
Kenton Allen (no relation to Shane Allen) will also speak on the European Content panel. Riding high on his First Look deal with CBS Studios, Allen's Big Talk Productions recently announced The Offenders, a new co-production with Amazon, which will star Stephen Merchant. Merchant wrote and developed the original English version of The Office, which was adapted for the U.S. market and ran for nine successful seasons on NBC. The show is now available on Netflix.
But wait. What about Brexit? What will happen to co-productions when Great Britain leaves the European Union? No one knows for sure, but UK execs say they’re not worried.
“We may have additional paperwork with work visas for people coming into our productions from the U.S. and other European countries,” Kenton Allen said, “but beyond that, it’s not really clear."
“There will certainly be changes, but they probably won’t affect TV production as much as they will other businesses,” said Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, Director of International Strategy for PACT-UK, a trade association for independent producers in the UK. “We’re not importing or exporting hard goods the way some businesses are,” she said. “We can literally push a button and deliver a program anywhere in the world in less than 5 minutes.”
McCarthy-Simpson will also speak as part of the Wednesday panel, and will man the PACT-UK exhibit booth on the NATPE Market Floor. With more than 20 independent UK production companies participating in the PACT-UK booth, McCarthy-Simpson says her main focus is to forge relationships with international production companies and explore co-production treaties with other countries, particularly those in Latin America.
“We already have 14 co-production treaties in place, including one with Brazil,” she said. “They are official government-to-government legal agreements, signed by ministers from both countries, and lay out the foundation of co-productions. Under the treaties, we have opportunities to access tax credits and other soft money in co-productions.”
She said that, regardless of what happens with Brexit, “We know that people all over the world love British content. There’s a big demand, and we hope there always will be.”
Apparently, language is no barrier either. McCarthy-Simpson said that, 50 years ago, they might have said that a “typical Brit audience” was quite different from a “typical American” or a “typical Brazilian audience," but with worldwide streaming and social media, we’ve all become more alike.
She said, “If you look at global audience reports you see that, among the top 20 downloaded shows, there are a lot of similarities, regardless of the country.” She said she finds it encouraging that people in Taiwan are as interested in British drama as people in Yorkshire. “We’re all fascinated by other cultures. We want to see how things are done and how people act in other areas of the globe. Ultimately though, we’re more alike than we are different.”
Shane Allen said, “When you find a new favorite TV show, it’s like watching a new family move into your neighborhood. At first, you might be a bit standoffish, then you go over to say hello, then you meet at a neighborhood party, finally, they’re part of your family and you have them over for Christmas dinner.”
He went on to say that the UK has been exporting creative talent and great programming for years. “From Peter Sellers to Judy Dench to Sacha Baron Cohen to Phoebe Waller-Bridge and others, we’ve proven that the whole world loves British people and British programs. We’re hoping to forge more international relationships at NATPE and continue our partnership with the world.”