Foreign shingles mine U.S. talent

LONDON — TV creatives in Los Angeles have been seeking work at the broadcast and cable networks for years, but there’s now another source of jobs available for them: foreign production and distribution companies. And they don’t even have to relocate.


More from Variety

The past few months have seen a number of foreign shingles setting up operations in L.A., with the aim of inking deals with U.S. showrunners, and developing and producing scripted TV skeins for the U.S. broadcast and cable networks, as well as for international buyers. The stakes are lucrative: there’s a big demand for U.S. drama in the international marketplace — a demand underscored by a Digital TV Research report that puts the value of imported drama series on European channels last year at $6 billion, most of which was supplied by the U.S. majors.


Now, foreign companies want a bigger slice of the pie.


One new ex-pat is Gallic movie studio Gaumont, which set up its English-language TV production arm, Gaumont Intl.Television, in L.A. last month.


Heading the shingle is CEO Katie O’Connell, former exec VP of drama programming for NBC Entertainment, and previously exec VP of development and current programming at Imagine Entertainment.


For Gaumont, the L.A. office is the initial stage in an international growth strategy.


“Gaumont was looking to diversify its portfolio, and a logical step was to go into English-language television,” O’Connell says. “They … want to be a global company.”


For O’Connell, the walls between the TV industries of different countries are being broken down, but it is still paramount to secure a U.S. deal; in order to compete in the U.S. market, though, overseas companies must first loosen the grip of the Hollywood studios.


The arrival of this international posse is a positive development for members of the L.A. creative community, O’Connell says.


“(The international players) are trying to find different ways of doing things, and to adopt different models that make sense for them as well as (for) the TV community as a whole. This is really healthy for the television business, because it is bringing in more competition, and giving actors, writers and producers opportunities to explore the international marketplace and become part of it,” she says.


Gaumont will be offering two skeins at the Mipcom TV market: 13-episode thriller series “Hannibal,” written by Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies”), who will exec produce with Martha De Laurentiis; and “Madame Tussaud,” a six-part historical miniseries penned by Michael Hirst (“The Tudors”).


But O’Connell is realistic about the scope of Gaumont’s operations.


“We are never going to be a huge-volume company. One of the things that we really pride ourselves on is doing a handful of projects, and really handcrafting them (for)the marketplace,” she says.


Another recent immigrant is Anglo-Dutch TV company Endemol.


Already a major player in the reality space with shows like “Big Brother,” the company began feeling its way around the scripted landscape by acquiring foreign rights to U.S.-produced shows like “Hot in Cleveland,” “Happily Divorced” and “Leverage.”


It then decided to move up river toward the creative source, so to speak, with the development of Western series “Hell on Wheels,” co-produced with Canada’s eOne Television, and sold to AMC. (EOne itself opened up shop in Los Angeles in 2008, led by CEO John Morayniss.)


In August, Endemol formed its own L.A.-based scripted TV studio operation, Endemol Studios, which is headed by CEO Philippe Maigret. He points out that in international markets and in the U.S., the number of outlets that air drama series is growing, and these channels need original series to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. For instance, the number of scripted TV series premiering on cable channels in the U.S. has tripled in the past 10 years to around 100 last year, he says.


“There is clearly a demand for U.S. TV programming (both in the U.S. and overseas) that a global distributor needs to take into consideration,” Maigret says.


But another key incentive for foreign companies to enter the U.S. production business is to nab product to feed their international distribution operations.


“If drama series are of strategic importance to a company, then you need to secure your pipeline and develop internally some of those assets that will fuel growth,” Maigret says, while keeping control of the ancillary rights.


The foreign-owned L.A. shingles can partner with their sister production companies overseas — in Endemol’s case, that includes Southern Star in Australia and Tiger Aspect in the U.K. — either to adapt scripted formats that originated overseas or to co-produce original series for the U.S. market.


The key to entree into the U.S. market for these foreign players is to develop relationships with U.S. writers, directors and actors, and to deliver the goods that come from those relationships to U.S. cablers.


“It is very much about super-serving American talent and the American cable networks to make them more willing to work with us than their traditional partners,” Maigret says. That means championing a project the studios aren’t pursuing — perhaps one deemed too controversial or too risky.


Endemol is more willing to share rights with talent and cablers than the Hollywood studios are, says Maigret, though he adds that he is wary of entering into a contest with the heavyweights.


“We can’t go head to head with the major studios. They are much bigger and have more resources than we do,” he says. “So we have to be smart about who we align with, and what the terms of the arrangements are. We are very open and very flexible — that’s the message that we have been sharing with the community here in the U.S.”


One of the foreign pioneers in Los Angeles is Jane Tranter, the former controller of fiction at U.K. pubcaster the BBC, who now heads BBC Worldwide Prods., an L.A.-based shingle set up in January 2009.


Tranter says the main advantage of being a producer in Los Angeles rather than London is the large number of outlets that will commission quality scripted series in the States.


“You have the premium cable playground to go into, the basic cable playground to go into, and the network arena,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that one project fits all, but it means that you can have a development strategy that has a broad and eclectic flavor to it, and chances are you will find a home for something somewhere.”


Tranter adds that American license fees tend to be higher than in the U.K., although the deal terms and rights positions are better in the U.K.


But the benefits don’t all sit on the domestic side of the equation. By partnering with an experienced foreign producer like the BBC, U.S. broadcast and cable networks can tap into its knowledge of the international market, and its ability to take advantage of cheaper locations worldwide and access soft money, like in Ireland or the Czech Republic.


Moreover, Tranter notes a greater interest among U.S. TV audiences in period and fantasy series that are not reliant on U.S. locations, and so are easier to shoot abroad. BBC Worldwide Prods.’ slate of two dozen projects being developed or greenlit, such as the ancient Rome-set “I, Claudius” (destined for HBO) and sci-fi adventure series “Torchwood: Miracle Day” (Starz!), reflect that change in taste.


The key to delivering high-quality drama in L.A. as elsewhere, Tranter says, is in skillful matchmaking.


“The single most important decision made in a drama is putting the right writer with the right project, and the next single most important decision is finding the right broadcaster for that project,” she says. “In this modern context, we won’t always be looking for one broadcaster, we could be looking for several.”


Tranter, though, is realistic about the limits of what a foreign-owned shingle like hers can achieve on U.S. shores.


“I don’t think that what I do will ever become the mainstream stuff of American television,” she’s says. “What myself and perhaps some of the other companies offer is something that is a little left of center for a number of different broadcasters.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.