High-end TV: How the small screen became big business
Business is booming for television production and countries around the world are clamouring for a piece of the action. High-end television shows with movie-scale production values are commanding large audiences, but what impact does this have on local industries and is it a long-term trend?
Medieval fantasy drama series Game of Thrones is perhaps the highest-profile of the current crop of television shows that has commanded massive audiences and also critical respect. Based on a popular series of novels, the show is set in a fantasy medieval world loosely inspired by the 15th Century dynastic clash that was England’s War of the Roses.
We brought in Game of Thrones before the TV tax credit
– now that we have it, it’s of great benefit of course.
Moyra Lock, Northern Ireland Screen
Cable channel HBO was drawn to Northern Ireland for the studio space and the exterior locations on offer in the area. The impact on the regional production industry has included massive growth in the local crew base, as well as studio expansion to accommodate the vast sets used for the series.
“We brought in Game of Thrones before the TV tax credit – now that we have it, it’s of great benefit of course,” says Moyra Lock of Northern Ireland Screen.
The UK government’s decision to launch a TV tax credit in early 2013 after a lengthy industry consultancy shows how seriously television is considered in terms of its economic impact.
Before 2013 the lack of a TV filming incentive in the UK meant that high-end television productions were frequently chasing more generous filming tax breaks in international territories. Julian Fellowes’ miniseries Titanic filmed in Hungary, action drama Strike Back chose South Africa as its base and the BBC took major 2013 period drama The White Queen to Belgium, doubling much of Bruges’ historic architecture for 15th Century England.
The Irish Film Board places a high priority on attracting international TV drama to Ireland.
Naoise Barry, Commissioner
Ireland has had a broader and more established filming incentive programme for longer and now that its Section 481 support has been extended through to 2020 it will likely remain one of the UK’s main competitors for the foreseeable future.
Ashford Film Studios in County Wicklow is home to new historic series Vikings, which presents a sexy, bloody and brooding vision of the iconic Nordic civilisation that appears to be aiming for Game of Thrones’ target audience. Filming on the show’s first series contributed around EUR20 million to the Irish economy over the course of 18 weeks in 2012, according to Irish Film Board figures, so it’s clearly a strong investment.
While tax credits are important in Ireland, the suitability of locations shouldn’t be underestimated. While the tax break would have been an appeal, the BBC chose the easier Victorian aesthetic of Dublin for its London-set period crime drama Ripper Street and returned there for the second series, despite the UK’s new TV tax credit.
“The Irish Film Board places a high priority on attracting international TV drama to Ireland,” explains the board's commissioner Naoise Barry: “Since 2006 we’ve been involved in funding shows including Vikings for History, Ripper Street and Quirke for BBC One, and The Tudors for Showtime. The wonderful aspect of the TV business is that shows can run for years, delivering significant inward investment and keeping our crews working year-round.”
Ireland is not alone in facing stiffer competition from the UK. South Africa’s filming tax credit regime has a worldwide reputation and has gained international television experience in recent years hosting shows like Strike Back, which has doubled the region for locations around the world.
In 2014, high-end TV series Black Sails will be launched. The gritty pirate drama doubles South Africa for the Caribbean and appears to be offering Pirates of the Caribbean via the down-and-dirty styling of Game of Thrones, cranking up the blood and sex appeal.
Denis Lillie of the Cape Film Commission echoes Naoise Barry’s comments about the long-term economic benefits of hosting a television series that has high production values. Black Sails was based at Cape Town Film Studios – a facility that has risen to prominence in recent years by hosting features such as Dredd and Safe House – and water tanks needed to be specially built to accommodate the show’s ocean-set scenes.
“The major challenge was the cost of constructing the water tanks,” Lillie considers: “Once the figures had been worked through and it was commercially viable to construct them, the challenge was whether they could be constructed in time to meet the filming and broadcast schedule.”
South Africa isn’t the first southern hemisphere nation to host a blood-soaked historical drama. Spartacus – inspired by the tales of the ancient Roman slave rebellion via the classic Kirk Douglas movie – spent three seasons filming on location in New Zealand.
In recent years New Zealand has struggled to appeal to high-end television, but that is now changing. The spending threshold for high-end television productions was massively reduced in October 2013, indicating that the New Zealand government wants to prioritise its TV production appeal. The country’s production industry grew by an impressive 10% between 2011 and 2012 – to reach NZD3.29 billion, according to figures from Film New Zealand – and a more accessible TV incentive could get an enthusiastic response internationally.
House of Cards hired over 2,100 Maryland crew, cast and extras, and purchased or rented goods or services from over 1,800 Maryland businesses.
Jack Gerbes, Maryland Film Office
The majority of the US states offer filming incentives of one kind or another, although the programmes have proven intensely controversial as arguments rage about whom really benefits from tax credits. The East Coast is most popular for television dramas, having made the most generous incentives commitments to location filming; California’s support structure flails by comparison.
Terrorism drama Homeland is perhaps the biggest TV drama of the moment. The show has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist from its North Carolina base and was recently renewed for a fourth season. The state itself reported USD250 million in direct production spending for the first half of 2013.
Light entertainment also made headlines on the East Coast in mid-2013. Iconic late-night TV programme The Tonight Show moves from Los Angeles to New York in 2014 for the first time in a generation, partly as a result of incentives specifically tailored for established shows with studio audiences of a certain size. In the more localised battle between competing East Coast states, America’s Got Talent has been lured from New Jersey to New York and is expected to deliver around USD100 million-worth of economic activity for each season that it films in the city.
Further south, Maryland has become a convenient Washington double. The state made television history in 2013 with the political drama miniseries remake House of Cards, a USD100 million show that became the first to be distributed exclusively through the online platform Netflix. Maryland has a long history of hosting critically-acclaimed TV shows – crime classics Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire among them – and has experienced the benefits of television series that become part of the local scenery.
“House of Cards hired over 2,100 Maryland crew, cast and extras, and purchased or rented goods or services from over 1,800 Maryland businesses,” says Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office: “In addition, in most circumstances there will be more production days than a film. The largest feature film that shot in Maryland had about 70 days of principal photography. Season One of House of Cards shot for 140 days in Maryland.”
Maryland offers a TV filming tax credit of up to 27% and is funding the programme with USD25 million – triple its usual annual value - for the 2014 fiscal year partly to make sure House of Cards and comedy satire Veep stay local. Nonetheless, Gerbes says the state could not have secured House of Cards without also offering a strong local crew base and great filming locations for the Washington-set drama.
While House of Cards set a precedent with online distribution, dystopian sci-fi drama Defiance (above) looked north of the border to Ontario in Canada for its location filming, while simultaneously developing its brand through a videogame experience. The Canadian province is already home to the long-running alien invasion drama Falling Skies.
Studio movies may offer massive cash injections to local economies, but a successful television series provides production stability over a period of years rather than weeks or months. When a show really captures the public’s imagination, the benefits can dramatically multiply and extend to long-term film tourism that is sustained and built upon by the show’s continuing on-screen presence. This is very difficult to achieve with a two-hour feature.
Just as movies rely on big box-office, the future of high-end television will be dependent on big ratings. On-demand internet streaming services – not to mention illegal downloading – mean audiences can access television content at their convenience, while fans watching shows as they’re broadcast can have a wider social experience as they discuss what they’re watching as they’re watching it, using Twitter and Facebook.
Studios are starting to cater for the increased demand by redirecting more resources to television, and immediately subjecting themselves to less risk than investing tens of millions in feature production. Marvel has already produced action drama series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is now planning five more TV productions spotlighting different characters from its vast comic-book universe. Similarly, Sony Pictures will direct more resources to TV production.
The studio suffered a disappointing summer with several of its major feature releases under-performing, while TV drama Breaking Bad flourished critically and commercially.
Game of Thrones has struck upon a hugely successful blend of high production values, exotic international locations and political-intrigue storytelling that evolves over hours of screen-time. With the fourth season already promising to be a major event for 2014, high-end television will continue to dominate for the next few years. Expect film commissions around the world to target them accordingly.
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