The Talk of Two Towns
As platforms proliferate, so does production at Scott Free TV, which — from LA. and London — is busy making programs for broadcast, cable, public television and the streaming services.
David M. Russell/CBS
The free in Scott Free TV has proved prophetic.
At the production outfit founded by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, The Good Wife will soon be history, but the TV side is as busy as it's ever been.
Series for a full range of buyers are in the works, from network (the upcoming BrainDead on CBS, from Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King) to streaming (The Man in the High Castle on Amazon) to public television (Mercy Street on PBS) to cable and international (the limited series Taboo, currently filming in London for BBC One and FX). With these projects and more, it's a great time to be independent.
"We're enjoying the benefits of being able to ride the wave of all the new opportunities that are out there," says David Zucker, Scott Free's president of TV. "If things continue on course, our slate this year will be the most ambitious and productive we've ever had."
When it launched in 2001, Scott Free TV operated exclusively for CBS Television Studios under a then-popular three-for-one development deal.
That pact produced six seasons of the crime series Numbers, about an FBI agent who teams with a math professor to solve cases. The contract was renewed, and Scott Free teamed with the Kings to produce The Good Wife. The Emmy-winning legal drama, with star Julianna Margulies, ran for seven seasons and was often hailed as one of the best shows on network television. Its series finale will air May 8.
Scott Free eventually went independent to produce miniseries and shows in other formats, which CBS didn't want at that time.
"We had opportunities to create content based on the brand created by Ridley and Tony that wasn't suitable to the CBS family," Zucker explains, "and we didn't want to be prevented from pursuing those kinds of projects. So we sought to maintain our great relationship with CBS, but we went the independent route so we could realize those productions wherever they were best suited to be."
After the CBS pact expired, Scott Free forged into international coproduction with Pillars of the Earth, a period epic based on the Ken Follett novel. The timing made it especially risky.
"We were in the midst of the economic downturn, and it was a big gamble financially for Tandem, our German partner," Zucker says. It helped that Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder) were renowned for the large-scale visual mastery and pizzazz of their feature films.
The eight-part miniseries, about the building of a cathedral in 12th-century England, landed U.S. exhibition on Starz. It premiered in 2010 to great acclaim, including three Golden Globe nominations. That marked a turning point for Scott Free TV.
"It was successful financially and creatively. We were immensely proud of it, and it also performed extremely well overseas," Zucker says. "It was the prelude to a lot of other opportunities that have emerged for us globally, including the sequel, World Without End.
A German-Canadian coproduction, with Muse on the Canadian side, Pillars "proved that you could take that kind of international coproduction into the U.S. market and deliver a product worthy of the expectations here," Zucker adds. "That model is exploding now, and has been for the last couple of years."
From its London office, which opened in 2010, Scott Free is shooting Taboo, with backing from BBC One abroad and FX in the U.S. The ambitious eight-part limited series stars Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road) and is written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Dirty Pretty Things). The two had collaborated before on the innovative British feature Locke, a thriller set in a moving car, directed by Knight, with Hardy as the sole on-screen performer.
The idea for Taboo originated with Hardy: it's a period piece about a man who's been abroad for many years and returns in 1814 to his family's shipping business in London, only to become tangled in a legacy of murder and betrayal. It's the biggest TV project yet for the company's Euro side, reports London TV head Kate Crowe.
"It's an absolutely thriving industry at the moment," Crowe says of the independent production scene there, noting greater openness to English-language content in markets such as Italy and Germany. "People are able to be bolder now, with bigger budgets and stories that speak globally."
On the U.S. side, platform proliferation has helped spur production. "We've spent the greater balance of our effort in recent years producing for buyers new to the game," Zucker says, citing both Amazon and Microsoft, which is a partner in Scott Free's Halo: Nightfall series for the Xbox platform.
In the cable world, Scott Free is entering production this spring on Killing Reagan, its fourth collaboration with National Geographic on the popular Killing franchise based on Bill O'Reilly's nonfiction books (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus). The Discovery Channel commissioned Scott Free to create the Gold Rush saga Klondike, which aired in 2014.
In public TV, PBS recently resumed sponsoring scripted series, for the first time in 14 years (in addition to importing BBC shows). The first season of Mercy Street, Scott Free's Civil War hospital drama, aired on PBS early this year, on Sunday nights after Downton Abbey; season two is upcoming.
All this activity may suggest a concerted drive for expansion, but the company points to changing times and its readiness for new opportunities.
"The market kind of came around to us," says Jordan Sheehan, senior vice-president for television along with Clayton Krueger, who holds the same title.
"Nothing is impossible in TV right now — any story can be told in any variety of ways, which was not the case when some of our current projects were initiated. So it's been thrilling to watch when something we've been working on for years makes it to air. Man in the High Castle is a terrific example of that."
The Man in the High Castle, based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel, presents an alternative history in which the U.S. is ruled by Nazi Germany and Japan, having lost World War II. The project had been in development at Scott Free for nearly eight years, with various partners involved, before Amazon showed up with the means and moxie to take it all the way.
The 10-episode first season became Amazon Prime's most-watched original series to date, and a second season is shooting now.
Another example is The Terror, an anthology series set to premiere on AMC in 2017. It's based on the Dan Simmons bestseller about a creature that stalks the ice-bound shipboard survivors of an ill-fated 1847 expedition to the Northwest Passage. AMC had passed on it years earlier, but the network circled back to the project six months ago, now envisioning it as an anthology series.
"The biggest challenge in making this a show is that, at the end of the book, everyone dies," Sheehan admits. "But with the success of Fargo and American Horror Story, there's now this anthology format that just wasn't possible before."
In a deal that puts the icing on the cake, Scott Free has signed a new first-look pact for broadcast projects with CBS Television Studios, while retaining the ability to pursue opportunities elsewhere. "Our vision is to always remain rigorously independent," Zucker says, "because in the current TV landscape, where anything is possible, we really value our freedom to take advantage of that."
This summer, CBS will premiere Robert and Michelle King's BrainDead. A satiric political thriller, it's set in Washington, D.C., where aliens have eaten the brains of the denizens of Capitol Hill. CBS also recently pulled the trigger for pilot production of Sensory, a drama based on the life of Dr. Joel Salinas, about a medical student who can vividly feel the physical and emotional sensations of others.
Two additional pilots are awaiting production go-aheads: Rubber Guns, a comedy about four mentally unstable Miami cops, and an untitled drama based on the life of Sunny Hostin, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was forced to acknowledge her family's criminal history when she became a federal prosecutor.
Many more projects are in the pipeline, including a half-hour comedy for Amazon called Jean-Claude Van Johnson, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a reckless undercover operative; it starts shooting in May. The company is also working on 3001, an adaptation of an Arthur C, Clarke novel, for Syfy.
It's a remarkable amount of content for a company as lean as this one. Operating out of a West Hollywood space it shares with Scott Free's film and TV commercial divisions, Scott Free TV's U.S. office is comprised of Zucker, Sheehan, Kreuger and creative execs Jess Lubben and Carina Sposato.
"Clayton and I split the slate in half, and David supervises everything," Sheehan says. "Anyone can bring in anything they are really excited about. It's egalitarian and cooperative."
"We tout our flexibility in terms of how we partner with each writer or collaborator," Krueger says of the day-to-day development process. "In some cases, people come to us with fully formed pitches that we help mold to the marketplace. Or they may come to us for assistance with packaging elements that could be meaningful to a sale, like a filmmaker or a piece of talent.
"Other times, it'll start with a conversation about a creative arena we want to go into, and we'll find a book or an article, a piece of IP [intellectual property], and take that to a writer. Occasionally a network will come to us to find a project in a given area."
If there's a guiding principle behind what makes a project right for Scott Free, it's a qualitative standard. Sheehan says: "We want to make content that is stimulating and entertaining, first and foremost, but that also contributes to a larger conversation, the way The Good Wife has, where you're engaging the public about things that are larger than the show itself."
Zucker adds: "We all feel a responsibility to produce something that Ridley and Tony would be proud to have on their roster."
Of course, Ridley Scott is an essential part of the equation; Tony Scott, his younger brother, died in August 2012. The elder Scott is listed as an executive producer of every Scott Free TV project.
True, he has a prodigious filming schedule: he directed and produced The Martian, an Oscar nominee for best picture, and is now headed for Australia to make Alien: Covenant, the latest in his big-screen sci-fi franchise. Yet Scott manages to oversee much of what happens on the TV side, the execs say, offering guidance, opinion and creative input,
"We show him cuts, he offers his observations, and we carry the ball from there," Zucker explains.
Says Crowe, from the U.K. office: "He's involved — it's not just a name. He's across everything we do. He knows all our projects, he consults when we're short-listing directors and composers, he looks at the edits. He knows his stuff."
Scott points out that he entered the business from the television side, directing live broadcasts in the U.K. and creating commercials in the 1970s heyday of TV advertising and beyond. More recently, he directed a 2013 pilot for Scott Free and Showtime. The Vatican was shot in Rome for a planned miniseries that didn't make it to air (not to be confused with Vatican City, a project now in development from the Kings).
"I thought it was really special, but somehow we didn't get lift-off with that one," Scott says, speaking by phone. He says he'd direct for the small screen more often if he had the time.
As for his current role at Scott Free TV, he explains, "I'm always passing through, and I'm asked to consult on certain key issues. I like it to be, 'Show me what you've got, and then I can comment on it.'"
Certainly, Scott Free isn't the only TV production company with an expanding output. Market conditions as favorable as these beg the question: how long can the boom times last?
"I think some contraction is inevitable," Zucker says. "There are a lot of places spending an awful lot of money for content, and I can't imagine that they'll continue to spend that money if they don't enjoy the success they're expecting."
For now, though, the pace is unprecedented.
Says Scott, naming just part of the slate: "We've got The Good Wife, which is 22 hours a season; High Castle, which is 10; Mercy Street, which is six; and BrainDead, which maybe will be 10. Everything has to be written, cast, approved and then made. That's a lot of work. We're flat out very busy."