Der Deutsche Fernsehpreis

The other night I went to the Deutsche Fernsehpreis — the German equivalent of the Emmy Awards. Their awards show is every bit as long as the Emmys and even duller, and I’m not just saying that because I didn’t understand a word that was said. There was no entertainment value to the program. They didn’t have any musical numbers, no clip montages, no actual entertainment at all. Granted, some presenters made some jokes, but the flatness of the show made me appreciate just how good American awards shows are (the orchestra played the same piece of music every time a category was announced and every time someone won…I don’t know why they didn’t just have it on tape).

But I really enjoyed the before-party and after-party. It was odd being in a room full of "celebrities" and not knowing/recognizing 99.9% of them. I couldn’t look into the sea of faces and know who the "stars" were. They all just looked like normal people, which just goes to show how illusory celebrity really is. The guy I chatted with at the buffet could have been the biggest star in Germany or a waiter…I wouldn’t have known the difference.  In a way, though, it made it a lot easier for me to talk with people. I was never nervous or intimidated talking with anyone. 

I spoke to with lots of writers, producers, actors, and executives. I was struck by how many people I knew after only a year of working here off-and-on. I was also surprised by how many people knew me…people I had never met before but had heard about the work I was doing in Germany or who had heard my speech at the Cologne Conference. 

I ended up stay at the party into the wee hours of the morning which, combined with my jet-lag, wiped me out on Sunday. I was so tired that I went to bed at 8:30 pm and awoke at 3 this morning (it’s now 5:25 am).

I am about to watch the half-hour  "The Making of FAST TRACK" documentary (which will go on the DVD) and make my final edit notes before it’s locked. And then at 8 am, I head in to the studio to do the final sound mix on FAST TRACK. Tuesday I am viewing the color-corrected film, and placing the on-screen credits, and then I will finally be done with the movie/pilot. I head back to Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Why No One is Watching German TV

I mentioned here that I spoke last week at the Cologne Conference and that my topic was what the German TV industry could learn from the American methods of writing and producing episodic drama. In a comment to that post, Richard Cooper asked:

I was wondering if you could write about how the Germans are doing it, and what the American method would change if adopted over there.

The five highest rated hour-long shows in Germany are DR. HOUSE, CSI MIAMI, MONK, CSI and ALARM FOR COBRA 11. The only German show in the bunch is COBRA 11, which is going into it’s 13th season. COBRA 11, as successful as it is, is still a distant fifth at half the audience of CSI. The nearest German show is ranked eighth, and that is TATORT, which has been on the air there even longer than COBRA 11. The new German shows are simply tanking.

American shows dominate there — and all over Europe — even though they are dubbed, set in different places with different cultures, languages, and political, legal and health care systems. The audiences don’t care about those differences. They love the shows anyway.

I believe the American shows are succeeding not because they have higher budgets and bigger stars or brighter sunshine…it’s because they have instantly identifiable franchises with sharply drawn characters that transcend cultural differences. They work because they are the same show every week, year in and year out, only different. That last part sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. They are consistent. People know exactly what they are going to get.

What I told them is that they can just continue to sit back and air American shows in German…which would be a tragedy for German writers and audiences… or they can make shows that can compete. How do they do that? I said the key to American success is franchise, consistency, and the showrunner/writers room system. I then went on to explain what franchise is, what I mean by "consistency," and how the showrunner system works.

The problem with cop/drama shows in Germany is that the shows are indistinquishable from one another. They all look and sound the same (it’s like color TV hasn’t been invented here). They aren’t distinct. They also aren’t consistent. And the story telling is insanely dull.

The German viewing audience doesn’t know about franchise and the four act structure, but they have watched enough American TV to internalize it…to feel that it is missing from German shows. And they don’t like it.

The franchise problem aside (and it’s a big one), German shows aren’t run by writers and have no writing staffs…they are run by line producers and network program "editors" and are freelance written. To make matters worse, every week a different director comes in…and he brings his own director of photography, assistant director, and film editor. And the director is free to rewrite the script himself. The director also is in charge of the post-production of his episode…from the cut to the mix. So there’s no one looking out for the show…there is no one maintaining and protecting the franchise…not that there is usually a clear franchise to protect. (I believe that one big reason that COBRA 11 has done so well is that it’s the one German show with a distinct, unmistakeable look and franchise)

American shows kick ass there because of how they are conceived, written and the produced. It’s the way the scripts/stories are structure (the four act structure, conflict, etc.). They don’t the four-act structure…in fact, they have no consistent dramatic structure to how TV stories are told.

The conception and writing part doesn’t cost more money…it’s just a philosophical and creative change in how they approach developing shows and telling stories. That can easily be taught. The producing aspect does cost more money…it means paying writers salaries for their exclusive services for the run of the series (and doing the same for the DPs, ADs and editors)….and it means limiting the power and influence of episodic directors. It means making a major paradigm shift in how episodic dramas are made there…and that can’t be done overnight. They also argue they don’t have writers yet who are capable of running shows and that directors won’t accept giving up the power they now have.

On top off that, there isn’t a big financial incentive to change the way things are done there. It costs the networks $200,000-an-episode to buy an American show and three or four times that much to make an episode of an original German series (they don’t have the unions, residuals, etc that we have here)….so, increasingly, the attitude has become "why bother?"

That said Proseiben, one of the big networks there, is now insisting that German shows develop their episodes in a Writers Room. They aren’t paying for staff writers… but they are bringing the writer of the pilot together with a group of freelancers for a couple of weeks in one room to develop the stories for the first season. They haven’t put writers in charge yet, nor have they limited the power of episodic directors to change everything about the show, but it’s a step in the right direction.


Lee_with_haggis2 Greetings from Cologne, where I spoke today at the Cologne TV conference about how the "American" approach to writing and producing series could be applied to German programming. But the highlight of the day for me was having a chance to chat with Paul Haggis for a while about James Bond, his experiences in network TV, and his short time on WALKER TEXAS RANGER (which he co-created). He expanded on those subjects later in his interview on stage at the conference and also told some very funny stories about developing FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and EZ STREETS. I had a lot of fun, made some good contacts, and am looking forward to attending the German TV awards on Saturday (their version of the Emmys).

Life and Death

I saw the LIFE pilot on Tuesday. It was certainly the most interesting pilot I’ve seen so far this season, but the crime story/mystery was weak and it’s hard to connect with the lead character, a cop who was falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Now the cop is exonerated, rich, and back on the force. You’d think that would be a strong, emotional hook for viewers…but the hero behaves more like an alien visiting earth for the first time…which gets tiresome. I found the supporting characters, particularly his new partner, much more interesting than him. And although I liked the quasi-documentary gimmick of the people in his life being "interviewed," it tended to pull me out of the story (such as it was). Although I am tired of pilots that end with the troubled hero looking at the secret "evidence board" that he’s compiled, it’s the one new show that I might actually make an effort to watch again. It has some potential.

I gave up on THE REAPER about 30 or 40 minutes in. I was so dull and familiar. I felt like I’d already seen it before (wait a minute, I did. It was called CHUCK) and like so many shows this season about people getting superpowers, not a single character behaves remotely like a human being. I didn’t believe a second of it…or give a damn about anyone. I am so tired of seeing the slacker hero and his nerdier, slacker best friend, both of whom have dead end jobs at a big-box store. Considering that they got Kevin Smith to direct it, the show was surprisingly flat and listless. It had that dull,  made-on-the-cheap-in-Canada-for-first-run-syndication-in-1989 feel to it. The only real surprise I got out of the show was seeing Allison Hossack as the hero’s Mom. She was one of the stars of COBRA, a made-on-the-cheap-in-Canada-for-first-run-syndication series that I worked on about 12 years ago. I wondered how she could possibly be playing the mother of a 21 year old guy. I mean, she’s the same age as me and I — and then I had a horrifying realization: I am old enough to have children in their 20s. When did that happen?

As disappointing as the new fall shows are so far, it’s nice to see two actresses (Gretchen Egolf and Allison Hossack) who co-starred in two series I wrote & produced (MARTIAL LAW and COBRA) back as regulars in new series (JOURNEYMAN and REAPER). I just wish they were better shows.

In the Mix

I am leaving today for Germany, where I will be speaking at the Cologne Conference on Friday and then supervising the final sound mix on FAST TRACK, which should be fun. With luck, I will be back in Los Angeles by the end of next week.

I am chugging along on MR. MONK GOES TO GERMANY…which is due very soon…and actually visiting the place where the book is set again should give me a fresh jolt of inspiration. And then I want to jump back into my screenplay adaptation of GUN MONKEYS.

What Casting Directors Do

THE MIDDLEMAN pilot is a go, and my friend Javi is chronicling the experience of producing it on his blog. Today he begins with an excellent explanation of how the casting process begins for the key roles in the project.

the concept meeting is that moment when the show’s team decides on a common language for the types of actors who will play the roles. the sky is the limit: if saying that the perfect actor for a role is “a young rod steiger” gets everyone on the same page, then so be it — if only because it provides a guideline, for the ensuing search for talent, and it ensures that there is consensus as to the kind of actors on which to focus (it also allows anyone at the studio and network who thinks — hey, “young rod steiger” is wrong, how about a “young raymond burr” — to voice their opinion, which, of course, leads to the inevitable consensus of “ok, how about a young william conrad?”).

the casting agents — trained professionals that they are — inform these conceptual discussions (and bring them down to earth) by offering their own lists of actors whom they believe are right, who are available, and who may be disposed to doing the project.

understanding and respecting the artistry of a good casting agent is crucial to producing a series — their job is to not only find the agreed-upon type, but also to identify actors who are up to the challenges of the project, and to open up the producers’ eyes to talent that may not necessarily fit the concept but who bring other things to a role that are equally interesting.

There’s a reason why they are called "Casting Directors," because they are actually bringing their taste, experience, and unique creative pov to the project, the same way a director does. You aren’t hiring someone just to sift through pictures and resumes (I have worked with casting director like that…and it was hell). It also helps if you can establish a creative partnership with a casting director who understands how you think, how you view story, the acting styles you like, and your approach to character.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked for years with two of the best casting directors in the business — Victoria Burrows & Scot Boland (LORD OF THE RINGS, 21 JUMP STREET, CAST AWAY, the new RESIDENT EVIL movie) — on two TV series, several pilots, and most recently on the U.S. casting for the FAST TRACK pilot. Having a creative short-hand together makes things a lot easier. I can always count on them to bring in just the right people…but they will also bring in some unexpected actors who offer a very different take on the character than I had in mind. Some times those actors are interesting misfires, but more often than not, it’s those unexpected choices we end up going with.  It was Victoria and Scot who found Johnny Depp for 21 JUMP STREET, Kevin Spacey for WISE GUY, and Viggio Mortenson for LORD OF THE RINGS, so that should tell you something about their creative instincts.

For the lead in FAST TRACK, they brought in Erin Cahill. She was exactly the face, the voice, the attitude and the look I imagined when I was writing. Erin was so close to the picture in my head that it was a bit startling for me. I’m not surprised at all that Victoria and Scot found her. That’s why they are so good at what they do.

But I also remember a time on DIAGNOSIS MURDER, when they brought in an actor for a spin-off pilot who’s performance wasn’t what Bill Rabkin and I had in mind at all…but he was so compelling, so interesting, so unique, that we had to cast him. It was Neil McDonough, and he was by far the best thing about the pilot. He later did a multi-episode arc for us on MARTIAL LAW, then immediately went on to BAND OF BROTHERS, MINORITY REPORT and BOOMTOWN.

Who you hire as a casting director is, next to the director himself, the most important choice you will make when you begin your production.  If you don’t have the right actors, you don’t have a show…

The New Blah Season

I’ve caught up on a few of the season premieres and, if they are any indication of the TV season ahead, it’s going to be a dull one.

I was hugely disappointed with THE BIONIC WOMAN. It’s no BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, that’s for sure…even though they a bunch of actors from that show. The plotting was weak, jumpy and non-sensical. But that might have been okay if the lead actress wasn’t so dull and if I believed a single emotional reaction she had. She loses her legs, an arm, one eye and an ear and then screams in horror because…she can see and hear just fine and arms and legs look  just like her old ones. Instead of being thankful at being, essentially, rebuilt without a scratch, she freaks out and is full of resentment. Um, why? One faction of the secret organization responsible for her super powers wants her alive, the other wants her dead. The pilot ends with her telling the secret agency that she knows her powers now…and she is in charge.

That’s almost beat-for-beat the way CHUCK ends, too. He’s a nerd who also gets super powers, and he also doesn’t behave in any manner resembling actual human behavior…and at the end he, too, tells the secret organization that he knows his powers now…and he is in charge. This duplication wouldn’t be quite so painful if the shows weren’t on the same network. CHUCK  seems to be a one-joke show…and the joke wears thin before the pilot is over.

JOURNEYMAN is QUANTUM LEAP without the fun or the clear franchise. It’s also so "TV" that I wanted to throw a brick through my television set. The hero is a reporter, his brother is a cop, and his ex-girlfriend is an assistant D.A…of course. I’m surprised his wife isn’t a surgeon and his best friend isn’t a private eye. It’s never clear why he’s jumping back in time and his reaction to this stunning event is to mope around in a daze. You will, too, after watching this show. It’s a shame, because I like the guy from ROME and it’s nice to see Gretchen Egolf, one of our regulars on MARTIAL LAW, on a series again.

BACK TO YOU is, as one of my friends said, the best sitcom of 1987. It feels very familiar, very formulaic, and very competent. And also very dated. It’s clear that everybody involved with the show, on screen and off, are pros doing professional work. It was slick, it was well-made, and it was laughless. It reminded me of that Henry Winkler sitcom from last season — or your parents’ Cadillac sedan. Yeah, it’s classy, smart, comfortable and safe, and it feels nice while you are having a ride, but ultimately it’s bland and forgetable.

Coming up on CBS soon is MOONLIGHT, the werewolf cop. I think he should team up with NICK KNIGHT, the vampire cop, and become private eyes. (What’s funny is that CBS originally developed NICK KNIGHT with Rick Springfield and then let it go into first-run syndication…and, a few years back, they gave us WOLF LAKE, a werewolf series that immediately tanked. What is their fascination with supernatural cops and werewolves?)

Reasoning with Reasoner

Today Saddlebums interviews author James Reasoner, one of the hardest-working writer I know with 200 books to his credit under various nom-de-plumes. In the time it has taken me to write this post, he’s written half a western novel.

The actual writing process is pretty much the same for me regardless of what name is going on the book. I take a lot of pride in the work and I have to entertain myself as I’m writing, first and foremost. Everything else comes after that. There is a certain sense of freedom in writing a book when you know your name won’t be on it. You won’t get any of the blame if it’s terrible. But that’s balanced out by the fact that you don’t get any credit for the good ones, either. And I don’t want to write terrible books, anyway. I want them all to be as good as I can make them.

Blame Everyone But Yourself

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen observes on her blog today that self-published authors love to blame the system for their failure rather than the vanity presses that suckered them.

They have signed up for a lesson in frustration and of course they feel rejected and angry, so they want to blame the “system”.  They should really be blaming those self-publishing companies who prey on their hopes and dreams, companies that lure them in with promises of fame and success and then take their money. But are these authors angry at the self-publishing companies who’ve victimized them?  No.  Instead, they’re angry at whoever points out the truth.

They are also unwilling to admit to themselves that their desperation and gullibility drove them to make a costly and embarrassing mistake. So they rail against the the publishing industry for being cruel, at published authors for being "elitist,"  at book stores for not selling their crappy-looking and non-returnable vanity titles, and at professional writers organizations like the MWA that won’t acknowledge them as "published authors."  What’s really sad is when these self-deluded writers defend the scammers and vanity presses as "up-and-coming small publishers" who deserve our support.