Hello, and welcome to International Insider! Jake Kanter with you, as always. In the week that Jeff Bezos blasted into space, here’s what you need to know about global film and TV. Want to get in touch? I’m on firstname.lastname@example.org. And to get this delivered every Friday, sign up here.
Shoots Shutter Again
Wrong kind of positives: You’ll be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu as you read this, but it’s fair to say that Covid has once again reared its ugly head on TV and film sets. It never went away, of course, but as the Delta variant (first identified in India) spreads like wildfire in the UK, cases are surging on shoots. As I first revealed over the weekend, Netflix has been forced to indefinitely halt filming on bonkbuster Bridgerton after two positive tests in three days, while the first unit on the streamer’s Matilda musical adaptation has also had to down tools for 10 days. Elsewhere, my colleague Peter White revealed that HBO’s Game Of Thrones prequel House Of The Dragon also suffered a coronavirus outbreak in Britain, while over in America, the likes of Westworld have been forced to pause.
Long way to go: For every big shoot we know is shuttering, there are many others we haven’t yet heard about. One source told me that he is currently employed on a show that has recorded 22 positive tests, though he was reluctant to identify the production. Netflix is known to have one of the best testing regimes in the business, which is why it is catching infections, but the cases show that Delta is escaping both strict protocols and the vaccine. It’s a sobering reminder that we are far from out of the woods when it comes to Covid disruption.
A pandemic paradox: There is a certain dark irony in the fact that sets are locking down in the very same week that England is opening up. Shoots will carry on observing protocols, partly because many are required to do so if they wish to qualify for the Production Restart insurance scheme. And in case we needed reminding of the economic importance for keeping the wheels turning, it came on Wednesday when boffins at research firm Oxford Economics worked out that the pandemic wiped £2.6B ($3.5B) off film and TV’s contribution to the UK economy. It also put 12,800 people out of work. Read the full story.
War Over Channel 4
Flashpoint: The simmering debate about UK government plans to privatize Channel 4 boiled over into all-out war this week when the broadcaster’s chair penned a blistering letter to ministers trashing their case for the sale. Charles Gurassa pulled no punches in his three-page missive, warning that a sale of The Great British Bake Off network would be “very harmful” to audiences and Britain’s creative economy. He called out the government’s lack of evidence for its view that Channel 4 will be better off in the hands of a commercial owner, and said if the broadcaster is allowed to move into in-house production, it could “risk thousands of jobs in our world leading creative sector.” Go deeper.
Why it matters: The decision to intervene so strongly would not have been taken lightly by Channel 4’s board and it underlines just how serious the threat of a sale is. It is noticeable that the letter repeatedly plays what Channel 4 considers to be one of the most potent cards in the debate about its future: the economy. Over the coming weeks, expect executives to repeatedly rehearse the argument that unleashing Channel 4 into production, which ministers have made clear is their desire, would create significant disruption for the UK’s booming independent production sector.
Friends in high places: There has also been a steady drip of powerful creative industry figures rallying to Channel 4’s side. Notably this week, Ricky Gervais said Channel 4’s unique remit would be “destroyed” if it were privatized. Gervais has made shows including Derek for Channel 4. Rob Delaney, co-creator of Emmy-nominated Channel 4 comedy Catastrophe, tweeted: “Channel 4 belongs to you and me. If it’s sold it’ll suck for a few years then get sold for scrap.” Meanwhile, UK trade Broadcast has gathered around 140 industry friends for an anti-privatization campaign, including Undercover Boss producer Stephen Lambert.
Minister response: On Wednesday, culture minister John Whittingdale tried to soothe concerns during a Westminster Hall debate on Channel 4. In the face of several MPs voicing opposition to the sale (including members of his own party), Whittingdale said Channel 4’s remit could be strengthened in some areas and that impact assessments will be carried out once decisions have been made. He also attempted to put to bed concerns about the privatization plot being ideological. “I want to make absolutely clear, there is no political agenda attached to this,” he said.
Venice Takes Shape
Fall festival buzz: Cannes is barely in the rear-view mirror and Venice Film Festival is already gathering pace. This week, the Italian event unveiled its opening movie – Pedro Almodovar’s Penelope Cruz-starring Madreas Paralelas (pictured) – as well as a high-profile Competition jury that will see the likes of Chloe Zhao and Cynthia Erivo join president Bong Joon-ho. The full Venice line-up will be unveiled on Monday, and it’s certain to be a mouth-watering roster this year. Confirmed titles include Dune and Spencer, both of which are set for traditional theatrical releases, but it is the streaming platforms that are expected to be out in force on the Lido. While we don’t deal in speculation, we’re expecting Netflix in particular to have a heavy presence, and the titles we’re hearing are likely to be many of the big awards contenders this Oscar season. “This will be Netflix’s Venice,” said one sales exec to us yesterday. This week, the Critics’ Week section revealed its titles for 2021, with Cambodian sci-fi Karmalink set to open the sidebar.
Pandemic distortion: It was another quarter for managing expectations at Netflix, as the streaming giant added 1.54M global subscribers in Q2 to reach more than a total of 209M members globally. Netflix said the pandemic has created “unusual choppiness in our growth” because booming subscriptions during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 “distorts” year-on-year comparisons. Indeed, international subscriber growth rates are in steep decline. Take EMEA, for example. Here, subs numbers rocketed 39% to 61.48M in the second quarter of 2020. This year, that growth trajectory was just 12% to 68.7M members. There are similar trends in Latin America and Asia Pacific. Here’s our Q2 earnings write up.
Getting into gaming: In its letter to shareholders, Netflix stressed that its churn rate is low and getting lower. It also hinted at further price hikes for members. To justify higher fees, Netflix promised to “improve our service”, meaning more original TV and films. It also set the scene for a move into gaming. “We’re also in the early stages of further expanding into games, building on our earlier efforts around interactivity,” the company said. Mobile will be the focus and gaming titles will be made available to members at no extra cost.
Hot off the press: As usual, we got a glimpse of some Netflix viewing figures. One international show Netflix is pleased with is the second season of Too Hot To Handle, which was watched by an estimated 29M member households in its first 28 days. This was down on the 51M households that watched Season 1 after a month. It’s interesting that this is one of the first times that Netflix has released viewing data for Season 2 of a show. More info here.
📽️ In the frame: Above is the first look at the UK adaptation of hit French drama Call My Agent!. AMC Networks streamer Sundance Now has acquired rights to the series in the U.S. and we were told that cameos will include Bridgerton star Phoebe Dynevor. More details.
🌶️ Hot one of the week: George Mackay, Kelly Macdonald, and Hugh Bonneville are set to lead Netflix thriller I Came By, which will be directed by BAFTA-winner Babak Anvari. Andreas Wiseman had the scoop.
🍿 International box office: Warner Bros’ Space Jam: A New Legacy debuted in 63 markets with $23M for a $54.7M global start. Nancy Tartaglione has the details.
😔 RIP David Leckie: A giant figure of the Australian television industry died at the age of 70. Full obit.
🚚 On the move: See-Saw Films has hired Helen Gregory to the newly-created position of creative director. She most recently worked as an executive producer on Gangs of London Season 2 for Sky/AMC. Tom had the story.
🇧🇦 Sarajevo line-up: A total of 47 films will compete at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival across its four competitive sections. The event will feature 18 world premieres and three international premieres. Check them out here.
🎦 Trailer dash: This is the first trailer for The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s period drama starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, and Ben Affleck. Based on the book by Eric Jager, it chronicles one of France’s last legally sanctioned duels. Watch here.
Spike’s snafu: In the end, it’s probably a good thing that one of the most talked-about moments of the Cannes Film Festival is a harmless gaffe from Spike Lee rather than any number of potentially grim pandemic problems. The jury president inadvertently named the Palme d’Or winner, Titane, after a mix-up in the closing ceremony. Apparently thrown by the language barrier, the event’s hostess asked Lee, in French, if he could reveal the “first prize” of the evening. Instead of following a chronological order, Lee seemed to take it as “first place.” Cue a head in hands moment. In the post-ceremony presser, Lee dusted himself down by calling on a sporting analogy. “I’m like the guy at the end of the game who misses a free throw or a kick,” he joked. Watch the snafu right here.
Tom Grater contributed to International Insider