‘The Crown’ & ‘Doctor Who’ Producers Developing Lower-Budget Slates In Response To Tricky Market

‘The Crown’ & ‘Doctor Who’ Producers Developing Lower-Budget Slates In Response To Tricky Market

EXCLUSIVE: Some of the biggest UK drama production houses have started developing lower-budget slates in response to a depleted market and the success of local stories such as Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

The bosses of Doctor Who co-producer Bad Wolf and Crown maker Left Bank both told Deadline they have started nurturing a development pot for shows that cost less to make than their previous fare. Multiple other drama execs have indicated they are adopting a similar strategy as this week’s London TV Screenings places budget woes front and center of the conversation.

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Speaking to Deadline about her upcoming BBC series Dope Girls, Bad Wolf co-founder Jane Tranter said her team’s development slate now contains “projects on a different budget scale to those we have been used to doing,” a move that she is enjoying.

“We’ve been thinking about how we do [lower budget] in a way that feels exciting, challenging and creative,” she said.

The vast majority of Bad Wolf’s shows in recent years have had hefty U.S. co-production investment, such as Industry and the new Doctor Who, and Tranter said the Cardiff-headquartered outfit is pondering how to make epics such as His Dark Materials at a cheaper price point.

“You do a project like His Dark Materials which is as big as they come and then think, ‘What can we do that is smaller and more local?’ If it’s fantasy, can it be ‘grounded fantasy’ with less world building and what would it mean to bring some of our values to a completely different filming structure?”

While enjoying the creative challenge, the move is no doubt being driven by a lack of funding in the drama market since the U.S. strikes and ad recession set in. Tranter said the model from yesteryear of making a show that takes a standard UK broadcaster budget and is topped up by a North American player is becoming far harder to achieve. With Dope Girls, the team has effectively fast-tracked episode 1 in time for the London and LA Screenings in order to trigger financing conversations at an earlier stage with different buyers. The company has also just received £4M to drive growth in Welsh TV.

“The biggest challenge for any UK producer right now is finding the money to at least match a UK budget because you can’t make a show on a UK license fee with any ambition,” said Andy Harries, who runs Left Bank, which is currently plotting a Crown-less future.

“Broadcaster budgets have not kept pace with the rate of inflation and at the same time there has obviously been a tightening up in the international marketplace. I am conscious of over-developing a slate that will be hard to finance.”

Harries is aligned with Tranter in feeling the need to develop shows at lower price points. Just after his Deadline interview, the BBC announced a Left Bank commission titled This City is Ours, a Liverpool-set rom-com from Last Kingdom writer Stephen Butchard that Harries said costs between £2.5M ($3.2M) to £3M ($3.8M) per episode and is being deficit financed by Left Bank owner Sony.

According to Harries, who was at the helm of one of the first ever TV shows to cost £10M per episode, This City is Ours’ budget is reflective of how the bottom has somewhat fallen out of the mid-budget drama market – shows that cost upwards of £3.5M per episode but aren’t super premium.

He likened this to how “movies have divided between low-budget and high-end tentpole in the last few years,” adding: “It’s very hard to get £3M to £5M [TV] budgets in the UK right now.”

This has coincided with the streamers opting for more “comfort food”-style shows across Europe such as Harlan Coben adaptation Fool Me Once or Left Bank’s Who Is Erin Carter? for Netflix, Harries said.

Mr Bates

Mr Bates Vs the Post Office
Mr Bates Vs the Post Office ITV

And simultaneously, broadcasters are thinking about where the next hyper-local story is coming from following the enormous success of ITV’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office, which is the commercial net’s biggest hit since Downton Abbey. Deadline broke the news last week of ITV’s next scandal-focused state of the nation piece, a Peter Moffat-penned drama about the contaminated blood scandal.

Tranter revealed that Bad Wolf had at one point sought to get its hands on the source material for the post office series. But she showered producers ITV Studios and Little Gem with praise over the way in which they told the tragic story of the hundreds of sub-postmasters falsely accused of fraud and theft.

“Sometimes you know you’ve made a good show but what you don’t know is how it will light that touch paper,” she said. “It was a glorious reminder of how drama can talk to the nation, audiences and even government.”

That is not to say that Mr Bates was made on the cheap. The series starring BAFTA winners Toby Jones and Monica Dolan is understood to have still cost around £2M per instalment. Even at that price point, producer Patrick Spence revealed at last week’s Berlinale that the 12 lead actors were paid “in some cases, a fifth of what they could normally get” because the story had affected them so deeply. 

Harries said it is extremely rare to look to save budget in this manner and instead floated that costs can be kept down by “thinking about the material you are working with, how you can film and how you can get as many experienced people as possible on shoots.”

Drive for dramedy

The Outlaws
The Outlaws Amazon/BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Kenton Allen, who runs The Outlaws producer Big Talk, said the landscape gifts an opportunity to scripted comedy producers who have “always written scripts with an eye to budget” and understand that “expense doesn’t necessarily create a hit.”

“If you have a budget of £2M per episode you can’t realistically expect to be able to set episode one on a spaceship and episode two in the Mediterranean,” added Allen. “You need to think about precincts and how to be cost effective.”

Big Talk, which has a slate ranging from circa-£2M-per-episode David Mitchell-starrer Ludwig to more-costly Apple TV+ series The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, therefore sees more of an opportunity in the dramedy space. Costs can be kept down in dramedy, Allen said, pointing to huge award-winners such as The Bear and Beef, while even BBC/Amazon’s The Outlaws, which stars Christopher Walken, isn’t overly expensive.

Allen backed creatives and producers to learn fast about how to rein in their budget ambitions.

“The streaming boom led us through a period where writers and producers could make anything they wanted and know that a streamer would fund shows at upwards of £8M,” he added.

“[The market] got carried away with the size and ambition of the shows being produced, but that’s not where we are anymore.”