‘TV has become more interesting than movies’
Chris Brancato is still processing the popularity in India of Narcos, the TV show he created with Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro in 2015—it’s Netflix’s most watched show this year. “What we are trying to do here,” he says, “is trying to boil the whole business down to a science. But the TV business sort of resists science.” Brancato is referring to the three-day workshop he conducted last week in Mumbai, where he spoke about what it takes to run a TV show.
The attendees were writers, directors and producers developing shows for Jio Originals, a new video on demand (VOD) platform that will launch in 2018. The US-based writer-producer, who has also worked on shows such as Hannibal and The X-Files, was there at the invitation of Siddharth Roy Kapur’s newly launched production house Roy Kapur Films (RKF), which has tied up with telecom firm Reliance Jio Infocomm for Jio Originals. In an interview after one of the sessions, Brancato and Roy Kapur discussed the American TV model, its differences from the Indian one, and what to expect from Jio Originals. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about the workshop.
Brancato: The workshop is about the process of creating a TV show in America. What’s the best way to pitch an idea? Once it’s pitched and sold, what are the requirements of a pilot? Okay, you have written the pilot and shot it, now how do you plan and prep for the series? I think the writers here will hear the tips from my 30 years of experience, use what’s relevant for them and discard the rest.
Roy Kapur: Chris made some great references from Narcos and gave us an insight into what went into creating them. He has lived through different phases of the evolution of the TV business in the US. And like most things in India, we are sort of jumping a few generations. It is important for us to know where it comes from and maybe find a version of this model that works for us.
This is the writer as show-runner model?
Brancato: Yes. And it has kind of developed out of the requirement of the American system. So it’s not necessarily applicable all over the world. In fact, the US is the only place that has the writer in that kind of directorial, “producerial” position. Somehow, in America, by virtue of making 22 episodes a year, which was the standard, the writer attained that power because he is the only one who knew what’s coming next. You could only actually prep if you were the writer.
That system developed, and, with emerging technologies, these shows came into vogue. TV, in fact, has become more interesting than movies. The short TV series has replaced those middle-budget movies that we grew up with in the 1970s.
Roy Kapur: In our TV model that has been followed so far, it is the producer or a broadcaster or network that has been the guiding force in the entire process. The writer is seen as someone who is obviously crucial in the process but whose involvement and responsibilities have been restricted to writing alone. We are gearing up to be able to get into a model where the writer expands his scope of responsibilities and takes on more of decision making in other factors of production.
How is Jio Originals going to be different from other VOD services operating in India?
Roy Kapur: I can’t speak about other VOD services. Jio has 140 million subscribers and growing, so it definitely won’t be content that is intimidating, which makes people feel it’s elitist and too urban. We want to create content that TV channels aren’t in a position to offer right now, while keeping it accessible. I always give Dangal (2016) as a great example of what I am talking about.
Why not aim to produce a show that can work at the global level?
Roy Kapur: If you try to manufacture a crossover hit, it rarely works. I don’t think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was manufactured; I know Dangal’s success in China wasn’t manufactured. It’s got to be material that has a home with a certain audience. And maybe there is a type of audience you didn’t imagine would enjoy that kind of content. It will be great if that travels, it will be a huge added benefit. But the primary object is to create content for the Indian audience.
Brancato: When we created Narcos, we didn’t expect it to be watched by so many people in India. But something that surprises me even more than that is the fact that a lot of women around the world have seen it. I never had much expectation from that demographic, which shows how stupid I am because women generally like bad boys.
In today’s world of TV, much as you try, things happen in inverse proportion to your planning.
Do you think ‘Narcos’ has suffered after the exit of Pablo Escobar’s character (played by Wagner Moura), who dies towards the end of season 2?
Brancato: I don’t think Wagner leaving hurt the show. But there’s a certain percentage of the viewership that’s going to say, okay, I saw the Escobar story, that’s what I came in for. I had some quibbles with season 3 but overall it’s pretty good. I know what Eric Newman, who is show-running for season 4, is doing. The first script is great—it’s the Guadalajara cartel in Mexico, so the show is going to have a different flavour and look. We have great actors such as Michael Peña and Diego Luna playing the protagonist and antagonist. It’s got some promise and I’m rooting for it.
You are writing the next Sherlock Holmes movie. What else?
Brancato: I was in a party and I ran into somebody who introduced me to somebody who said I like Narcos. I said, “Thank You.” Then he said, “But you know who really likes it? Robert Downey Jr. Do you want to go and lunch with him? He and his wife are a producing team and they like to meet writers.” So I did. She (Susan Downey) is an incredibly good producer, he is a nice guy. We struck up a relationship. We are working on the movie.
In TV, I have a show that’s sort of a prequel to the movie American Gangster (2007), about a real life gangster in New York City. “Bumpy” Johnson was friends with Malcolm X and the show is about the time when the New York underworld and the civil rights movement intersected. Forest Whitaker is to play “Bumpy” Johnson. It is, as I am discovering, a very tough show to sell.