This is Us cast

As drama programmes stream endlessly from Netflix, its competitors are scrambling to catch up, creating a growing demand for content. What sort of shows will be created? Are we entering a new Golden Age for movies and television series, or …. will this era become the equivalent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? MercatorNet asked Armando Fumagalli, director of the Master in International Screenwriting and Production at the Catholic University in Milan, and a script consultant for Italian company Lux Vide. “It is a good time for our students,” he says, but a lot depends on the small number of people who control what is produced.

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The amount of programming is going to skyrocket. It looks like streaming platforms like Netlix, Amazon, Hulu and HBO have a voracious appetite for new shows. How is this going to change what we watch?

There has been a big growth in commissioning shows, with more companies paying for production of TV series. The best writers/producers/directors cannot meet the demand and so all the production community is under stress. In my opinion the result is that, besides some excellent shows, there are a lot of medium-to-low quality shows.

Industry sources predict that the market is moving towards content that people can watch on their smart phone so that companies can monetize every minute of our attention.

To some extent this is correct, but it does not mean that every other device will disappear. The head of Netflix used to say that their competitor is the time when people sleep. But on the other hand, the story of the relation between technology and entertainment is full of false predictions.

I remember very well (as I wrote a book about it) that before the World Soccer Championship of 2006 the common idea was that everyone would watch soccer games on their smartphone. This, as  is well known, did not happen. Sometimes these predictions are diffused to sell technologies, or to increase the value of companies in the stockmarkets. Many people said fifteen years ago that today the traditional newspapers would be completely dead. This did not happen.

What happens with new technologies is that the geography of consumption adapts, but not so fast. Traditional ways of consuming products (in this case of watching films and TV series) normally remain, although they can lose a part of their audience in favour of new devices and ways of consumption. This is what happened when TV was born: the number of tickets sold in cinemas dropped, but movie theatres are still alive.

Are we entering a new Golden Age for content, or …. will this become the equivalent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? 

As I indicated before, the pressure to produce will not guarantee an increase in average quality. Think about books: there is an enormous quantity of books published, but the problem of quality remains. Also, we have to say a couple of other things. The first is that – in this noisy chaos of many platforms, many channels and lots of production, an obvious strategy is to go “edgy”, to attract news coverage by producing something that breaks boundaries and goes to the extreme in terms of ideology, or sex, or violence (or suicide –like 13 Reasons Why). It is a temptation to which Amazon and Netflix, in particular, are susceptible.

This does not mean, in the end, that many people watch these shows, but only that the media talk a lot about them. On the other hand, as the business model of cable channels and of these new platforms is based on subscriptions, they are, at the end of the day, not so much interested in the shows being watched, as in whether people buy a subscription.

This means that they work quite a lot (advertising, PR, media coverage) on the “perception” of their shows, and that they try to make this perception stronger by re-making (in different ways) intellectual property that is very well known, big “brands” (like The Lord of the Rings) or by having big stars give their name to a show. But this, in itself, guarantees neither quality nor that people really watch the show. People can begin to watch something if the product is well advertised, but will usually continue watching only if the story is well developed, if the characters are engaging and so on – in other words, if the film/TV episode is well done from a storytelling point of view.

Will movies and TV shows become more international? Already countries like Brazil, Egypt and Turkey are exporting their soap operas around the world.

Yes, this is one result of the hunger for content. And for a viewer, both in US and abroad, it is much easier today to have access to a Spanish TV show (like La casa de papel) or a Latin American or Korean show, or an Italian one (like Medici. Masters of Florence, that in some countries has been distributed by Netflix). This frees up the viewing experience and is a very interesting and challenging possibility for producers all over the world. There are fewer gates and less mediation between a production and a big international market.

How about changes in format? Shows with lots of very short episodes along with conventional formats like Game of Thrones?

As the new platforms do not have to fit in with the timetable of a TV channel they are very free in what they offer to the viewer. So we see – and probably we will see more in the future – very different formats in terms of length of a single episode, and in terms of number of episodes per season or per show. I think that these aspects will follow the logic both of the content (there are stories that fit in a 22 minute format and stories that need more time) and of marketing – as, for example, using shorter episodes to make easier for the viewer to begin watching the show.

It sounds as though there’s lots more freedom for script writers, now that they don’t have to fit into the 22-minute format of a weekly TV show. True?

Yes, it is true. But you also have to consider that sometimes rules and borders help the artist to develop specific skills to fit into a format, and are like guidelines to express something in the best way possible. So not being obliged to fit into 22 minutes (or 40/45 minutes of the classic “hour” of the traditional TV networks) will not necessarily make the episode better. It can be an excuse to be slow or to be boring… So, freedom in itself is good, but this does not make always the products better.

I complain a lot about the lack of family-friendly TV – will the new era of hyperabundance open up a space for this kind of programming?

It should, but having more family-friendly programming does not depend only on the abstract possibility of having such programmes, or viewers who really want to see them. It depends on whether there will be screenwritiers to write them, producers to sell them, and executives to buy them and broadcast them.

A few years ago I did extensive research on the structure and culture of the entertainment industry (especially in Hollywood, but similar situations exist in many other countries) and I saw that what is being produced does not depend mainly on the market, but much more on the culture and values of the writers, producers and executive community. Hollywood today is strongly polarized on some issues. (My book on this has been published in Italian and in Spanish: Creatività al potere, Lindau, and Creatividad al poder, Rialp. For an American insight on some of these issues see Ben Shapiro, PrimeTime Propaganda).

The great international success of TV shows like Downton Abbey or, more recently, This is Us, proves that there is a big space for these kinds of production. I have been working for the last 20 years as a script consultant for a big Italian company, Lux vide. During that time their long TV series, Don Matteo (an Italian version of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories), which is family-friendly and very well done, has been the highest rating showin Italy, with 7-8 million viewers for every episode. And I could give many more examples. For this reason I am convinced that the real question is: who are the writers, producers and executives (and in every country they are very few) who propose and decide what will be given to millions and millions of viewers?

Are jobs opening up for your script writers?

Yes, it is a very good moment. The Master’s program of which I am director has always had an excellent success rate in the placement of our students, but now it is easier. Since 2015 we have run the whole programme in English, so now 30 percent of our students come from across the world – from the United States to France, from Spain to Brasil, from Lebanon to Russia. As production increases everywhere, so do job opportunities, especially for people who have an international mindset and a strong literary background.

On the last point, I have to say that we are very lucky in Italy because, although we like to be self-critical, we have a strong tradition and very good literary training, especially in high schools and in the university schools of humanities; so we have students who are well educated in Literature (Italian and foreign) and philosophy. This is an excellent foundation for learning the tools of storytelling and appling them to TV series and cinema. This, in my opinion, explains the excellent results of our alumni in writing and producing for TV and cinema, and also in publishing novels, some of which have been international best sellers. Mostly, they have succeded by producing work that tells the truth about human life and about the eternal destiny that awaits us.

Armando Fumagalli is professor of Semiotics and History of Cinema, and Director of the Master in International Screenwriting and Production at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, He is also, since 1999,  a script consultant for the production company Lux Vide. In this job he has been a consultant for many international TV miniseries, such as John Paul II (with CBS, starring Jon Voight), Sant’Agostino (in English, Restless Heart), Anna Karenina,  the European 4 miniseries War and Peace. Most recently he has been consultant on the TV series Medici, Masters of Florence (Rai-Netflix).