Thoughts on Mega TV Series for Actors, Directors and Writers:

I’ve just spent 16 weeks of my life coaching on the forthcoming mega TV series Marco Polo. Before anyone from Netflix, Weinstein or the Marco Polo production office reads this – let me assure them, the following holds no spoilers.

I quote the blog on Metro:

“Filmed in Malaysia, Kazakhstan and Italy with a budget of over $90 million and an international cast fairly unknown to mainstream audiences, it’s perhaps also their riskiest. But if writer/creator John Fusco can pull it off, then Netflix might just have their own answer to Game Of Thrones.”

I look forward to the release of this series later this year with antici…………..pation!  I wish it, and the marvellous John Fusco, much success!

Mega TV (HBO’s Game of Thrones is an obvious example) is TV on top film money – the catch being that it aims to do 10 hours of work, rather than 2 and a bit, on the same budget. And aims for the same block-buster quality. Shooting tries for around 6 minutes of screen time per shooting day – whereas many major films produce not much more than a minute of screen time a day. 6 minutes is normal for high-end TV dramas but not many are on the scale of these mega versions.

A mammoth production like this – usually full of beautiful backdrops, bonking and battles – is an immense machine. It moves with the precision of an army: around 600 crew, two main units shooting 2 of 10 episodes at the same time, working over many separate sound stages and outside locations. It combines stunning scenery – often in pretty inaccessible places with little infrastructure – with old fashioned studio effects such as intricate set building and painting. Then it tops it all off with the latest CGI technology. These series can draw enormous viewing figures and profit. Or they can lose a lot of people a load of money. And leave them exhausted…

Blockbusters continue to be made; but mega TV points the way to the future for commercial screen entertainment – and our livelihoods…

Here are the pros for the actor, director and writer:

1. Mega TV offers more international casting opportunities as it is often shot in far-flung shores that offer good tax rebates. And it can’t afford many Hollywood stars – either as actors or directors. Rather, it employs good middle-weight creatives topped off with newcomers and locals. It also provides work for experienced crews in order to support the novices and to handle the enormous scale of the work.

2. It can provide casting opportunities for actors who may not be considered for conventional, stereotypical commercial film roles: actors of less beauty, more age, diverse size and less experience. It also provides – most importantly – multi-ethnic roles. It may use new writers and relatively inexperienced directors. This is for reason 3.

3. The content of TV series designed for subscription viewers via internet or specialist TV channels is more diverse as it aims to provide material that will appeal to different types of subscribers. (HBO’s The Wire and Treme or Netflix Orange is the New Black, House of Cards and Andy and Lana Wachowski‘s Sense8 for example) These punters are paying up for the very reason that mainstream television is not supplying the product they want. This means the subject matter may be braver. The project has often begun on a small scale by someone with a personal passion. These relatively new content providers are willing to take risks.

4. The series has a long tail-end life due to late publicity, DVD sales and sell-ons around the world. (Breaking Bad is a great example.) It can give you exposure to a wide public over a long time period.

5. The long format allows for character development.

6. As more countries find ways to access these products, they can cross cultural boundaries and reach new audiences. Netflix continues to expand; there is now HBONordic. Everyone wants into China. Hollywood and Bollywood continue to merge; subscription TV may see them married.

7. The long training and shooting schedule for actors forces change and growth in physical prowess, emotional development and confidence. (i.e. you’ll have to get fit and focused to survive!) The same goes for directors, producers and writers.

8. The people, on the whole, are nicer and kinder than in the high octane world of Hollywood feature films. Lovely cast and crew – with fewer divas:)

9. You may not get rich but you’ll get richer!

10. It may kick-start your career or re-fuel it.

Here are some cons for actors, directors and writers:

1. The project can get diluted and compromised by the many producers, writers and directors involved. It can be a little like directing or writing by committee – or working on an advertising campaign. Commercial needs can take over from creative impulses. If you want sole creative input you are much better working on an indie. The series can run down over many seasons and become less brave and less funded. Your reputation may sink as the producers chase ratings.

2. The money is good for TV but not on the same level as main-stream movies. (This is true for cast and crew.) Contracts can be long (like old-time Hollywood studios, except they may ditch you if the project fails) to allow for future series. Or your character can get killed off in a heartbeat.

3. Such a mammoth undertaking leads to a factory feel – producers want their money’s worth. Expect long hours, long training schedules, mainly 6 day weeks…

4. The constant change of directors on a series can leave actors swinging between advice – desperately trying to hang on to a coherence of role. Have your own vision too and be prepared to stand up for it (in a reasonable manner) when you need to. Directors of episodes six and seven (for example) cannot come in with a completely new take on the subject – they inherit costumes, sets and decisions about the world and its people. It is hard to carve time for rehearsals within this machine that gathers momentum each week.Writers (who are not producers) will see the work changed constantly. Every day brings new coloured revisions to the rainbow script. Be responsible for your own work – so little time on set.

5. The audience for Mega TV is, at present, mainly American. (Though this may change – expect dubbing and subtitles:) Actors: Expect to speak clearly if from any other ethnicity – including British. (Here – I dub myself an MAU coach – ‘Make Americans Understand’:)

6. Actors: expect to work on many episodes at once. Keep notes separate to the script – which keeps changing and is too big to handle (10 hours!) on anything other than an electronic device or the day’s sides. Write down every scene (not page) you are in. Put down where you have come from – where you are going to – what has just happened – any new developments – what you want – time of day – extra circumstances etc. (Not the dialogue) Now keep them in order either virtually or by using filing cards and tying them together. Now you won’t get lost in the plot or your journey – and they’ll come in handy for ADR or re-shoots. It’s hard enough to remember what episode you are in – let alone who is alive, who has deceived you, who you’ve just slept with –  and what you did last week!

7. Build up your stamina before shooting. Actors: expect to wear heavy costumes in hot climates or summer cotton in cold ones. (This is true for films as well – but there are usually less costumes!) Expect to fight in extreme heat and humidity or to plunge into freezing rivers.

8. Actors: expect more challenging bed moments and lack of underwear than in mainstream TV or movies. (But maybe less challenging undressing than some indies:)

9. Know you will be alone – bereft of loved ones – (unless you choose new ones) – for many many months. Loved ones are expensive to bring over, and they won’t want want to stay long. Heat, cold, boredom and local bugs will drive them home.

10. It will be ages before your friends or family see your work. It won’t be on their home TV channels:) But at least you can eventually send the casting director the DVD…


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mega TV Series for Actors, Directors and Writers:

  1. Highly pertinent points as usual, Mel. Having worked on HBO’s “Rome” (perhaps one of the first ‘Mega TV Series’?) I can relate to most of them, and having got a taste of what the leads went through I’d say items 4 and 6 could be particularly useful for series cast members on “Marco Polo”.


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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.