U.S.-born Tariq Jalil founded film and television production company Intrigue four years ago, after working at Telemundo/NBC in L.A. and Disney.
Through Intrigue, Jalil helps turn foreign dramatic formats into successful U.S. series, working with broadcast and cable networks (and if you’ve seen how many new season series are based on foreign shows, you’ll know the industry is booming).
We chatted with Jalil about his company, which types of international series tend to translate best to U.S. audiences and how exactly his company introduces foreign series into the U.S. market.
VAI: How did you get interested in adapting foreign shows to the U.S. market?
While I was working at Telemundo, [successful Latin-U.S. crossovers] like Ugly Betty were on the air. I watched as several people started doing this and realized it was something I could do.
At Telemundo they had the Spanish version of Operation Repo on the air, and I immediately thought that it could be adapted into English. It turns out that all of the characters spoke English and were just speaking Spanish for the show.
I asked them to shoot some stuff in English and they put together a short new trailer. At the time, truTV was looking to build their brand and looking for a signature show to bring people in. They bought it right away. It’s been on the air for seven years. It’s been sold as a finished product to over 20 countries.
Since then we’ve been concentrated in the scripted realm and we’ve set up at least one or two pilots a year for the broadcast networks.
VAI: Which countries do you do business with?
This year we have nine or 10 formats that came from all over – from places like South Korea, England, Australia, South America, Mexico. It can be very trendy to go after a particular country – Dutch formats, for example, were very big in recent years. We try to just recognize good product and go after that regardless of the country. We try not to follow the trends.
VAI: What are some types of foreign formats and shows that do (or don’t do) well in the U.S.?
There isn’t a particular genre that’s successful. We’re always looking for originality. We’ve seen a lot of Ugly Betty rip-offs or novella formats. Without a strong hook, telenovelas are a difficult sell because we don’t do those in the U.S. The machinations of a character drama are not enough to make a sale here.
At the same time, you also have to make sure that no other show or iteration of the show has been done in the U.S. We’ve had formats rejected because a version of the drama had been done five years prior.
VAI: After you’ve found a show you like, what’s the next step?
Negotiating the acquisition of a format/series with the rights holder is the second part. Sometimes we find that foreign rights holders have an exaggerated idea of what the fees will look like.
Most of the formats that we’re acquiring have already been shot (and they’re subtitled). We’re not taking paper formats.
VAI: How does payment to rights holders work?
We don’t typically pay an upfront fee [to the rights holders], unless it’s something we really, really love or they’re insistent upon it. Otherwise we want the studio or network to pay the fee and we have to wait for that. We give the rights holders a ballpark amount so they know what the per-episode or purchase-price looks like. In some cases it’s more than they thought, and in some cases it’s less.
It’s our job to give them an idea of what they can expect financially and contractually. Sometimes it can be a six- month to year-long process of negotiation.
VAI: What does Intrigue do once you acquire a show?
What we specialize in is taking these foreign shows and turning them into American shows. It’s difficult to describe the rights system to those who aren’t familiar with it. Some people wonder why they can’t just send our own formats directly to the networks. There’s a lot of education that’s necessary. People from other countries don’t understand how the system works – that we have studios and networks, and that the studios are ones actually making and funding the shows, and the networks are showing them. It doesn’t work that way in other countries.
We look at the show and see the best way to present it to an American audience and we mold it a little bit. If it warrants it, we work with a writer and create a full take of what the show will look like.
Usually we meet up with a writer after we have the format. We try to dig in and then fit them into the American perspective, preparing to for the network or studio presentation.
VAI: What happens once a U.S. network or studio buys it?
Once a network or studio buys it, it’s time to work on development of the series. We focus on concept, characters, future episodes and what the pilot will look like.
We make a commitment with our rights holders that we’re going to keep them abreast of what happening. They’re not just hiring us for our expertise on sales and packaging, but also for our creative instincts.
VAI: Are there particular trends in foreign series that are popular right now?
There was a “shiny floor show” trend for a while – quiz shows like Millionaire and then the talent shows like Idol. Now we’re seeing those are in decline.
VAI: How do you decide which foreign series to turn into U.S. series?
We’re looking for a concept that is strong, original and hasn’t been done before. And then we watch as many episodes as we can (the shows are usually subtitled). Something can have a really strong concept and weak execution. Then even if you get into a network’s door, once they actually watch the show they’ll pass on it.
As a producer, we want to piece together:
-What is the concept?
-What are the characters?
-Where is it going? Where does it all end up?
VAI: What are you working on now for the next U.S. season?
We’ve already sold a couple. But for now, it’s all under wraps.