FUTURE VISION: YELLOW BIRD FILM AND TV'S MARIANNE GRAY

headshot marianne gray FV Oct. 2019

SHE is one of the more prolific and frankly prescient producers in the entertainment industry. In this Future Vision, Marianne Gray, chief creative officer for Yellow Bird Film and TV US, talks up the transformative power of creative insight and her mission to bring more Scandinavian inspired English language projects to US broadcasters and streamers. 

 Q. You started out your career working in the US, then moved back to Sweden and now are back in the US. It’s a completely different career path than is taken by most European producers, isn’t it? 

 A. Well, I am Swedish but I landed in the US at the beginning of my career and started out working for Dawn Steel’s Steel Pictures at Walt Disney Studios, Baltimore Pictures at Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox’s Jacobs/Mutrux Productions. After a while, I went back to Sweden to head up the drama and film department at Jarowskij.  

Q. At Jarowskij you produced several award-winning series, including the Mikael Marciman-helmed Laser Man. How has all this history helped you see the larger picture? 

A.To be honest it was quite a learning curve as television production in Scandinavia in particular is much like producing independent features, in that you have to secure financing from many different sources and co-production models. As the television market has changed dramatically over the last few years and become more global, that has proven to be a very useful experience. As a producer in the smaller markets, you are also very hands on in all aspects of development, financing and production which is a lot of fun.

Q. After you moved over to Yellow Bird, you developed and executive produced Headhunters, directed by Morten Tyldum and then Occupied I and II, for TV2/Viaplay/Arte (available on Netflix). You’re now filming the third season of Occupied but the first edition proved to be oddly prescient, didn’t it?

A. Yes. Just a bit. We developed the story from an original idea by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo in which Norway decides to shut down its gas and oil production in favour of a more environmentally friendly source of energy. Neither Russia nor the EU are happy about this and eventually Russia stages a "silk glove" occupation of Norway, with the EU's backing. Jo first pitched the idea to me back in 2008 when this seemed like a far-fetched idea but that changed very quickly as Russia went in to Crimea the day before we started shooting. The second season turned out to be eerily timely as well.

Q. The Russian government was not happy with Occupied but viewers were delighted. Beyond the streaming, how many territories has it sold to? Why has it done so well? 

A. Banijay Rights has sold the series to most of the world with Netflix having about 50% of them. The Russian press was all over us before the series aired but once it was on air they realised that it had a nuanced perspective and that it was focused on the Norwegians and their reaction to the situation. The series worked extremely well in the international markets where it sparked geopolitical articles and conversations but, at its core, it is an engaging character drama about people put under great pressure. Interestingly some Norwegians found the premise of their country ever halting oil production to be unbelievable. 

Q. How do producers walk that fine line of serving the viewers needs and at the same time, risking taking political heat if you hit the nail on the head, so to speak? 

A. In Scandinavia we have a tradition of producing drama that includes some sort of social commentary and we thankfully do not have to worry about political heat. 

Q. You are working with Marcimain on SVT’sThe Hunt for a Killer, an upcoming crime series loosely based on the eponymously titled book by Tobias Bakman. Why does this storyline resonate so much in Sweden, and how much do you think it will travel, outside of Sweden? 

A. This is an important and unfortunately true story about a young child that is murdered and the cop who relentlessly worked against all odds for 15 years before finding the murderer. It is a great opportunity to look back at changing times in Sweden generally, the systemic changes within the police department in particular, and how those changes affect the ability to solve crimes. And it’s also a compelling story that shows a side of Sweden not seen before in your typical Scandi crime show and I think this aspect will attract international audiences. Plus,there is certainly an appetite for true crime stories everywhere these days.

Q. You moved back to LA in October of 2018 with a formidable brief and options on three titles, Asa Schwartz’s The Seven Keys, Lisa Jewell’s I Found You and Mats Strandberg’s The End already in your pocket. Where are you at with these projects right now? What stages are they at? 

A. They are all in the development phase and we’re setting writers to work on them. We are developing Seven Keys with a streamer.

Q. Yellow Bird is part of the Banijay Group but in LA you partnered with Bunim/Murray to develop and produce these and other properties in English for US broadcasters and streaming platforms. How does this partnership work and what’s down the line in terms of developing new areas of business with Bunim/Murray?

A. Yellow Bird US is a joint venture between Yellow Bird Sweden and Bunim/Murray (a sister company within the group). We are focused on developing premium, character-driven dramas with a “Scandi touch” for the US market. So we collaborate with Bunim/Murray and other companies within the Banijay group when ideas or formats come up but we operate very independently.

Q. The Seven Keys definitely has global passport, given increasing worries we all have about internet security and privacy but The End, an eponymous YA novel by one of Sweden’s hottest scribes, is also a pretty gutsy story. It’s about the end of the world but you described it as having a hopeful ending. How does that work in the world we’re living in today? 

A. I think we are all worried about where the world is going. We may ask ourselves how we want to live our lives, who do we want to spend it with and so on. The End is a smart, sophisticated and honest look at a community dealing with the most shocking of news possible while living to the fullest what time they have left.

Q. Lisa Jewell is clearly a successful writer but what intrigued you about I Found You enough to option it? 

A. It’s a compelling thriller in a great setting with a strong female lead and many surprising twists. What’s not to like?

Q. What is the biggest problem in the industry for drama producers right now? The drama industry is in the middle of a content explosion but finding top talent is often a problem. What’s your take on this? 

A. There is no doubt we are living in some very interesting times. Never has there been so many opportunites and therein, also is the challenge – how do you stick out? All the buyers want to know how your project is going to cut through the noise–– and the truth is YOU NEVER KNOW. All you can do is focus on stories that you believe in and have a strong vision for. You also have to share this vision with a writer because you just can’t go anywhere without a writer attached.