Talking TV development with Hannah Cheesman

Ahead of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, Playback caught up with the Whatever, Linda co-creator to talk about the winding road from webseries to television.

Hannah CheesmanOver the past four years, Whatever, Linda has experienced the ups and downs of the development process. Originally released in 2014 as a critically acclaimed webseries, the long-gestating TV adaptation has jumped from The Mark Gordon Company to the Donaldson Company and Bell Media over the years, but it is in the spotlight once again after its recent win at the Canneseries In Development pitch competition.

Created and written by Hannah Cheesman (pictured) and Julian De Zotti, the series, set in late ’70s New York, follows a group of secretaries who engineer a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme.

Playback caught up with 5 to Watch alum Cheesman to discuss the project, shopping the series internationally, and her upcoming speaking engagement at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference (TSC).

Playback: One of the last things we heard about Whatever, Linda is the project was in development with Bell Media (with Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson attached). What’s the latest?

Hannah Cheesman: Yes, we are still involved with Bell Media, that hasn’t changed. But back in April we were one of 12 projects invited to MIPTV in Cannes for the inaugural In Development series. We won the pitch competition, which meant we were offered another development deal from Federation Entertainment and La Fabrique des Formats out of France. Although we can’t accept that, it really helped us get a critical mass of companies in front of the project.

At this point, we’ve written the pilot and we’re finessing and re-drafting it for Bell Media to approve and give notes on, which we’ll be handing in at the end of this month. And we’ll hopefully go back to all of those international companies…and say, ‘OK, so who’s really going to buy this?’ and actually make the show.

PB: While you were at Canneseries, what did you hear from international buyers? What did you take away from the competition?

HC: We so clearly know the voice and tone of the show, and going to Cannes to pitch reaffirmed for us how these four years of incubation have helped us to refine what the show is and what we’re trying to say with it. That was some of the feedback from the judges.

PB: It’s been a long incubation period for Whatever, Linda. What challenges have you encountered trying to get the project made?

HC: It hasn’t been a straight line. We were with the Mark Gordon Company and also had an offer from BBC America. A deal wasn’t penned and then BBC America was off the table. Then we decided to amicably walk away from the Mark Gordon Company.

Deciding to walk away from one of the biggest producers in Hollywood felt like a totally absurd and irresponsible thing to do. But, I mean, this is the furthest we’ve gotten along in the development process – coming home, working with people we know, working with a company that already knows us all as various creators/writers, and so forth.

I would tell creators who are going from web to TV that it’s going to be circuitous. But hold on tight, be wise and follow your gut in who you pair with, know that it’s going to stop and start, try and team up with somebody who is an experienced producer or showrunner because those are the ones who are going to lend you the authority that you might not have on your own as a web producer and continue to be clear about the show you want to make.

PB: You’re set to talk at TSC this weekend on the “Crafting a Successful Digital Series” panel. One of the things  the panel will cover is exporting formats. Have you thought about Whatever, Linda as a format?

HC: Actually in our Canneseries pitch, in the questions after, that someone was actually like ‘Have you ever thought of this show as a format show that you could sell?’ And we were like, ‘No, but we do now,’ because this kind of a ponzi, greed, corporate fraud story from underlings trying to take over from within, I think with the climate of our  societies today, being one that’s rife with greed and top-down power can travel anywhere. But I certainly didn’t go into this thinking to myself, ‘We can make this a format that can be exploited and go on to all kinds of regions.’

PB: You’re also adapting Sara Taylor’s novel Boring Girls into a feature. Anything else on the go?

HC: We’re at a phase where we’re moving into the first draft of [the Boring Girls] script. My co-producer, Coral Aiken, and I have our sights set on trying to shoot as early as fall 2019. Because film has become so much more challenging to make, we’re thinking about what other relationships we can strike up down south and what other content we might be able to make with this.

My next project is a half-hour series called Badger [based on true events, the project follows two sisters taking care of their father after he's had a life-changing stroke and is co-produced through Cheesman's The Long Reach Company with High Drive Media's Patrick O'Sullivan].

 The Toronto Screenwriting Conference runs from June 23 to 24 in Toronto.