Brits Join Neighbors For Co-Production

After years of dithering, the British are gingerly getting in on the Europewide co-production act.

The BBC and ITV stations now appear ready to take their place alongside major broadcasters from France, Germany and Italy – such as TF-1, Beta-Taurus and RAI – who for years have led the way in pan-European ventures.

Hitherto, the Brits have looked down their noses at telepics and miniseries dished up by their European neighbors, often dismissing Continental concoctions as too wordy, stilted or even “foreign” and preferred instead to deal with U.S. and Australian producers.

“Up till now, the British have always come looking for our money but haven’t been willing to invest in our projects. But a good co-production must be two-sided,” says Horst Schering, head of Germany’s WDR Intl.

But new financial and cultural imperatives are forcing the Brits to be less aloof and the first major attempts to interact could be in view by next MIP:

* BBC has announced it will participate in three miniseries with Berlusconi’s Reteitalia, a major co-producer on the Continent. Their first joint project will be an adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” into a miniseries.

* BBC Enterprises, the sales arm of the pubcaster, is making its own push into co-production. It announced at MIP a co-production with French indie supplier Telecip to co-produce a drama series called “The Vintage Years.” The script – about two rival branches of an old wine-growing dynasty, one in Bordeaux, the other in Scotland, will be penned by British scripter Ray Thompson, who did the popular “Howard’s Way” series.

* Granada TV, the only commercial ITV company actively trying to bridge the English Channel, also has several tv movie and mini projects in development with France’s Hachette and Germany’s NDR.

Judging from previews of upcoming Continental miniseries on show at this year’s MIP, the reluctance of the British to jump head first into this arena is understandable.

While the rhetoric of Continental co-production is sophisticated, the financial arrangements solid and the relationships among partners cordial, the results are often discouraging. Few of them have made an impact in the English-speaking world.

But they work when dubbed back into German, French or Italian. Often the programs are actually improved upon by the dubbing and usually perform well for their local audiences.

With the British coming onboard, some say the programs could fare well in both English-speaking and other territories.

“What co-productions there have been up till now have been disappointing,” concedes Mike Philips, Thames TV Intl. head. His company has preferred to work with the Americans in the co-production effort “because that’s where the big bucks are and because of our common language.” But now, he said, he’s definitely looking at ways of co-producing with Europe. “It’s all a question of finding the right project. If two players are not on the same wavelength it can be a disaster.”

Europe – from the politicians to the money-strapped producers and presumably to the public – still is waiting for the first Euro-made mini or drama series that performs well in the international market. It wasn’t on view at this year’s event.

“The challenge will be to bring some sophistication to the script-writing and some insistence that casting be done to reflect serious acting ability,” said one longtime British producer who has worked in Europe.

One good sign is that both the British and the Europeans seem to have a better idea about what the problems are, rather than just what the limitations of the other parties to the co-production are.

“Up till now, the British have always come looking for our money but haven’t been willing to invest in our projects; but a good co-production must be two-sided,” says Horst Schering, head of Germany’s WDR Intl.

Granada chairman David Plowright told journalists at MIP that one of the problems with Euro co-production was the fact that there are so few tv stars who have instant appeal across borders. “That makes agreement on casting an area we have to devote more time to,” he said.

Jacques Dercourt, head of Telecip and a veteran of co-production attempts, is realistic but hopeful: “Co-productions will never be as good as local productions, but they can replace U.S. imports.”

Nor does being a good producer automatically make you a good co-producer: the two require different skills. One characteristic of a good co-producer (in addition to common languages) is modesty, observes Dercourt. “A good co-producer must realize he doesn’t know everything.”

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