Prod’n quilt

Piecing together TV cofinance

The rabbit-like multiplication of cable and syndication outlets around the world has provided indie TV outfits with more opportunities than ever. However, with this increase comes greater viewer demand for better production values and more sophisticated, quasi-cinematic material.

So in essence, the Davids of the TV world now are forced to get all their deep-pocketed international friends to go head-to-head with the network Goliaths.

Back in the old days, you could call Hallmark’s lavish $35 million miniseries “The Odyssey” a legit international co-production. However, the term quickly is becoming a misnomer, according to Robert Halmi Sr., chairman of the board of Hallmark Entertainment.

“The word ‘co-production’ in television is a leftover from the old days,” says Halmi, whose company has produced some of the biggest miniseries of all time, including “Lonesome Dove,” “Scarlett” and “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Of course, Halmi speaks from a very comfortable position. Hallmark Entertainment, currently outputting 84 movies a year, has been able to finance its productions independently. “We own our own video outfit and music publishing and a cable channel around the world,” Halmi notes. “It’s easier for us to allocate the money because we can utilize our product in so many ways.”

Hallmark’s latest “co-production” is an adaptation of “Moby Dick” for the USA Network. Currently shooting in Melbourne, the four-hour miniseries stars Patrick Stewart and Gregory Peck, and has an estimated budget of $17 million to $20 million, according to USA prexy Rod Perth. “This is by far our most ambitious singular co-production,” Perth says. “A project like this, which calls for a higher level of production values and quality of cast, would never be possible without contribution of foreign revenues,” says Perth, who doesn’t reveal the exact percentage of USA’s contribution to the pot. As was the case for “The Odyssey,” Germany’s Kirch Group, England’s Sky and Australia’s Channel Nine divvied up the foreign pre-sales for the project.

A far simpler definition of co-production still exists in the costume-drama universe of England’s BBC, Granada and ITV and Stateside entities such as PBS and A&E. To date, this year’s most-watched drama in the U.K. (12.5 million viewers) was a new adaptation of “Jane Eyre” starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds, a co-production between A&E and London Weekend Television, a division of ITV. A&E plans to air the two-hour drama Stateside in October.

“The British model of TV drama works particularly well for us because we pretty much know what we’re going to get in the end,” says Brooke Bailey Johnson, A&E’s senior VP of programming and production. “For ‘Jane Eyre,’ we handled one-third of the financial arrangement and ITV picked up the rest. For a production like this one, the period details kick the budget into the $3 million to $4 million range.”

According to Johnson, the astronomical cost of period dramas makes it almost necessary for international companies to band together to deliver the coin. The key is to find reliable partners that will come through for you year after year. “Because most of our co-productions are with people and companies that we’ve worked successfully with in the past (“Cracker,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma”), we don’t have to worry about creative control and not having the end result tailored to our needs,” he says.

Getting different outfits to agree on the content, direction and talent involved in a series does prove a challenge for someone like Irwin Meyer, president-CEO of the Producers Entertainment Group, an L.A.-based production and distribution company. Meyer is prepping “Deep Blue,” a 22-hour scuba/police drama set in the Pacific Northwest, executive produced by Jeff King (“EZ Street,” “Due South”) and starring Jack Scalia. He believes that European partners put fewer creative demands on a project than the U.S. networks.

“The toughest aspect of putting together a multinational project is getting everyone to agree on what the show is about and to deal with the extraordinary time it takes to iron out the numerous details of production,” Meyer says.

Meyer also mentions that the proliferation of TV outlets has allowed global indies to put together deals that involve equity ownerships of the show, encourage shared profit participation and enable production companies to also act as distributors in foreign territories, without having to rely on major network involvement.

“On the negative side,” Meyer says, “the U.S. market is probably the toughest market to break into as an indie.” “Deep Blue,” a co-prod of the Producers Entertainment Group, Rigel Independent Distribution & Entertainment and the Pacific Motion Pictures Group of Vancouver, doesn’t yet have a home in the cluttered TV market Stateside.

One of this year’s more interesting developments in the multiple partnership arena involved the quirky drama “Due South,” which was brought back to life when CBS pulled the plug on it after two seasons on the air. Canada’s Alliance and network CTV, the BBC, Germany’s Pro Sieben Media and France’s TF1 came up with enough money to keep the series going for a third season in ’97. This time around, Polygram TV will be moving the series (with original star Paul Gross also handling writing and exec producing duties) to national syndication in the U.S.

“The show wouldn’t exist if we couldn’t produce it internationally,” says Jean Michel Ciszewski, VP of sales at Alliance. “Because the series was a success around the world, we didn’t need to change the concept at all. In fact, we had more restrictions on the content when we were working with CBS.”

Ciszewski believes there’s a big market for action-adventure series around the world, but insiders also look at natural history programming as a genre that is thriving.

“There’s a big appetite for wildlife internationally,” says Scott Hanuck, managing director of the New York-based Unapix Intl. The company is launching “ESPU” (Endangered Species Protection Unit), a reality series about an anti-poaching detective team in South Africa, on Discovery’s Animal Planet this fall. Unapix partnered with South Africa outfit Movie World, Dutch company Off the Fence and Monaco-based Daro Film Distribution.

“We pre-sold the U.S. marketplace, got a certain amount of money on the license, then pre-sold Latin America and Asia,” Hanuck explains. “Then, through our co-production partners, we divvied up distribution rights and were able to cover the cost of production, which totaled $100,000 per episode, with a 13-episode commitment.”

Hanuck says that as a non-fiction production company, Unapix is able to jump faster on current trends and au courant preferences of viewers worldwide. He adds, “We stick to themes that are universal — animal extinction, technology, travel and historic achievements.”

Lush photography and armchair travel opportunities also are the selling points of “The Living Edens,” a current co-venture between ABC/Kane Prods. and the BBC, in association with Germany’s Trebitsch Produktion Intl. GmbH and Reader’s Digest Video & TV. The series originally was picked up by PBS as a 12-hour package, but after Reader’s Digest came aboard with branding and purchasing rights, the producers were able to add eight more hours.

“The term ‘co-production’ can be a code for a variety of complex, Byzantine production and international distribution arrangements,” says Alex Gregory, executive producer of “The Living Edens.” “Despite the logistics nightmares, putting together these deals is the best way to operate right now. Our show costs about $700,000 per hour, and frankly, without all of the partners pooling their resources, we couldn’t achieve the level of quality world audiences are demanding right now.”

Robin Spry, prexy of Canada’s Telescene, which has put together numerous deals with operations in New Zealand, Japan, Germany, France and Finland, likes the independence these structures allow non-U.S. entities. “One trend to watch for is how we can now pre-finance international projects without worrying about securing pre-sales in the U.S.,” Spry notes.

He adds, “By going through independent funders, we also can shoot projects without having to be concerned about individual countries’ official treaty organization rules and regulations. Projects that work outside the national monetary incentive programs allow you more choices in choosing talent and keeping creative control.”

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