Who: The plugged-in co-exec producer of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” miniseries and co-topper of Ensemble Prods.
What: Ramping up big-budget minis on Alexander the Great and King Arthur and forging plans for an international studio based in the U.K.
What they’re saying: Ties with Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise yield high-profile projects, but does Europe need another studio?
LONDON — Don’t leave town when you’re hot. It’s a golden rule of Hollywood, and Tony To has broken it.
The “Band of Brothers” co-exec producer — a clumsy title that masks his linchpin role in the $125 million HBO series — celebrated the project’s success by relocating permanently from L.A. to England, where the series was shot.
Together with “Band of Brothers” co-producer Gene Kelly, To has set up Ensemble Prods (“I wanted to call it United Artists, but that name was taken”), with offices in London’s high-rent Mayfair district and at Pinewood Studios.
The company has an exclusive first-look deal with HBO for TV projects. It’s already in pre-production with a $120 million 10-parter about the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great, and it is developing an epic series about King Arthur with Brit director David Leland.
But To’s ambitions reach even higher. He plans to make big-budget movies. In fact, he wants to create nothing less than an international studio, based in Britain.
“There are plenty of studios in the U.S., but there is nothing like that kind of cohesive entity here,” he says.
To certainly doesn’t lack powerful allies. After making “Band of Brothers” with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, he’s producing “Alexander the Great” with Mel Gibson’s Icon shingle. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise has come aboard to exec produce “Arthur.”
Such Hollywood relationships will come in handy when Ensemble starts to mount its movies. But To also intends to tap into the local talent pool, as he did with “Band of Brothers.”
“Over the years the technical base in Europe has been utilized by Hollywood for big-budget productions, but the talent base has not been harnessed in the same way, and we want to do that,” he says.
For “Alexander,” To is casting from Britain to Bollywood, by way of Iran. The Greek characters will talk English, the Persian will speak Farsi and the Indians will use Hindi.
To and Kelly make an intriguing pair, dressed identically in black round-neck sweaters and matching pants. To, slight and voluble, is a naturalized American of Vietnamese parentage. He was born in Bangkok but spent 10 years at an English boarding school before studying drama at Hofstra U. in the U.S.
He went to Hollywood as a theater director but made his name as a TV producer with the HBO miniseries “Laurel Avenue” and “Grand Avenue,” and then the 12-parter “From the Earth to the Moon.”
Kelly, older and more laid-back, was a banker who became head of program operations for HBO Pictures and HBO Original Programming before freelancing as a production exec on movie locations all over the world.
The pair met on “Band of Brothers.”
“I saw immediately that Gene had all the skills of a fabulous producer,” To says. “But he also had what I did not have: a great financial and business background.”
“Tony was equally skilled at managing two of the most powerful people in Hollywood, down to putting a crew together and visualizing how to spend this huge budget,” Kelly recalls. “So when he mentioned this idea of a studio, it wasn’t a big leap to imagine how he could accomplish that.”
“It’s a 10-year plan — we’re not unrealistic,” says Kelly. “The studio will evolve out of our activity as producers. You’re not going to find us walking around with a business plan.”
First step: They are exploring a proposal to develop the Hatfield site where they shot “Band of Brothers” into a permanent production center.
“We don’t want to be Pinewood or Shepperton,” says To. “They are great facilities, but they’re not real studios.”