HBO, ABC vie for resources as expensive projects begin filming

ROME — An advance guard from HBO made off with a war chest of helmets, chariots and spears from Rome’s largest props provider last summer, leaving ABC scouts scrounging around town for similarly esoteric gear.

The two American companies are bivouacked in the Eternal City to make similarly epic series set in turbulent Roman times — and there have been tussles over everything from togas to talent.

One reason for the ramped-up competition is the unprecedented cost of these projects, $75 million a year for the planned 5-year HBO saga, $30 million for the eight episodes of the ABC skein.

“ABC was pretty desperate for more stuff, but they just got here too late,” said a rep for prop shop E. Rancati, the company that furbished “Ben Hur” 45 years ago. “It’s great. We don’t have a spare spear left.”

Having missed out on most of the “Ben Hur” trappings, ABC is making do with the fancy leather shields and other armor made for “Cleopatra,” Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 pic, the one that effectively ended an earlier sword-and-sandals era.

As for costumes, while each production is stitching together its own togas, ABC has cleaned out the racks of ready-made imperial robes and patrician garb at sartoria Tirelli, Rome’s best-known film and theater costume-maker.

HBO is having its sandals specially made in Bulgaria, but to the paybox’s chagrin, senators strutting their stuff in both “Rome” and “Empire” will be wearing the same footwear, made by an old artisan outfit called Pompeii calzature.

Both HBO and ABC are relying on Britain’s talent pool for the lead roles, but English-speaking thesps living in Italy — especially if they’re male and muscular — are having a field day, too.

Nobody at either production is letting on that there is a battle as brutal as those in their respective fictional arenas, but clearly competition for local services is fierce.

“We are working from the same local pool,” admits Beatrice Kruger, the Italo casting agent for “Rome.” She’s been signing up hundreds of Latin-looking thesps who speak English for small roles.

“Gladiator types, soldiers, stuntmen, horsemen. They are all in great demand,” says Lilia Trapani, topper of Rome-based agency Studio T, which is handling the local casting for “Empire.”

While moviegoers may be familiar with the flavor of “Gladiator,” which revived the sword-and-sandals genre for the bigscreen, each production vows its fare will not resemble anything ever aired on the tube before.

HBO, which is headquartered at Cinecitta, east of the Italian capital, started shooting its lavish saga “Rome” in late March.

A few miles to the west, at Roma Studios, ABC is prepping “Empire.” It marks a bold move into limited series format for the ailing Alphabet, and is probably the most expensive show — per one-hour episode — in its history.

“What we’re doing is something completely innovative for network television,” says Storyline’s Craig Zadan, one of “Empire’s” exec producers. “Now that more people have cable and that reality television has taken over a huge portion of the audience, networks really have to rethink their programming,” Zadan adds.

HBO teamed up on “Rome” with Britain’s BBC. They arrived at Cinecitta last September, armed with a whopping budget that HBO exec producer and “Rome” originator Anne Thomopoulos, quantifies as $400 million over 60 episodes — 12 one-hour episodes per year for five years — though “Rome” is greenlit only for the first two series.

That, they say, makes it the largest TV series anyone has ever undertaken in terms of budget. At Cinecitta, which hasn’t seen this scale of activity since “Ben Hur,” HBO took over the backlot and built a staggering set almost twice that of “Gangs of New York,” parts of which they converted.

Meticulously constructed by hundreds of workers using durable fiberglass panels, painted stucco and rugged tufa bricks, the “Rome” set recreates a large section of the Forum, striving to give the temples, public buildings and ancient-day shopping malls a truly authentic feel.

“It always appeals to me to try and get the details right,” says helmer Michael Apted, director of “Rome’s” first three episodes, who will therefore be instrumental in shaping the jumbo project.

The vet Brit feature and doc director says the closest thing he’s done before in terms of scope is the James Bond pic “The World is Not Enough.”

“It’s a new spin on the Roman history films which before, particularly on television, dealt with power politics,” is how Apted describes “Rome.” It follows the lives of two Roman soldiers and their families during the rise of Julius Caesar after his conquest of Gaul in 51 BC and the ensuing social turmoil.

“This sees power through other eyes. It’s a much more everyman look at some very famous events in Roman history, but through another prism that’s intriguing and unusual,” Apted explains.

HBO Entertainment prexy Carolyn Strauss, who calls “Rome” “a description of ancient Roman life from the street to the villa,” says the plan is for a U.S. rollout in summer 2005. The British airdate will be either simultaneous or very close, Strauss adds.

That means the first of the two toga sagas to beam into U.S. homes is likely to be ABC/ Touchstone’s “Empire” which is aiming for a 2004 airdate.

Personally greenlit by Michael Eisner, “Empire” will unfold after Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., and revolves around the fictional character of Tyrannus, a gladiator assigned to protect and coach Caesar’s 17-year-old nephew Octavius who becomes Rome’s first emperor Augustus. Tyrannus will be played by British thesp Jonathan Cake.

The first two episodes being shot, which are actually episodes 4 and 6, are to be directed by veteran TV helmer Kim Manners (“X Files”). Greg Yaitenes is directing episodes 1 and 2, but due to production reasons they are being shot later.

The ABC people arrived in January and set up camp at Roma Studios, a large lot where John Huston shot “The Bible” in 1966. At that time it was known as Dinocitta, the domain of Dino De Laurentiis.

Long inactive while at the center of a legal wrangle between Italian financier and former MGM topper Giancarlo Parretti and French bank Credit Lyonnais, it recently reopened for business after being bought by a group of entrepreneurs headed by Paris-based producer Tarak Ben Ammar.

Two years ago, when they reopened, Ben Ammar claimed Parretti — who is a fugitive from U.S. justice — had no involvement in Roma Studios.

The lot is headed by Parretti’s son, Mauro Enrico Parretti, who scored a coup by luring ABC and “Empire” away from Eastern Europe — thanks to a very competitive rate.

“The Americans are the big test for us. We are doing everything we can to make them happy,” says the Roma Studios topper.

Besides shooting on the studio backlot — where ABC is going for a brick-and-wood look on a set that includes a Coliseum-like arena and a Senate — “Empire” will also use real ancient Rome locations like the Appian Way, using CGI to fill in the missing bits.

The “Empire” set is being built to last, because if the first series flies, ABC will come back and shoot two more years, this time in 13-episode blocs.

But how many toga sagas do auds have an appetite for?

“That’s like saying: ‘Is there room for two lawyer shows or two cop shows,” says Storyline’s Neil Meron. “And in any case, we’ll be first out of the gate.”

“I guess there’s two schools of thought. One is it brings attention to both. The other is that it gets into this weird competitive thing,” says HBO’s Strauss. “It seems sort of crazy to me, honestly, but there you have it.”

Despite their surface similarities, “Rome” and “Empire” are quite different projects, at least when it comes to their respective lingos, which for “Rome” is British English, while “Empire” will use a more neutral “mid-Atlantic” accent, says Meron.

Adopting a British lingua franca was “a big decision that we slavishly stuck to,” says Apted. “It will kind of help to transpose the British class system into Rome, because the Roman society we are creating is so complicated and has so many different aspects in terms of its social classes and regions,” he explains.

In terms of casting, that means “Rome,” which stars Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar, will have no American actors, though “Empire” also seems to be relying heavily on Blighty’s talent pool.

In fact, the British thesps who have been auditioning for both series are probably the only ones who could best pinpoint their particularities.

“What these actors are telling us is that ‘Rome’ is a more sprawling ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ kind of show, and ours is much more about a small group of people,” says Storyline’s Zadan.

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