Historical epics sell well at Mip TV confab

“Pompeii,” “Camelot,” “Pharaoh,” “William the Conqueror,” “The Borgias,” “The Medici,” “World Without End,” “Guns of August.”

At Cannes’ Mip TV, which wrapped Friday, key players Starz, Sony, Scott Free, Germany’s Tandem and Beta, France’s Canal Plus and Blighty’s Shine unleashed a slew of historical event minis and high-end dramas onto the international market.

Meanwhile, Hollywood studios dusted off old hits and new hopefuls for re-formatting worldwide.

The two trends — the big, bold epics and the surge in formats biz — are the flipsides of the same post-recession coin.

Broadcasters are saving money with the formats but anchoring their skeds with the glossy epics to justify advertisers’ investment.

Although some company honchos, including CBS Studios Intl. prexy Armando Nunez, say business never went away in 2009, others believe the solid biz at Mip TV repped evidence of a partial rebound.

“It is completely different to a year ago,” Remy Blumenfeld, ITV Studios’ head of global formats said in Cannes. “People are cautious, but it feels like a normal market.”

Most buzzed formats at Mip included Zodiak’s “One World,” FremantleMedia’s “Push the Button,” and Endemol’s “100 Ways to Leave a Gameshow” and “XXS.”

Formats can cut through buyer caution.

“Producing local versions of formats takes away a lot of the guesswork for local broadcasters: They get something that is fully developed and a proven success in its original version,” says Marion Edwards, prexy of international TV at 20th Century Fox Television, which has a Russian “Prison Break” in production.

Emerging business practices — international co-productions, big-budget Euro fiction financed sans Stateside coin, proliferating formats — are transforming the TV landscape.

Despite broadcasting budgets that are still under pressure, expensive epics caught the headlines at Mip TV.

They span the history of civilization:

n John Milius is showrunning Ancient Egypt saga “Pharaoh,” backed by France’s Canal Plus, Amana Creative and Tetra Media.

n Starz is co-producing the GK TV-sold “Camelot,” and has drama “William the Conqueror” set up with Ben Silverman’s Electus, with Pierre Morel (“Taken”) to direct.

n Sony Pictures TV is teaming with Germany’s Tandem and Scott Free TV on four-hour mini “Pompeii.”

n Tandem and Scott Free also announced medieval thriller “World Without End,” an eight-hour follow-up to “The Pillars of the Earth,” both based on author Ken Follett’s bestsellers.

n Canal Plus, Lagardere and Germany’s Beta are moving into production on “The Borgias,” per Beta prexy Jan Mojto.

n HBO, BBC, Beta and France Televisions are co-developing miniseries “August,” about the buildup to WWI.

n Paybox Sky Italia boarded Renaissance-set “The Medici,” set up at the BBC and Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine.

For pound- or Euro-pinching international TV markets, these uber-series are bold plays.

“The Medici” will cost around $2 million an episode, said Shine; Mojto puts “The Borgias” budget at $35 million.

They mesh, however, with new international TV economics.

“The economic downturn has reduced broadcasters’ budgets but not eliminated their absolute need to have the best of programming on schedules,” GK TV prexy Craig Cegielski said at Cannes.

Mojto agreed: “All networks are looking for cheaper programming, but there’s a need as well for high-class product.”

Many of the new high-end dramas involve Starz, which is also co-funding script development on “World,” and launched “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” at October’s Mipcom TV confab.

Starz prexy-CEO Chris Albrecht is a big believer in premium entertainment.

“Showtime has built a very distinct brand. HBO built a sort of colossus. I hope we’ll be entertaining,” Albrecht said after his Mip TV keynote.

International U.S. TV sales have been strong for decades, Nunez said.

Before deregulation on mainland Europe in the mid-1980s, pubcasters were the only game in town, and they bought Hollywood content in bulk. The launch of commercial broadcasters ramped up sales of U.S. shows even more and this continued until the new webs began to produce their own local content.

Things started to improve for Hollywood 10 years ago with such shows as “CSI.”

Early last decade, when Silverman first began pounding Mip TV’s Palais des Festivals halls tubthumping formats, he admitted that the real money in U.S. TV was in syndication.

Now much of the smart money’s in international, Albrecht said in his Mip keynote. “Selling your TV programs internationally isn’t new. But the central role that international market plays is.”

Gary Marenzi, MGM’s co-prexy of worldwide TV, said, “The big U.S. studios have a lot of development money and cash-flow from historical programs. Now only a handful of companies are able to do that. Others have to look at prudent co-productions or co-financing.”

Often made in Canada, Ireland and Germany, historical epics tap into bountiful co-production treaties and tax coin.

Compared with Hollywood studio drama budgets, even high-profile international productions don’t cost a fortune, making them attractive buys for U.S. networks, argued Fred Fuchs, of Canadian pubcaster CBC.

Two European series — “August” and “Pharaoh” — will be fully financed before approaching the U.S., but a Stateside deal would be icing on the cake.

Hollywood is not the only game in the global TV town.

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