Spanish TV looks to rich history of province

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A legendary beauty in her youth, she sought to succeed in a male world. After her husband’s untimely death, she battled for power with her son and governed her family with an iron fist for more than 50 years.

This is no oil-empire soap opera but a miniseries about Ermessenda, countess of Barcelona, who helped forge a united Catalonia in the early 11th century, becoming a kind of queen of kings.

“Ermessenda” is also the latest flagship fiction series from Catalan pubcaster TVC, which aims to turn high-profile historical drama into one of its key draws at home and abroad.

It’s not alone in this ambition. On the ?2.1 million ($2.7 million) “Ermessenda,” the Barcelona-based Ovideo co-produces with backing by the Catalan Institute for Cultural Industries (ICIC) and Spanish pubcaster TVE.

Helmed by Lluis Maria Guell and starring Laia Marull and Luis Homar, “Ermessenda” is another step in TVC’s drive into high-budget period fiction that began with 2008′s “Serrallonga.” Bavaria Films sold that miniseries worldwide. The $5 million multi-parter, about a legendary 16th century Catalan bandit, achieved a 20.3% market share and 655,000 viewers in Catalonia.

“Our goal with ‘Serrallonga’ was very ambitious. We aim to make one event product per year, aiming for prestige and branding,” says TVC head of co-productions Susana Jimenez. Her TVC department has a $20 million budget this year to fund animation, cinema and TV fiction.

“Movies depend on public coin that you get two years later; TV is clearer in its business model and faster in recoupment,” says Mar Targarona, director of TVC’s most recent miniseries production, “An Eye for an Eye,” which tells of the 1917-1922 anarchist-government conflicts in Barcelona.

TV production increases cash flow, vital in a downturn. TV production is also an accessible alternative for producers at a time when new government regs aim to reduce movie production levels — 186 features were made in Spain in 2009.

“Above all, TV means time. Miniseries are a wonderful invention to fill in TV grids,” says TV analyst Manuel de Luna.

TVC’s high-end fiction also has international aspirations.

“Over the last few years, period TV dramas have built a regular presence at markets, and they still work well,” says producer Albert Sagales (2009 mini “Les veus del Pamano”) at Diagonal TV-Endemol.

“We sold ‘Serrallonga’ to Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, Middle East, Iran, Latin America and Eastern Europe. We also expect good sales results for ‘Eye’ and ‘Pamano,’ ” says Bavaria Pictures production topper Philipp Kreuzer, who is confident about closing deals at Mipcom.

“Period miniseries face difficulties in interesting audiences in other countries,” says Luna.

“?’Ermessenda’ turns on universal values,” counters Victor Carrera, TVC head of international relations.

“We want to build a cultural heritage while delivering entertainment,” Jimenez says.

Like Spain at large, Catalonia has a long history that has been explored little in TV. That, if Catalonia has anything to do with it, looks about to change.

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