International co-prods experience growing pains

Russell Davies — the creator of “Torchwood” and “Queer as Folk” — has a knack for crafting attention-getting series. Yet if the former’s latest edition is any indication, the talented Welsh writer has a certain blind spot.

Writing American characters? Not really his cup of tea.

“Torchwood: Miracle Day” certainly looked good on paper. Starz and the BBC teamed up on the project, bringing a splashy and established cult franchise to the U.S. pay network, and providing additional resources to the British pubcaster. Davies doubled the length from his last “Torchwood” miniseries, subtitled “Children of Earth,” a length more traditional for an American cable show.

Still, a funny thing happened on the way to co-production nirvana. “Miracle Day” felt bloated, as if padding out its length. And the U.S. actors cast appeared ill-served by the writing and direction — easily the weakest links in Davies’ elaborate chain.

It’s just one series, but the experience underscores what those who have watched such international ventures have long noticed. While it sounds great to say programs will be partnerships to offset high production costs, the results often feel pulled in too many directions — like the old adage that a camel is a horse built by committee.

Certainly, the entertainment industry has become more global. Overseas box office for several movies far exceeded their North American haul, prompting the editor of boxoffice.com to tell the New York Times in regard of such revenues, the U.S. is “just another territory now.”

Movies and TV are different animals, and blockbuster features built around special effects tend to travel better than character-driven fare, which represents episodic television’s life blood. Starz has focused on escapist concepts — seeking to build on the success of its blood-splattering “Spartacus” — but practically speaking, there’s only so much stuff a TV show can blow up.

“I like the fact that I can afford a helicopter chase now and again,” Davies told the Los Angeles Times when “Torchwood” premiered. “But the real drama is the character moments.”

Some barriers to international collaboration have clearly eroded. The availability of networks like BBC America has brought more British production to discriminating U.S. viewers, beyond just “Masterpiece Theater.” In addition, formats now regularly cross international borders, with Israeli concepts providing the template for such adaptations as Showtime’s upcoming “Homeland” and HBO’s “In Treatment.”

Given the desirability of fresh programming year-round, American networks have also grown more open to acquiring imports. Stretching limited budgets has meant buying international (mostly Canadian) dramas, such as ABC’s “Rookie Blue” and CBS’ “Flashpoint,” albeit mostly for use as summer filler.

More concerted efforts are also planned. On the heels of “Torchwood’s” premiere, Starz and the BBC announced a multiyear agreement to co-develop series, with Starz chairman-CEO Chris Albrecht saying that “forging strong international partnerships would play centerstage in financing our ramp-up of dynamic original programming.”

Despite what you might hear at a Republican presidential debate, U.S. viewers do appear more welcoming toward the world. After all, many of TV’s most popular stars (Simon Cowell, anyone?) wouldn’t be eligible to run for president.

Yet the history of international co-production certainly isn’t characterized by full-scale cooperation. It’s more frequently been a hunt for favorable monetary exchange rates or tax credits, with inevitable concessions to hiring local talent and crews in order to receive them. And while there’s a surplus of international talent starring in scripted shows, it’s no accident most of them (Hugh Laurie, Simon Baker, Alex O’Loughlin) still keep their native accents conspicuously hidden.

Ideally, having international partners will allow for interesting creative bets, yielding the benefits of shared risk and rewards, and thus offering a hedge against audience fragmentation.

Even so, as the latest “Torchwood” demonstrated, there are still creative hurdles to achieving the minor miracle of international co-production’s full promise — beginning with the fact that accommodating the dietary needs of extra chefs has a way of complicating the process.

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