Foreign financing puts producers on alternative paths to primetime

Nothing is generating more heat in television’s creative community these days than the new sources of production financing that are emerging for primetime scripted series.

CBS’ move to leverage SVOD rights to help pay for its ambitious summer 2013 series “Under the Dome” is a sign that the rulebook is being rewritten in real time. All of the activity from companies with roots outside the U.S. (think Gaumont, eOne, BBC Worldwide, Cineflix, Georgeville/Reliance) is invigorating for a marketplace that has been dominated by the major studios and networks since the end of the “Texaco Star Theater” era when advertisers directly bankrolled production.

A pioneer in taking a roundabout alternative path to the airwaves is Tom Fontana’s historical drama series “Borgia” — not to be confused with Showtime’s “The Borgias” from Neil Jordan. The Canal Plus series has completed two seasons on major European outlets, among other territories, and Netflix in the U.S. A third season pickup is expected soon, after which there will be a push to shop the rerun rights to a basic cabler.

By all rights, “Borgia” never should have seen the light of day given the hurdles it faced at the outset. And just a few years ago it would have been unheard of for an in-demand showrunner like Fontana to commit to shepherding a series for anything other than a major U.S. network. But the import-export traffic in TV creatives has grown substantially in recent years. Talent tends to follow the money, after all.

The concept for the costumer about the villainous Italian clan began in 2008 with execs at Atlantique Prods., one of 18 production units owned by Gaul media conglom Lagardere.

Atlantique topper Klaus Zimmerman had seen how well French TV giant Canal Plus had done with historical epics imported from the U.S. such as HBO’s “Rome” and Showtime’s “The Tudors.” He thought the exploits of the Borgias during the Renaissance era would be good fodder for a series, lensed in English, that would have appeal on both sides of the Atlantic.

To help ensure a sale in the U.S., Zimmerman set his sights on recruiting a big-name writer-producer. Lagardere helped put him in touch with Chris Albrecht, who had exited HBO at the time but had not yet landed at Starz. Albrecht facilitated the connection to Fontana, with whom he’d worked closely with on the drama series “Oz” at HBO. Albrecht’s hunch that Fontana would jump at the chance to tell the story of the Borgias proved right.

Atlantique was starting to work out the numbers and scout for Euro financing partners when the news surfaced of the other “Borgias” project, from Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks TV. With that series securing a commitment from Showtime, Atlantique’s series was seemingly dead in the water. (There was a brief attempt to “merge” the two projects but it was a creative non-starter for both camps.)

But Zimmerman and his boss, Lagardere Entertainment secretary-general Olivier Bibas, didn’t want to quit, given the interest in the project at Canal Plus. They greenlit production of 12 hours with the understanding that Atlantique would be on the hook for hefty deficit financing if other territories failed to bite on their Borgias. Fontana spent a good chunk of 2010 in and around Prague, where the first season was shot using U.K. and Euro talent, above and below the line.

“We all started with a very big ambition, and then we had to lower our expectations, and then our ambition rose up again,” Zimmerman says.

The perseverance paid off. As soon as Atlantique had some early footage to show, buyers in key major territories signed on. So did Netflix. Zimmerman credits Fontana’s attention to detail and dedication to overseeing every aspect of the show, down to the nitty gritty post-production detail work done from through the editing facilities at his home in lower Manhattan.

Atlantique’s deal with Netflix allows for a U.S. cable rerun sale, which would be the icing on the cake for the team that took the initial leap of faith. UTA, which reps Fontana, will help steer that process next year.

Although the “Borgia” saga has been closely watched by many in Europe, Zimmerman is cautious about drawing too many conclusions even as Atlantique pursues more cross-border productions. The most important lesson from the experience, he says, is recognizing that every show is its own animal — despite the industry’s yearning for templates and predictable models.

“So far every show is set up differently. You can’t replicate it,” he says. “You really have to open up your mind to break new ground. It’s a learning process for us.”

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