Partners plan to lense ambitious historical drama in China

Starz is partnering with the Weinstein Co. and Electus on new original series “Marco Polo,” with an eye toward a premiere in the second half of 2013.

Harvey Weinstein developed the idea through conversations with Starz prexy/CEO Chris Albrecht, presenting it to Electus topper Ben Silverman and bringing on John Fusco (“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”) to write the pilot.

Described as a character-driven, martial arts epic that will lense in China, Weinstein billed the series as “one of the most expensive shows ever done for pay TV.”

“Marco” will kick off in the fa-mous explorer’s early years in the court of Kublai Khan. “It’s a great challenge to do and hopefully a legacy television show,” Weinstein told Variety, adding that “the fact that (Fusco) had traveled the Silk Road and was knowledgeable about Marco Polo was quite amazing,”

The series will have elements of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” elements.

“Clearly this is a powerful story that has European roots and Asian components and is inherently a global story,” Silverman said.

It falls into the wheelhouse of Starz, which has featured such shows as “Spartacus” and “Camelot.” A 10-hour first season, including a two-hour premiere, is planned.

“We certainly have a lot of interest in these semi-historical period pieces,” Albrecht said, “because I think they can be a lot of fun and play well, but they have to be more than just a retelling of history. When Harvey came to tell me it was ‘Marco Polo as Indiana Jones,’ that sounds like a really cool idea.”

Silverman and Albrecht added that combining that with martial arts and an exotic location that television has rarely explored helped seal the deal.

“It is very ambitious,” Silverman said. “We want to make a big epic series with visual trademarks that haven’t been seen in scripted television before.”

Fusco, Weinstein and Silverman will exec produce alongside Bob Weinstein.

Producers are aiming to begin principal shooting this summer in China at two main locations. The Marco Polo role is the only series regular who will be Caucasian.

“Much of casting will have to be done with Asian actors and hopefully Chinese actors,” Albrecht said, “because we want to make this authentic as possible.”

Starz Entertainment will own the exclusive license to the domestic premium pay TV rights and certain digital rights to the series for the Starz network, while Starz’s Anchor Bay arm will distribute the property in the United States in homevideo. The Weinstein Co. and Electus Intl. control all remaining rights.

“Understanding the international marketplace as well as production,” Albrecht said, “(Weinstein and Electus) have gone off and not just put together the resources to do this justice, but also the relationships in China that will hopefully allow us to do an ongoing series in China, which is very different from doing a theatrical movie for X number of weeks. … This will be expensive, but they’ve put together a great production team.”

Starz’ next series premiere is another period piece, albeit a more recent period: 1959-set “Magic City,” which bows April 6 with Mitch Glazer exec producing.

“We’re looking for these highly entertaining, fun, high-quality, popcorn-type shows that potentially have a broad appeal,” Albrecht said. “We’re going to bring the audience to a place where they’re going to want to visit on a regular basis.”

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