‘Marco Polo’ Premiere: Netflix Launches Bid for 13th Century Empire to Conquer the Globe

Zhu Zhu, Benedict Wong, Cindy Holland,
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Netflix staged a New York affair with an Asian flair for the world premiere of epic series “Marco Polo,” its first original period drama — and one of its most expensive shows to date.

“Marco Polo,” about the 13th century Italian explorer’s adventures in the land of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, is produced by The Weinstein Co., marking the studio’s first scripted dramatic TV project. Netflix reportedly is paying $90 million for the 10-episode first season, shot primarily in Kazakhstan and at Malaysia’s Pinewood Studios as well as Venice.

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said the series is the company’s most ambitious original programming event in terms of size and scope, encompassing a cast and crew of some 800 people who spoke 26 languages.

“It’s a world you would have never seen before on television,” he said at the series premiere Tuesday in New York City. The international sweep of “Marco Polo” parallels Netflix’s global ambitions. But Sarandos said the success of the show rides on “great storytelling, not that it’s in an international setting.”

“Marco Polo” has drawn comparisons to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” with its medieval feel, which includes big battles, swordplay and political machinations. Harvey Weinstein happily played up the linkage, claiming “Marco Polo” may be the biggest TV production ever with the exception of “Game of Thrones.”

“It might look like ‘Game of Thrones,’ but it sure didn’t cost what ‘Game of Thrones’ did,” said Weinstein. He noted that the production benefitted from tax incentives extended by Malaysia and other countries.

Weinstein said (several times) that he viewed the series as a 10-hour movie, and claimed it was the first time in his career he never cut anything out of a film. “I think Netflix has invented a new paradigm for television,” he said. “It lets you tell a story the way you want to tell it.”

Series creator John Fusco (“The Forbidden Kingdom,” the “Young Guns” films) said he was inspired to develop the story of Marco Polo after a trip he took with his son through Mongolia to cross part of Genghis Khan’s trail on horseback.

“The thing is, Marco Polo has been buried under this dusty shroud of myth,” Fusco said. “If you read his accounts, it’s much more exciting than how most people think of him.”

The title character is played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy. The story opens with the Polo family’s three-year trek from Venice to Mongolia — after which Marco’s father offers him to Kublai Khan (played by British thesp Benedict Wong) as a servant.

Joan Chen, who plays Empress Chabi, Kublai Khan’s wife and adviser, said she was impressed by the full dedication of the cast and crew to the series, especially the attention to detail. “Everybody felt like we were doing something special,” she said. “That’s a great environment to work in.”

Cast also includes Remy Hill (Prince Jingim, the Khan’s son), actor and martial artist Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes, Marco’s blind fighting instructor), Olivia Cheng (imperial concubine Mei Lin) and Zhu Zhu (Kokachin, the princess who catches Marco’s eye).

Producers of “Marco Polo” have played up the scale of the project. At its peak, the production team included a construction crew of 400 and an art department of 160. The sets, including 51 sets in Malaysia, required 130 tons of plaster and 1.6 tons of silicone while exterior shooting in Kazakhstan required creating weaponry and other gear from scratch.

All 10 episodes of “Marco Polo” will become available to Netflix members worldwide Dec. 12. That’s nearly 50 countries, which is “more than Marco Polo ever dreamed of visiting,” Fusco quipped.

Executive producers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) directed the pilot. The series is also executive-produced by Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein, as well as Fusco, Dan Minahan (whose credits include “Game of Thrones” and “Homeland”), and Ben Silverman and Chris Grant of Electus. Patrick Macmanus is co-executive producer.

Separately, The Weinstein Co. reached a pact with Netflix to release “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend,” the sequel to the 2000 martial arts movie, simultaneously online and in Imax theaters in August 2015. That film, by the way, is written by John Fusco.

The “Marco Polo” premiere took place at Manhattan’s AMC Lincoln Square, with an after-party hosted at Tavern on the Green.

(Pictured: Zhu Zhu, Benedict Wong, Netflix’s Cindy Holland, Lorenzo Richelmy and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos at the New York premiere of “Marco Polo”)

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