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Co-Prod Path Paved With Problems

A cop in Europe is shot dead. In a hospital he is reconstructed with the heart of an American, the brain of a German, the hands of an Italian and the eyes of a Frenchman. Voila! An international cop is born.

The idea is a pitch for an international co-production that Tom Gabbay, NBC London, recently received. ‘ This is the best pitch I’ve ever heard,” said Gabbay. “The guy was absolutely serious.” The project was turned down.

International co-productions are on the rise, and so are the problems that affect how they are put together. Producers must reconcile the cultural differences and viewing expectations of tv audiences in countries as varied as Germany, Italy, Great Britain and the U.S.

For example, a writer for the USA Network’s “Black Stallion” thought it would be funny to see topliner Mickey Rooney driving a French Deux Cheveaux, the awkward-looking Gallic version of the German Beetle. Rooney was to rent the car at a Paris airport. But reps of French co-producer M6 thought that using a Deux Cheveaux was too stereotypical for the French audience to accept.

After negotiation, the automobile was written out.

Martha Burke-Hennessy of MCA TV Intl., an old hand at international co-prods, says one must spend more time in preparation (concept, script development and shooting schedule) to avoid the type of incident that occurred on a WNET-Antenne 2 production several years ago.

“We were two months into production with an American director and French crew. All of a sudden the production halted. The director called me and said, ‘I can’t believe how incompetent the French are. They don’t know how to shoot.’ Then the French called me and said the director doesn’t know how to direct.”

Production was stopped for three weeks, and tens of thousands of dollars were lost.

The reason for the conflict? “It was a question of closeups. In moments of emotion, Americans come in close, but the French pull back. We resolved the conflict by double shooting the contentious scenes. Now we try to reconcile these problems before the shooting begins.”

CBS airs five latenight programs, four of which are produced with Europeans. CBS’ exec in charge of international co-prods, Rod Perth, noted, “We went into this with a degree of dread about the notion of having to compromise. We’re an American network used to getting our own way.”

One of his biggest headaches has been the difference in shooting styles between the French and American crews. “Sometimes we had to save the show in postproduction,” he said. “But you can’t make a show in post.”

The French lacked the experience of shooting an action-adventure series, he said. CBS also found that French footage lacked closeups, sufficient coverage and setup shots.

C’est vrai, says French producer Jacques Methe (actually a French-Canadian) of Atlantique, but he adds that the overall budget for each show is about $650,000, of which CBS puts in $200,000. “American networks aren’t used to working with such a small budget for action adventure. They’re getting 70% of the usual coverage but at 30% of the usual budget.”

One of the series shot with the French is co-produced with Stephen J. Cannell, “Scene Of The Crime.” Perth noted “Cannell’s influence is critical.”

Perth says CBS is pleased with the bulk of the latenight entries and the network’s co-production experience.

The biggest fear plaguing most networks and producers is that the creative and financial compromises they are forced to make will result in a product lacking that je ne sais quoi.

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