TV’s 20-seg Euro Bible study starts

OUARZAZATE, Morocco — German TV mogul Leo Kirch and veteran Italian producer Ettore Bernabei are banking their very souls on the Bible.

The two partners have just put the finishing touches on the first installment in what may end up one of the most ambitious — and costly — TV productions of the ’90s: An adaptation of the entire Old Testament in 20 episodes for an unprecedented $ 100 million investment over the next five years.

The story of Abraham, toplining Richard Harris as the Old Testament prophet and Barbara Hershey as his wife, Sarah, wrapped in Morocco last weekend after some 14 years of development and $ 12 million in costs.

Kirch is one of the most prolificproducers of TV miniseries in Europe, often partnering with Italian or French broadcasters or indie producers on prime time projects.

Bernabei made his reputation in television as head of Italy’s pubcaster RAI back in the ’60s, and went back into independent production several years ago.

Ted Turner recently picked up North American TV and homevideo rights to the “Abraham” sequence with an option to pick up the rest of the megaseries for a reported $ 4 million price tag.

LUBE — the joint company set up by Bernabei’s production entity Lux and Kirch’s counterpart Beta — is betting on the worldwide popularity of the Bible to help propel sales of the 20 installments.

LUBE exex say the series will put a lot of emphasis on historical accuracy and will be sensitive to the beliefs and traditions of Jews and Christians alike.

In addition to TV sales the company hopes to make in upcoming months, an interactive version of the series is planned, as is a sell-through Christmas or Easter video package.

Says Beta topper Jan Mojto: “If this flops, we will produce another two or three (episodes), and only if they flop will we stop the series.”

In other words, Kirch and Bernabei have to sink a lot more money into the project before they know whether they have a hit. The development of the series alone reportedly cost up to $ 10 million.

Although scripts and casts are not yet complete, the next installments planned are “Jacob,””Joseph” and “Moses.” The series’ average production costs per installment are set at about $ 5.5 million for a 96-minute seg. (“Abraham” consists of two 96-minute parts.)

In addition, Italo helmer Ermanno Olmi is to script and direct a 100-minute prologue in Italian about the Creation. This art house-like introduction may or may not be incongruous with the rest of the English-language TV series.