Hallmark set to shoot Bible

Peacock undecided on target air-date

In what could be the most expensive miniseries ever launched for broadcast TV, NBC Studios and Hallmark Entertainment are planning a massive 12-hour epic called “The Bible,” with Richard Attenborough executive producing.

Details of the project are still in the discussion stage, but Attenborough will be heavily involved in the creative aspects and is expected to star in and direct some of the two-hour installments.

NBC has not yet decided on a target airdate for the biblical series, although one source said it would be ideal for the November sweeps of 1999 to mark the turn of the millennium. “The Bible” could air over six consecutive evenings or over several weeks.

The estimated budget could go as high as $150 million, which is more than double the cost of any previous TV miniseries.

“The Bible” will feature stories of the Old Testament and will culminate with the birth of Jesus Christ.

“We’ve never done anything of this magnitude before,” said Lindy DeKoven, exec VP of miniseries and movies for NBC Entertainment and NBC Studios. “It’s something only he (Hallmark Entertainment chairman Robert Halmi Sr.) could do. It’s definitely a risk, but that’s what we’ve hung our hat on.”

The Peacock project follows another biblical extravaganza co-produced by Ted Turner’s TNT, Italy’s RAI and Germany’s Kirch Group. Twenty-one installments of the series have aired over several years, and the total tab for that project is estimated to be about $120 million.

Plans for NBC’s ambitious Bible mini started to gel during the celebration of Hallmark’s wildly successful “Merlin,” which was the highest-rated NBC mini among young adults in more than a decade. The ink is not yet dry on how much of the tab NBC will pick up for “The Bible,” although sources say it may be about half.

NBC is close to signing writers for the project, which will be executive produced by Hallmark’s Halmi. “The Bible” extends Hallmark Entertainment’s fruitful relationship with NBC, which has resulted in such mini hits as “Gulliver’s Travels” in February 1996, and “The Odyssey” last May.

Hallmark Entertainment is also working on a movie for NBC based on Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” as well as another Biblical miniseries for NBC, “Noah’s Ark.”

Attenborough, repped by CAA, is one of the leading lights of the British film industry, having produced, directed and starred in numerous films since the 1940s. His recent acting credits include “Jurassic Park” and its sequel “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Hamlet” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

His earlier films include “The Flight of the Phoenix” in 1965, “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” in 1964, “The L-Shaped Room” in 1962, “Dr. Dolittle” in 1967 and “10 Rillington Place” in 1970.

Attenborough also produced and directed the Oscar-winning film “Gandhi,” “Cry Freedom,” “In Love and War,” “Shadowlands” and “Chaplin,” and he directed “A Chorus Line.”