SAINT PETERSBURG — If the average going rate for a European blockbuster TV miniseries is around $18 million, imagine what a budget twice as large could produce.
Such is the thinking behind “War and Peace,” a $36 million TV version of Leo Tolstoy’s 19th-century classic about the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Russian families, being co-produced by seven countries, with actors from 10.
Italy’s Lux Vide and pubcaster arm RAI Fiction together kicked in almost half the finances. Another big chunk of change comes from Germany’s Eos Film and pubcaster ZDF. France’s Pampa Prods. and France TV, Spain’s Grupo Interconomia and Poland’s Grupo Filmowa and Polsat also are adding their bit to the pot.
Russian pubcaster TV Channel Russia (formerly RTR) is providing production facilities, while Austria gets in on the act via Eos’ Austrian film arm.
It’s the latest high-profile historical mini for Eos and Lux Vide — they have worked together on a number of projects including “Imperium: Augustus,” starring Peter O’Toole, and “Pope John XXIII,” which starred Ed Asner as the late pontiff.
“War and Peace” is hailed as one of Europe’s largest TV co-productions, but the four-episode extravaganza could just as easily be described as Europe’s largest TV gamble.
“Everyone is looking for two-day stories these days,” says Eos Film prexy Jan Mojto. “Four nights makes it more difficult in principle. … You have to convince program controllers that they will win on four evenings.”
Eos, Lux and Pampa execs all say the film, which involves shooting for 20 weeks at 105 locations in Russia and Lithuania, would be too expensive for one production house to pull off individually.
Even so, the coin contributed by each is among the biggest investments they’ve made for a single project.
The collective pull carried some weight when it came to casting. The project features some of Europe’s finest young actors — Germany’s Alexander Beyer (“Leningrad”), France’s Clemence Poesy (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) and Italy’s Alessio Boni (“The Best of Youth”) — plus established stars Brenda Blethyn and Malcolm McDowell.
The size of the project also helped convince TV Channel Russia to join the project.
On the set, a former Romanov palace in St. Petersburg, Sergey Shumakov, deputy general director of TV Channel Russia, says the broadcaster is anxious to cut further deals with outside production companies to shoot Russian classics in the land of Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Even shooting in English, as “War and Peace” is doing, is not a problem, he adds.
While the Russians have made little fuss about the language, they have kept a close eye on production to ensure Tolstoy’s world is not given an indistinguishable foreign gloss.
The minus side of such a huge co-production? Differences of opinion and national taste, which could turn the mini into a Europudding.
The production partners all aired their preferences and dislikes before shooting began. These ran from playing up the romance (as the Italians favor) to sticking with more battle scenes (for the Germans).
Romanian-born director Robert Dornhelm is left to juggle the multiplicity of tastes and to cut two versions of varying lengths. The final product will run 360 minutes in Germany, but 400 minutes in Italy.
He sums up the pre-production collaboration as, “in some cases, quite natural. At other times, unproductive.”
However, Lux VP and co-producer Matilde Bernabei calls the project a “future laboratory for Europe’s TV industry.”
The producers are confident Tolstoy’s tale of romance and war will appeal to more than just the literary set when it airs next summer in Europe.
The classic-lit genre is already a winner with auds in Russia, where recent adaptations include Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.”
As Dornhelm says, the hope is that HBO “or another channel with an interest in Russian literature” will extend the film’s reach beyond Europe. Eos recently partnered with HBO and the BBC on “Rome,” which may give it some sway in both camps.
Lux, which has developed strong ties overseas after its successful Bible-themed miniseries, has the rights for all English-speaking markets. Its past broadcast partners include CBS and Turner.
It hopes to have an announcement on buyers at next spring’s Mip TV mart in Cannes, a make-or-break moment for the project.
As Mojto says, money was a principle theme for Tolstoy. Once shooting stops next month, it will be bigger than ever.