Can Holmes solve co-prod mystery?

Project on the case for international financing

LONDON — Finding a fail-safe route to successful co-production in television is a task worthy of a great mind accustomed to solving complex problems.

So why not hire the services of English fiction’s greatest crime buster, Sherlock Holmes, whose casebook has inspired scripts on both sides of the Atlantic?

“There aren’t many characters that possess the universal appeal of Sherlock Holmes,” opines Beryl Vertue, the British showbiz veteran who chairs U.K. shingle Hartswood Films.

It is this thinking that led Hartswood and BBC Worldwide to collaborate on a contemporary reworking of the great Victorian sleuth entitled “Sherlock.” Three 90-minute films, scripted by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous detective, will air next year.

Though Vertue is confident the show will attract co-production coin from both the U.S. and continental Europe, the project is nevertheless at odds with the challenging economy, which has led to a lot of commissioners being forced to cut their drama output and take fewer creative risks. Where international co-productions are concerned, broadcasters generally are demanding a greater say in casting and other key decisions, while keeping a tighter rein on budgets.

“Broadcasters want co-productions to (look expensive), but they don’t want to pay the full tariff, and they are looking for producers to come up with new approaches to funding,” says Donna Wiffen, newly appointed vice president of production and networks for worldwide drama at FremantleMedia.

Wiffen is an experienced executive in the black art that is co-production and its associated complex financing models, having worked previously at Endemol and U.K. shingle Talkback Thames. From her perspective, co-production is becoming ever more complex, especially because potential U.S. partners are reluctant to invest in unproven properties at a time when traditional revenue sources are no longer guaranteed. In common with Hartswood’s Vertue, she thinks that before the accountants and lawyers get down to work, the script must be able to transcend national boundaries.

“There is no point in trying to sell a program that is parochial or culturally exclusive to one territory,” Wiffen says. “People have got to understand that it is the co-producer who puts in the majority of the money that has the most say. It’s as simple as that.”

In this respect, a company’s size can be critical. As Hartswood knows to its benefit, having a big backer like BBC Worldwide onboard “Sherlock” helps enormously. The pair worked together successfully on “Jekyll,” made in partnership with BBC America.

So what is it like from the perspective of a broadcaster?

Remy Blumenfeld, who last year joined U.K. terrestrial web ITV as director of global formats after having successfully established hit formats like the transgender reality show “There’s Something About Miriam” at British indie Brighter Pictures, is an experienced hand at dealing on the international stage.

“The co-production model is very much alive for us at ITV,” Blumenfeld declares. “In a downturn, buyers go for shows that are proven and have worked in as many markets as possible.”

Consequently, most of the shows under Blumenfeld’s purview tend to be established in at least one territory.

“For a co-production to work, you need to have a partner with an in-depth knowledge of the local market,” he adds.

For the Indian version of hit reality skein “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!,” in which celebs have to survive the rigors of life in the bush, ITV Studios formed a partnership with Sony TV India and local shingle MidiTech.

Even so, not everything was plain sailing. In the U.K., “Celebrity” runs for 20 episodes — just under three weeks. Spending any longer in the jungle was considered inappropriate for celebrities suffering withdrawal symptoms from their home comforts. But India had originally requested 60 episodes. Eventually, India settled for 40, still twice the length of the British show.

“They helped us take that leap which otherwise we wouldn’t have done,” Blumenfeld recalls.

Inevitably, relationship-building becomes more important during times of financial uncertainty. BBC Worldwide has established long-standing co-prod relationships by working extensively with Discovery and WGBH, the Boston PBS station, for at least 20 years.

Even so, Worldwide’s Los Angeles-based Matt Forde, executive vice president of co-

production and sales, warns that none of these partnerships can be taken for granted.

“You need to know people a long time. That way we can truly deliver something that will work in at least two markets,” he says. “There’s a lot of legwork involved.”

As raising coin gets ever harder, the mysterious route to uncovering a successful co-production is certain to get even longer. Another case for Sherlock Holmes.