This week, as Cannes’ Mipcom TV mart is in full swing, principal photography begins on big-budget epic “Borgia.” If it clicks, it will help change the ecology of European TV production.
Starring John Doman (“The Wire”) as Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492; Brit actor Mark Ryder as son Cesare; and Isolda Dychauk as daughter Lucrezia, the 12-seg “Borgia” breaks many molds.
Its $35 million budget consolidates a new benchmark for high-end European series set by a trio of previously announced productions.
They are BSkyB’s $27 million “Sinbad,” being produced by BBC Worldwide and Impossible Pictures; plus “Versailles” and “Pharaoh,” which cost $30 million-$35 million per season. Latter two are co-financed, like “Borgia,” by Gallic paybox giant Canal Plus.
Also ground-breaking, “Borgia” melds the know-how of U.S. showrunner Tom Fontana (“Oz,” “The Philanthropist”) with European production and finance.
“In Europe we don’t as yet have showrunners of this level of talent,” says Canal Plus COO Rodolphe Belmer. “But we have good directors, subjects and stories and a robust production industry, which knows how to work at cost-efficient levels.”
Fontana wrote episodes one and 12 plus the stories for other segs and worked with writers on individual scripts.
Germany’s Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall”) directs the first four segs; France’s Philippe Haim (“Secrets of State”) shepherds episodes five to eight.
“Borgia” is produced by France’s Atlantique Prods., a subsid of Lagardere Entertainment; Prague’s Etic; and Germany’s EOS, part of Jan Mojto’s Beta Film, which handles world sales.
There is no U.S. money in the project, probably because Neil Jordan is showrunning a rival mini, “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons, for Showtime and Canada’s CTV.
However, Fontana’s “Borgia” pulls down European tax breaks. It’s shooting at Prague’s Barrandov studios and at churches and castles in and around Prague so it qualifies for new 20% Czech rebates on local spend, Atlantique CEO Klaus Zimmermann says.
Also, French TV regs introduced last year allow Gallic English-language series to count toward French broadcasters’ European programming quotas.
“That’s completely changed the scale of our goals and productions,” says Lagardere CEO Takis Candilis.
“Borgia” is partly inspired by a renewed interest in historical series. “I was in Rodolphe Belmer’s office,” Candilis recalls. “He’d just broadcast ‘The Tudors’ to huge success. ‘Why can’t we do this in France?’ he asked.”
Candilis suggested “Borgia” and contacted former HBO topper Chris Albrecht, then at Foresee Entertainment, who brought in Fontana.
Passionately researched by Fontana, a second-generation Italian-American, “Borgia” breaks with past depictions. “The Borgia family’s reputation is evil through and through,” Fontana says. “Historically, that’s not accurate.”
He says the Borgias were victims of a smear campaign by Alexander VI’s successor, Pope Julius II, to ensure no Borgia became pope again.
The first season centers on Rodrigo Borgia’s rise to pope. He “strives very hard to change the way business in done in Rome but finds that corruption is so embedded in the day-to-day workings of government that it’s virtually impossible to make a huge difference,” Fontana says. “The circumstances President Obama finds himself in today are not very different.”
The second season will focus on Cesare and the third largely on Lucrezia.
“Borgia” underscores Canal Plus’ production ambitions. Original programming builds “exclusivity of content and channel image,” Belmer says, adding that 30% of new subscribers sign up for U.S. series and original programming.
Mojto will kick off “Borgia’s” sales campaign at Mipcom.
“These are incredible characters in a period when everything was opening up and an old world was finishing,” Mojto says. “It’s very much about today.”