‘Zen’ and the art of co-production

Big-budget cop show unites biz firms in Europe and U.S.

Not that long ago a TV co-production involving the U.K., U.S., Italy and Germany would likely be a marriage of convenience. Creative compromise and low expectation would be the order of the day.

But financial pressures on broadcasters allied with audience demand for pricey high-end drama is changing the rules of engagement in the international TV business.

“More people who want quality drama aimed at adults are looking to TV, rather than cinema, to give them what they want,” says Andy Harries. His Left Bank Pictures produced “Zen,” one of the latest examples of how internationally funded projects are raising the creative bar with big-budget shows that bring film stars and bigscreen production values to the smallscreen.

“TV auds are a lot more demanding than they used to be, but even big broadcasters like the BBC can no longer afford to make high-quality drama on their own,” Harries says.

“They’ll pay £800,000 ($1.25 million) an hour, and in exceptional circumstances sometimes a little more. ‘Zen’ cost more than that.”

Harries says cinema is dominated by tentpole pictures that many adults don’t want to see.

“There is an opportunity for producers to fill that gap,” he says. “HBO does it in the U.S., and we’re trying to do it in Europe.”

“Zen,” three 90-minute films revolving around cop Aurelio Zen, is bankrolled by the BBC in association with Italy’s RTI (owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset), the U.S.’ Masterpiece Theater and German pubcaster ZDF. Additional coin came from U.K. media investors Ingenious, tech firm Lipsync and BBC Worldwide, which owns 25% of Left Bank and is distributing “Zen” outside the U.S., Italy and Germany.

The show stars Rufus Sewell as Zen, familiar to readers of the Michael Dibdin novels, and Caterina Murino (“Casino Royale”), who provides the love interest.

The pair are almost up-staged by “Zen’s” third star — Rome, where the program was filmed. The Italian capital was chosen deliberately to heighten the show’s prospects of success in overseas markets.

Its backers hope that “Zen,” which bows in the U.K. in January, will repeat the triumph of recent BBC hit “Sherlock” and, before that, “Wallander,” both strong global sellers.

The success of “Wallander,” also made by Left Bank with international coin, inspired Harries to develop “Zen.”

Unfortunately, his attempt to find the money coincided with the financial meltdown that brought many banks to their knees. The falling value of the pound against the dollar and the euro made raising finance harder still.

“Everyone wanted to pay a little bit less than we wanted. At one point it looked like Sky Italia would come in. At the last minute they pulled out. The real turning point was getting RTI involved,” Harries recalls.

Anyone familiar with the “Zen” stories will know that the picture the books paint of Italy is one that is instantly recognizable to Berlusconi’s critics.

Corruption is rife across politics and the police force, but that, argues Harries, is part of Italy’s appeal from a producer’s perspective.

“Italy is unlike anywhere else,” he says. “Even its TV is unique, which is why I was especially pleased to get RTI onboard. What we would call international TV doesn’t usually work for them.”

With luck, “Zen,” will be the exception that proves the rule.

In Italy, the program will screen in two versions, one dubbed and one subtitled.

“Frankly, ‘Zen’ is a gamble for the Italians,” Harries emphasizes. “I agreed all along that the female lead would be played by an Italian actress, and Caterina exceeded our expectations.”

In one of the “Zen” storylines filmed by Left Bank, a wealthy politician meets with disaster shortly after he is entertained by a pair of call girls. Wasn’t this a bit too close to the bone, given that Mediaset is owned by Berlusconi?

“We weren’t asked to water it down,” Harries insists. “Life in Italy has always been colorful.”