Euro partners set sail on $30 million ‘Titanic’

Miniseries coincides with centenary of ship's maiden voyage

LONDON — Thanks to the popularity of glossy big-budget period fare, Ireland’s Howth Castle, a short drive from downtown Dublin, will finally find its place in film — alongside the Titanic.

The last time the imposing castle was used in a film set was back in 1977; its mock gothic architecture looked perfect for a vampire movie, but the picture went over-budget and was never completed.

This time around, there’s no danger of the film’s coin running out — despite the grim European economy, and the fact that the driving force behind the show is an Italian producer-distributor; “Titanic: Blood and Steel,” a 12-part miniseries timed to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s disastrous maiden voyage next April, is backed by more than $30 million of co-production finance, tax credits and presales, and is the biggest production seen this side of the Irish Sea since HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

TV projects of this scale and ambition, especially one devoted to what is an Anglo-American story involving the most widely known civilian nautical disaster of the 20th century, are usually driven by either U.S. or U.K. money, or a mix of both. On “Titanic,” however, it is continental Europeans who have invested in the skein.

The idea is to parlay what appears to be a healthy appetite in the global market for high-end period sagas, especially those set in the 20th century, be they “Downton Abbey,” “Boardwalk Empire” or even “Pan-Am” — which may not be flying high in the U.S., but is solidly business-class overseas.

“The chief investors are Italy, Germany and Spain,” explains De Angelis Group managing director Andrea Zoso, the Rome-based company that developed “Titanic” and is lead producer and rights holder.

Approximately three-quarters of the financing was provided by Italian pubcaster RAI, Germany’s Tandem Communication and broadcaster Antena 3 in Spain, with presales and tax credits making up the rest.

Other partners include Los Angeles-based 3 Arts, Blighty’s Artists Studio, Gaul’s Marathon Group, Ireland’s Epos Films and the Irish Film Board. Distribution is being handled by Tandem Communications and 3 Arts in the U.S., with Zodiak handling the rest of the world excluding Italy, Germany and Spain.

“We are not exactly re-inventing the wheel in terms of how we financed the series,” Zoso says, “but it is an unusual business model for an international TV production.”

Insofar as no licensing deals have been signed in either the U.S. or the U.K., the risks might be higher, but the rewards are potentially greater.

Continental European co-producers appear more willing to allow Des Angelis to take the bulk of the back end, as well as to have creative control, than a U.S. or a British partner would be, according to Zoso.

Zoso says there was a determination that no more than three main protagonists would be involved in order to avoid too much horse-trading among the multiple production partners over matters like casting. He says the Germans were entirely relaxed over such matters, but that RAI insisted on an Italian female lead, while a cameo featuring a Spanish journalist was written in to keep Antenna 3 happy.

“This is not a pan-European show, but an international co-production aimed at English-speaking markets,” emphasizes Nicola De Angelis, co-executive producer of the project.

Inasmuch as the mini’s story is set before the Titanic’s launch, De Angelis says the project has more or less no overlap with James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar winner.

“It is a fascinating narrative, because at the center of the story is the American Dream, and the idea of people leaving Europe, including Italians who had emigrated to Ireland, to start a new life in America,” De Angelis adds, calling the show an action-based period drama. “There is political and business intrigue, sectarian problems between Catholics and Protestants, labor unrest and the beginning of women’s emancipation.”

De Angelis says that period drama sells better internationally than do contemporary stories, because modern-day fare is too culturally specific.

With an Irish director (“The Tudors’?” Ciaran Donnelly), English writers (Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet) and a multinational cast (Americans Chris Noth and “Gossip Girl’s” Kevin Zegers, Brit Derek Jacobi, Canadian Neve Campbell and Italian Alessandra Mastronardi), the film is certainly aiming for wide appeal.

Another international touch: A 90% replica of the Titanic was created in an abandoned arms factory in Serbia, scouted by production designer Tom Conroy (“The Tudors,” “Camelot”). And standing in for the boardroom at Harland and Wolff, the Belfast-based builder of the ocean liner — none other than one of the Howth Castle’s grand salons.

Conroy sees the story as being more universal than that of “Downton Abbey.” “I hope people will get a sense of the life of the time,” he says.

The mini ends as the passengers embark on that fateful day in the spring of 1912, but De Angelis hopes that isn’t the finish for the company’s association with the Titanic theme; already in development is another 12-parter, taking up the story of the inquiries into why the ship sank so easily and what fate had in store for some of the survivors.

That miniseries would face stiff competition from a retelling of the Titanic voyage made by U.K. web ITV and prebought by ABC in the U.S. Its creator? Julian Fellowes, on a roll thanks to “Downton Abbey.”