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Italy’s TV Producers Turn to Crime Series for Global Sales

Boosted by the international sales success of mob series “Gomorrah,” Italy’s expanding TV production community, led by Sky Italia and shingle Cattleya, is hoping to spark a trend among buyers, much as Denmark’s “The Killing” prompted the Nordic Noir phenom. Call this one, perhaps, Italian Immorality.

The rise of high-quality TV dramas is not new. For the past decade, U.S. skeins energized global sales for Hollywood product, and pushed the international creative community to raise its game. According to the MPAA, U.S. global film and TV exports stand at $14.3 billion. Now an invigorated
Italian TV biz wants in on an international business that is surging in Europe, where 42% of viewers list drama series as their favorite type of programming, according to a recent Eurodata TV report.

Italy’s hourlong dramas are all English-language, and two feature narratives with shady protagonists: “ZeroZeroZero,” from author Roberto Saviano (on whose bestselling book “Gomorrah” was based), chronicles the global cocaine trade; “Diabolik” depicts a pulpy 1960s-era thief in the title role. A third, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope,” focuses, unconventionally, on a character who becomes the first Italian-American pontiff.

The new series are looking to draft off the success of Sky Italia’s “Crime Novel” and “Gomorrah,” both produced by Cattleya, the latter of which sold to more than 60 territories (including the U.S., to the Weinstein Co.) — a first for Italian television. “Crime Novel” did business in 35 territories.

There are plenty of buyers for European product. The BBC Worldwide announced a 3% rise in sales this year over last, to $1.9 billion. Eurodata notes that the number of Euro skeins playing on French TV has doubled since 2009.

“As ‘Gomorrah’ demonstrated, there is an enormous creative and production potential in Italy, and in Europe, to develop TV series that can define a new genre of original content,” says Sky Italia programming exec VP Andrea Scrosati. Scrosati credits a new generation of writers, the growth of world-class European production entities, and a deep pool of talent for the rise in exports of European productions, but adds a kicker: “In our territories,” he notes, “we can manage timing of these projects without the forced steps required by the U.S. pilot pickup model.”

Cattleya has big plans for “Zero-ZeroZero,” based on a recent Saviano bestseller. “It’s basically about a load of cocaine that has a very eventful story arc, which unfolds in many different parts of the planet,” says Cattleya founder and co-topper Riccardo Tozzi. The company is shopping the series to prospective international partners including Studio Canal and Universal, as well as to Sky and Germany’s Beta Cinema.

The high-concept saga follows a drug shipment from Colombia to Mexico to the mountainous parts of Calabria, in Southern Italy, site of the traffickers’ main underground hub, and through a number of international cities and regions, including London, Boston, the port of New Orleans, the south of France and Africa, where drug packets are swallowed by “mules” for transport.

“We want to show all the dynamics of cocaine trafficking in very realistic detail,” Tozzi says. Cattleya plans to enlist U.S. scribes, with “Gomorrah” helmer Stefano Sollima set to direct.

“Diabolik,” based on a popular Italian comicbook about a master thief who takes on different identities and steals from other criminals, is a live-action series that marks the first joint project for Sky Italia — which originated the show — BSkyB and Sky Deutschland. Production designer Dante Ferretti is building the set at Cinecitta Studios for the hourlong, which has a 10-episode order and is targeting an American writing and directing team, though names haven’t been announced.

Meanwhile, Sky Italia’s “The Young Pope,” co-written by Sorrentino (this year’s foreign-language Oscar winner for “The Great Beauty”) along with, among others, British scribe Tony Grisoni (“Southcliffe”), boasts an international setting — with locations in Italy, Vatican City, the U.S. and Africa. The eight-part series is nothing if not original, note producers Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani, whose Wildside shingle is aiming for greater cachet in the global TV arena. It’s about “dreams, fears, conflicts, battles, the search for meaning and the need for love of a pope, as seen through Sorrentino’s unique vision,” producers say.

The recent proposal by the U.K.’s BSkyB to buy sister satcasters Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland could create a production behemoth if that deal goes through. But Cattleya’s Tozzi thinks Italy is well-positioned to play a key role in the global boom in serial TV, given its production history. “The Italian crime genre,” Tozzi notes, “harks back to a strand of Italian B movies (giallos and slashers) revitalized by Quentin Tarantino.”

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