After being pent up and dumbed down in the 1990s and early 2000s, Italian TV drama production is experiencing an unbridled burst of creative energy.
Propelled by pay box Sky, there is a proliferation of high-end Italo skeins in the pipeline, making Italy arguably the next hot territory for high-end TV after Israel and Scandinavia. It allows Italo TV producers to start thinking as big as their moviemaking predecessors.
Three years after Neapolitan mob skein “Gomorrah” bowed on Sky Italy to better ratings than “Game of Thrones,” and went on to make an international splash selling to 120 territories — recently to SundanceTV for the U.S. — at least a dozen Italian shows are heading for global audiences.
The standout in production is Paolo Sorrentino’s English-language “The Young Pope,” (pictured) toplining Jude Law as conservative American pontiff Pius XIII, and starring Diane Keaton as a nun, her first recurring role in a TV series. It’s a three-pronged Sky, HBO and Canal Plus collaboration of unprecedented scope, at least for Italy.
“For a producer, this is a revolution,” says Lorenzo Mieli, head of FremantleMedia Italy, whose Wildside subsidiary initiated “Pope” and is its co-executive producer. “It’s like going back to the days of Dino De Laurentiis, the glory days when Italian producers worked with the entire world.” The game changer, he says, is that U.S. content providers such as HBO, Netflix, Amazon, FX and AMC have become the ones “we are talking to, whereas in the past it was just Rai, Mediaset and Sky.”
In 2008, Sky debuted “Crime Novel,” centered around a real Roman heroin-dealing gang. Produced by Cattleya, “Crime” became a local phenom and sold quite widely. “Crime Novel” helped prompt the local production boom by breaking the mold of copycat pope and saint biopics, or shows about good cops and doctors — the main staples airing on the duopoly formed by public broadcaster Rai and Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial TV giant Mediaset. Cattleya and Sky went on to make “Gomorrah.”
“When we entered the market and showed we were willing to take risks, we not only accessed great talent that is available in Italy, we also accessed 20 years of projects that were kept in drawers because nobody was willing to take the risks,” says Sky Italy chief of content Andrea Scrosati.
Scrosati notes one big difference now in Italy is that the country’s production capability is at the level it should be, and it operates in a transparent environment. “In the past — as an Italian, it is embarrassing to say this, but it is a reality — one of the reasons why there was a lot of skepticism surrounding investment in Italy is that you never knew where up to 40% of your production budget actually went,” he says. Or you ended up with a chunk of the cast not being picked based on talent. “That’s not happening anymore,” Scrosati proudly points out.
Cattleya topper Riccardo Tozzi, who has been equally instrumental to the boom, says Italy is gaining a reputation for making a more vivid type of TV series. “We do series set against real backdrops, with many more real locations,” he notes. By contrast, he says, “lots of American TV series are conceived to be shot in studios.”
Case in point is “ZeroZeroZero,” which will seek to provide viewers the inner workings of cocaine trafficking around the world packed with authentic details based on star writer Roberto Saviano’s eponymous book. Cattleya is in advanced development stage on the saga, with Canal Plus and Sky on board. Cattleya is also also producing Netflix’s first original Italian production, “Suburra,” which is about the real-life ties between mob and politics in contemporary Rome, in collaboration with Rai.
Even when it comes to “The Young Pope,” a quintessential European auteur TV drama centered around a totally fictional tale, the suspension of disbelief will be absolutely crucial. “It’s a story with a constant connection to reality,” says Scrosati. He cites a scene in which the young pontiff speaks to the Italian prime minister about a law on same-sex marriage, an issue that has been a hot potato in Italy during past months.