A+E Networks is giving its remake of “Roots” a razzle-dazzle international premiere on the opening night of MipTV. The eight-hour miniseries amounts to a showcase for the entire company, as the process of revisiting “Roots” for a new generation has tapped into resources and passions across A+E channels and divisions.
“It’s a brand-defining project for History and also part of A+E Studios’ growing body of work, one that we feel is absolutely world-class,” says Jana Bennett, president and general manager of History.
The $30 million mini is an effort to raise the bar for scripted programming at History. As Bennett wryly observes, “We should own historical narratives on the History channel.”
But returning to “Roots” wasn’t as simple as dusting off the old scripts. Considerable new research and historical facts about the enslavement of Africans and their transportation to the New World have surfaced in the 40 years since the original “Roots” was produced for ABC. “Roots” producers Mark Wolper and Will Packer worked with History’s inhouse researchers and numerous outside experts to ensure that the new version reflected the latest scholarship on the history of slavery.
“Roots” is the most ambitious scripted project to date to come from the A+E Studios production unit. Lensing has stretched from South Africa to Louisiana. The detail that has gone into the period production has required exacting work from art director, production designers and costume designers.
The legacy of the 1977 ABC miniseries, produced by David L. Wolper (father of Mark), as a landmark event that touched a nation meant that A+E had to spend the money and take the time to get everything right. “We’ve all talked quite a lot about our ambition for a new vision of ‘Roots.’ It couldn’t just be a remake,” Bennett says. “It had to live up to the reputation of the original, which is formidable. We couldn’t do it in a half-hearted way.”
In the U.S., “Roots” will air over four consecutive nights starting on May 30, Memorial Day. It will be simulcast as “Presented by History” on A+E’s other primary channels — A&E Network and Lifetime — in order to add to the event gloss and ensure that “Roots” reaches the widest possible audience in the U.S.
A+E’s educational outreach arm is distributing study materials to thousands of schools across the nation in an effort to help teachers use it as a jumping-off point for discussions of American history and social justice. And History is committed to keeping the “Roots” conversation going through January when History will air the original mini to coincide with its 40th anniversary.
“There’s been a big outreach to schools and communities,” Bennett says. “We want to make sure it’s a shared experience. We want people to go further and dig into their own roots as a way of letting people have a greater understanding of our own history. We want this to be good and gripping TV event that has a big afterlife.”
The MipTV premiere at the Grand Auditorium in the Palais des Festival is also an effort to whet the appetite of international buyers for “Roots.” Malachi Kirby, who plays the central character of Kunta Kinte, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Paquin and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are attending along with Mark Wolper and LeVar Burton, star of the 1977 original and a co-exec producer this time around.
Programs rooted in African-American stories from the U.S. have traditionally been a harder sell in Europe and other key territories. A+E is counting on changing appetites, the legend of the original and the sweep of the 2016 production to make “Roots” a draw for buyers. Moreover, the company wants it to be a calling card for more historical epics to come from A+E Studios.
“It’s a very moving piece that plays out on a large canvas with an amazing cast of characters. It is a world story with themes that are relevant today,” Bennett says. “It is just a fantastic piece of event television.”