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Rai Fiction Looks to Conquer International Audiences

Italy’s leading broadcaster Rai, which invests nearly €200 million (about $237 million) in roughly 400 hours of content every year, is aiming to become a key player on the international drama scene by making high-end series in both English and Italian.

“Medici: Masters of Florence,” whose second season stars Daniel Sharman, underscores Rai’s ambition to push the Italian drama industry beyond local borders. Although the show is about Italian history, it’s in English, similar to French hit “Versailles.”

“As a public broadcaster we think that being an important player at a national level is not enough. Rai has decided to play a fundamental role in the development of Italy’s audiovisual industry overseas,” said Eleonora Andreatta, the head of Rai Fiction, who is attending this week’s Content London conference.

Producing “Medici: Masters of Florence” in English presented a risk because it could have alienated local audiences, but it turned out to be a big ratings hit for Rai. The series, created by Frank Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer, also traveled in all major markets. The new season is being sold by Jan Mojto’s Beta Film.

“TV series can build the imaginary identity of our country even better than films, and bring it to an international dimension,” Mojto said, adding that “Medici,” which cost €24 million ($28 million), was mainly produced by Lux Vide and lensed with an Italian crew across 30 locations in Italy between Tuscany, Lazio and Lombardy.

Also on Rai’s English-language slate is Giacomo Battiato’s “The Name of the Rose,” with John Turturro and Rupert Everett, which will start shooting in January at Cinecittà, where a library and an abbey are being built for the series. The ambitious skein marks the first TV adaptation of Umberto Eco’s bestselling historical murder mystery, which in 1986 was made into a movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The eight-episode English-language show, with a reported €23 million ($27 million) budget, is being sold internationally by Germany’s Tele München Group

Rai also has internationally driven Italian-language drama series in the pipeline, notably “L’amica Geniale” (“My Brilliant Friend”), based on the first of the four bestselling “Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante.

“My Brilliant Friend” began shooting in October under the direction of Italian auteur Saverio Costanzo. The entire neighborhood of Gianturco, where Ferrante’s novel is set, has been meticulously rebuilt for the series, which is being produced for HBO and Rai by Fremantle Italy.

Andreatta has called Ferrante’s work “one of the most powerful and universal stories of female friendship,” and underlined that Rai feels “very strongly” that it “belongs to the realm of what European public service television should be doing.”

Rolling off crime series “Suburra,” a Netflix original which Rai co-produced, the broadcaster is also co-producing Davide Marengo’s fantasy romance “Mermaids” and “The Hunter,” an organized crime series set in Sicily in the 1990s. Both are Italian-language series set in Italy which have the potential to lure younger audiences and the international market thanks to their visual language, writing and acting, said Andreatta.

“Mermaids” is a contemporary show in that it addresses gender, diversity and feminism, while “The Hunter” tells the true story of a young and ambitious prosecutor who brought down more than 300 Mafiosi, according to Andreatta.

“Mermaids,” in which four sirens surface in the port of contemporary Naples seeking a mythological male sea creature who has disappeared, debuted in October on Rai’s flagship Rai 1 channel. The show has been scoring solid double-digit ratings in prime time. “Mermaids,” Italy’s first fantasy skein, is being co-produced by Rai with Cross Productions and Germany’s Beta Film, which is selling internationally.

“The Hunter,” about Italy’s real Mafia wars of the 1990s and the battle between Cosa Nostra and the Italian state, debuted on Rai 2 in October. The innovative mob show, in which crimes are reconstructed through the eyes of a Palermo prosecutor who manages to put hundreds of Mafiosi behind bars thanks to brilliant hunches, spectacular raids and front-page arrests, has the same trio of companies co-producing as “Mermaids” and is also being sold internationally by Beta.

Andreatta said that the arrival of global streaming services has pushed Rai, like other European public-service broadcasters, “to rethink its role and its identity – one that’s defined by Italian creativity, Italian culture, history and tradition.”

“Medici,” for instance, speaks about the Renaissance, which Andreatta defines as the “DNA of the West, the social and cultural revolution that belongs to all of us, to Italian and the Western world.”

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