European producers creative with pricey projects

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There has never been a tougher time to finance the kind of glossy, big-budget studio dramas like "Lost," "House," "CSI" and "24" that have defined almost a decade of global television. And the market for local European drama has also been swamped.

Still, that doesn't mean a whole new generation of producer-distributors isn't trying to hammer together more complex and elaborate funding mechanisms in order to offer broadcasters the kind of quality and sheen they have come to expect.

"TV producers have to become a lot more like independent film producers, packaging everything up with funding from all sorts of different places," says Jeremy Fox, CEO of U.K. content distributor Digital Rights Group. DRG, which has financing support from content financing fund Ingenious Media Active Capital, has backed such primetime U.K. drama fare as "Doc Martin," "Kingdom" and "Collision."

"The amount of money a broadcaster paid as a license fee in the past has been as much as 100% -- now it is down to 70%-80% or less in markets like the U.K.," Fox adds. "That's a big, big change. But, in a way, we've been spoiled for a long time and are just now waking up to financing challenges that places like Australia have always faced. Their license fees are more like 50%."

Funding the deficit has become the name of the game, and without a basket of cash -- including a broadcaster's license fee, local production incentives, international sales and DVD partners -- it's hard to get a show off the ground.

"If you look at the new medical drama 'Pulse' from World Prods., which we are distributing, we have the license fee from the BBC, investment from Screen Yorkshire and investment from us," Fox says.

Co-productions for local shows are becoming increasingly complicated. ITV's rip-roaring effects-driven sci-fi drama "Primeval" -- in which prehistoric creatures come roaring through the fabric of spacetime -- was canceled last year after Season 3, despite garnering good ratings, because the U.K. commercial network couldn't finance a new series until new co-financing arrangement (which involved creator Impossible Pictures raising the cash from BBC Worldwide on international distribution, along with BBC America on a U.S. window, Germany's Pro-7 for a German premiere and the U.K. pay TV channel Watch) managed to get enough money on the table to commission two more seasons.

But where some see a crisis in funding for high-end drama, many ambitious European producers see an opportunity.

"The major crisis is in Los Angeles," says Pascal Breton, senior vp drama at European powerhouse Zodiak Entertainment, adding that he has six high-end drama series in development, all set up as co-productions. "There is a smaller problem in Europe -- that drama is too expensive for broadcasters. European broadcasters are desperate for affordable high-quality drama and are willing to invest part of their budgets in really big co-productions, providing they have the right talent, showrunners, writers and producers attached."

To woo the top U.S. and Canadian talent, Zodiak has been experimenting with new financing models.

"The idea is to offer an alternative strategy to some of the best producers and showrunners in Canada and the U.S. and to let them own part of their own shows."

Zodiak is something of a pioneer when it comes to creative production models. Its Swedish subsidiary, Yellow Bird, combined license fees from multiple territories to produce "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and its two sequels, all based on Stieg Larsson's cult crime novels. Yellow Bird also produced a six-part TV version of the Larsson trilogy for European TV markets. For "Wallander," another Swedish crime series, Yellow Bird adapted the same books twice, once in Swedish as a co-production with Scandinavian broadcasters, France's CanalPlus and ARD in Germany; and once in English with the BBC, starring Kenneth Branagh.



Zodiak is in development on "Versailles," a glossy $25 million historical drama about power struggles and intrigue set against the decadent backdrop of the French court. Scheduled for broadcast on CanalPlus in September 2011, Breton will be talking to French, U.K. and Canadian partners at MIP TV and looking for further presales and an American partner.

An area where Europe has lots of experience cobbling together co-productions is in high-end miniseries. Germany's Tandem Communications found the cash for its $40 million, eight-part adaptation of Ken Follett's best-seller "The Pillars of the Earth" by joining forces with Muse Entertainment in Canada, Britain's Scott Free and a basket of broadcasters including Pro7 in Germany, CBC in Canada, Hungary's TV2 and, most recently, U.S. pay network Starz Entertainment.

"Henry of Navarre," a historic two-parter that Bavaria Film is selling, got funding from French channel ARTE, Germany's ARD and Spanish producers ICC to close the gap on its $25 million budget. But nearly half the money for "Henry" came from German federal and state production subsidies. In exchange, Berlin-based producer Regina Ziegler had to shoot in Germany, taking the production from state to state to meet local spend requirements that were a condition of the subsidies.

"It's more challenging doing things that way, but it's the only way to access the kind of financing you need to make these sorts of projects," Ziegler says.

In a strategy similar to Zodiak's with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Ziegler is producing several versions of "Henry of Navarre." In addition to the two-part mini, Bavaria is selling two theatrical versions: a 153-minute edition that debuted in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and a trimmer 100-minute cut.

Tapping regional subsidies and tax breaks -- a standard practice for independent film production -- has become key for the success of TV drama financed outside the U.S. network system. Soft money from territories such as Canada, Ireland, Australia or South Africa can add up to as much as 30%-50% of a show's budget.

"Haven," a supernatural drama scripted by Stephen King, got a solid portion of its budget from Canadian tax breaks, accessed thanks to Toronto-based producers E1 Entertainment. TMG International, the world sales division of German powerhouse Tele Munchen Group, ponied up production capital in exchange for international free TV rights outside North America. Universal Networks International is also backing the series, set to begin shooting April 21.
 

"E1 Entertainment came to me with a script from Stephen King," says Martin Irusta, senior vp acquisitions and programming at Universal Networks International. "We came in as the first financier, then Syfy U.S. and Syfy International came in and Syfy will have the global premiere rights. We get into this kind of investment so that we can premiere the show internationally on our channel brands -- we ask for pay TV exclusivity. After the holdback we can go to the free TV broadcasters like TF1 and ITV."

"Haven" is set to air in the U.S. on Syfy in July and go to the international Syfy networks from October, to take account of dubbing and subtitling issues. It won't reach free-to-air until 2011.
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