MIPTV: Showrunners Tom Fontana and Frank Spotnitz Talk Pros and Cons of Production Biz

Showrunner Tom Fontana
Showrunner Tom Fontana
 Francois Durand/Getty Images

CANNES – Expect to see a lot more American showrunners – like Tom Fontana, Frank Spotnitz and Chris Long – crisscrossing the Atlantic to set up shop or take on the one-off international project as transatlantic co-productions become ever more common. That was one of the subtexts from the third annual Co-Production Summit in Cannes Tuesday.

Another of the subtexts was that a single vision has to be at the heart of any given project with multiple participating backers. The good news: a veritable international television language is being spoken more widely today, and that’s making some of the hurdles in working across borders less arduous.

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For his part, Fontana has been hard at work for three years on one of the two Borgia series – his with Atlantique for Canal Plus – while Spotnitz, he of X-Files fame, has hung out his own shingle in London and is currently shooting the second season of France-Germany co-pro Transporter in Morocco. It will air stateside on TNT.

As for Long, he managed to find time between seasons of The Mentalist to make a documentary in the U.K. called A Tale of Two Thieves, which is about the mastermind behind the great train robbery in Buckinghamshire in 1963. (It’s being licensed here at MIPTV by Balanga.)

Both Fontana and Long were on hand for a keynote session Tuesday afternoon in which they talked about their recent experiences as showrunners – Long describing what it's like to run a 24-episode-a-year U.S. network series (“exhilarating but brutal”) and Fontana describing the steps it takes to get go-aheads from a variety of international backers and the challenges of working in many different locations and with several different directors. (He had to pick directors pretty much on faith for Borgia, but once they (all Europeans) realized it was the showrunner, not them as auteurs, who was ultimately in charge, things worked out fine. “I developed incredibly close working relationships with each of them,” Fontana said of the experience.)

Both Long and Fontana are waiting for go-aheads back in Los Angeles.

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The Mentalist may or may not be picked up for its seventh season by CBS. Long suggested that Warner Bros production chieftain Peter Roth (repping the studio that produces and distributes the show) and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves were probably “huddled right now” to make a deal – or not. And if not, Long thinks the Simon Baker starrer very well could go elsewhere, with TNT being a possible contender. “The show does have 50 million viewers around the world so, well, we’ll see,” he told THR after the session.

At some point, Long told THR, he plans to spend more time in Europe, specifically the U.K., where he has a couple of series projects he wants to develop.

As for Fontana, he’s waiting for a callback on a project he pitched around town 18 months ago jointly with Johnny Depp’s company, and which, seemingly surprisingly, mainstream broadcaster CBS has preliminarily raised its hand for: Shakespeare, no less. The project is called Sound and Fury, and Fontana said he envisions five plays eventually being done, all with a modern touch and tone, starting with King Lear and Hamlet.

In other remarks during their dual keynote, the two showrunners discussed how the role of directors has grown in television, with many of them now coming out of the beleaguered indie film trenches and clamoring to work in TV. Similarly, both think the recent interest by the networks in making limited series is a positive – “We can do different kinds of stories in that format, and we can attract a different (more A-list, presumably) kind of acting talent,” Fontana said.  

What they both dislike about the American system as compared to, say, the way most Europeans operate is the intensive piloting process, which, they suggested, allows agents to pit bidders for talents against one another. That certain studio and network execs are shifting piecemeal away from that approach is definitely a positive development, in their view.

Regarding what they think of the proliferation of so much interesting scripted drama of late, on cable, on network and from Europe, both Long and Fontana admitted it was hard to watch while immersed in productions of their own. "Should I binge on The Americans or Homeland?" Fontana asked. Someone shouted from the audience, "Both."

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