Will the 'Transporter' TV Series Deliver?

4:51 PM PST 10/01/2011 by Rebecca Leffler, Etan Vlessing
Courtesy of RTL Television

An adaptation of Luc Besson's film franchise is supposed to be a game-changer, but on-set turmoil threatens the future of one of global TV's most ambitious projects.

On the eve of MIPCOM, the drama swirling around the international co-production Transporter is being eyed closely by producers and network programmers around the world. Following The Tudors, The Borgias, Combat Hospital and The Pillars of the Earth, Transporter is the latest in the new wave of high-end drama series financed and produced outside of the U.S. that aims to attract audiences both in Europe and North America.

Even among this company, Transporter -- based on Luc Besson's hit action film franchise and with a budget of $3.3 million an episode -- is arguably the most ambitious. If it works, it could pave the way for a slew of internationally made English-language series, many of which are already in the pipeline.

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Airing on Cinemax in the U.S., Transporter is also key because unlike a miniseries like Pillars of the Earth, the show is a one-hour drama -- the meat of any channel's schedule. In the U.S., cable outlets such as AMC and FX and pay-TV networks like Showtime, Starz and Cinemax are increasingly using original series to brand their networks. But drama is expensive, and often even successful U.S. shows -- think Breaking Bad, Mad Men or Justified -- have struggled to get on primetime in the big European markets.

Transporter's international model, in theory, solves those problems. But the show is breaking a lot of rules, and there have been some early setbacks. In addition to the logistical headaches of making a European production in English, turning Toronto into Paris or Berlin and staying true to Besson's original vision while satisfying the show's multiple international producers, recent reports about the departure of two showrunners have cast a cloud of uncertainty around the future of the Transporter experiment.

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Can it be done? Klaus Zimmermann, whose French firm Atlantique is producing Transporter with QVF in Canada, says the answer is yes.

"We are making a show that should work on U.S. cable and at the same time on European network primetime. This is the model," he says.

Transporter creator Besson has gotten behind the project, giving its producers full creative freedom for their small-screen adaptation.

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"I don't know how to make TV shows -- I let the people who know how to do it take it on and hope they're doing their job," Besson told THR.

That job has proved problematic. Weeks into the shoot, showrunners Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie abruptly left the production, citing "creative differences." British director Steve Shill (Dexter, Desperate Housewives) and veteran supervising producer Karen Wookey (Andromeda) have come on board.

"We'd just finished shooting the fourth episode [out of 12] and prepping the next two when we parted ways with the production," Mallozzi told THR without giving any details. Adds Zimmermann: "There was no drama, no big clash, no hard feelings, and no scandal."

But there certainly has been upheaval on the set, with sources indicating the director of photography and the costume designer have been replaced as have much of the electrical and transportation units as Shill makes key changes.

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The change in on-set leadership is key since Transporter was not using the traditional showrunner model of production. Under that model, a single showrunner -- like David Chase on The Sopranos -- acts as the creative driver. But on Transporter, the real star is the brand itself -- a franchise whose three features have made a collective $238 million worldwide and continue to see top ratings when they air on TV across the globe. So the show's producers have taken what could be called the Marvel Studios approach. Instead of a showrunner's individual vision, everyone on Transporter is meant to be working to deliver a TV version of the film brand.

"In America, the rule is, "One show, one showrunner." But that wasn't the case for Transporter -- it was a collective effort," says Zimmermann. "When you're working with a franchise, you have to protect the integrity of the brand. Showrunners may come and go, but the brand stays."

Fred Fuchs, the show's Toronto-based executive producer, adds that the show's unique sensibility only adds to the difficulty of translating it to the small screen. "The action is not typical action, there's a Luc Besson story style that we're trying to keep in the series," Fuchs says.

Indeed, the Transporter/Besson brand is what the producers sold to the series' host networks, each of which put up about 25 percent to 30 percent of the show's budget.

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But according to Mallozzi, this supposedly showrunner-free model was one of the primary sources of onset friction. "A brand will offer a terrific template for a show," he says, "but you need someone in charge to call the shots and make the creative decisions. The ship does not sail itself."

There are several other logistical challenges connected to the production -- not least of which is the balancing act of trying to satisfy four broadcast co-producers across two continents.

Sources indicate the four broadcast partners -- RTL in Germany, France's M6, HBO/Cinemax in the U.S. and HBO Canada -- received a private screening in Toronto in late September that got mixed reviews, underlining the need for creative improvements.

A spokesperson for M6 denies this, adding that the network is planning for media visits to the shoot soon to quell any rumors of on-set turmoil.

Takis Candilis, CEO of Atlantique parent company Lagardere, also denies that there were any problems with the Toronto screening, adding that "everyone is happy" with how the show is turning out.

Whatever Transporter's on-set headaches, the international financing model is already catching on. The first season of Canadian/U.K. production Combat Hospital aired on ABC and Global in Canada this year. Atlantique is in talks with Fox about a possible franchise project set in ancient Egypt. Starz and BBC Worldwide, which teamed up for the new season of BBC's aliens-among-us series Torchwood, have entered into a multiyear partnership to develop, produce and distribute original drama series.

Germany's Tandem Communications -- producers of Pillars of the Earth -- have four long-running series projects in development, including the sci-fi crime drama The Sector, which they are developing with Ridley and Tony Scott's Scott Free shingle. Like Pillars, The Sector will be made using the traditional showrunner model, and Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds) has been tapped to fill that role. Tandem co-head Rola Bauer says that in the end, how a show gets made is less important than what, in the end, it delivers.

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"Showrunner or not, the production model isn't as important as getting the voice right," Bauer says. "Transporter is obviously a great brand, and it's very important that they respect that brand. As long as they respect it and deliver the quality that fans of the film franchise expect, everyone will be happy.

"I hope all the international models work," she adds, "because it will open doors for all of us. Broadcasters in the U.S. know they can't keep putting all the money up for their own series."

Now back home in Vancouver, Mallozzi is optimistic -- and diplomatic -- about Transporter's future: "There are a lot of talented people working on the show. I'm confident that it will be great and do well."

TRANSPORTER BY THE NUMBERS

  • Budget: $40 million
  • Presold Territories: 13
  • Co-Producers: 8
  • Episodes: 12
  • Writers: 5
  • Executive Producers: 6
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