Chris Vance on Challenges and Rewards of Taking 'Transporter' to TV

Transporter - H 2012
RTL Television

The small-screen version of the action film franchise premiered to 4 million viewers on German TV on Thursday.

COLOGNE, Germany – British actor Chris Vance says it was a “schoolboy's dream” to play the lead in Transporter, the TV version of Luc Besson's action film franchise whose three films have grossed more than $200 million worldwide and made lead Jason Statham a star.

"You get to drive the fast cars, get in all the fights, get all the beautiful women,” Vance told THR on his character in the12-part Transporter TV series, in which the Prison Break star reprises Statham's role as Frank Martin, an ex-elite commando turned transporter of dangerous and deadly packages.

But if playing Frank Martin seemed a boyhood dream come true, the actual Transporter production became more of a nightmare, with extensive delays, production and budget battles and a severe on-set injury that put Vance in the hospital last October and put the Transporter shoot on hold for months.

Things were further complicated by Transporter's unique set-up. Made outside the network series system, the big-budget show was made as a co-production between Atlantique Productions in France and Canadian operation QVF with four national broadcasters on board: HBO Cinemax in the U.S., Canadian pay-TV operators TMN and Movie Central, RTL Television in Germany and France's M6.

"We had a decent budget so the actual shoot wasn't much different than a network shoot,” Vance explained, “the big difference with this kind of international co-production is you have a lot more people involved in the decision making. You have the broadcasters in the different countries – all from different cultural backgrounds, with different markets and different needs - and they all have their own opinions. It took a long time to get everyone agreed on what we were shooting here. I mean the Transporter is really in the sweet spot of the action genre. You can't mess with it.”

Viewers in North America will be able to judge whether Transporter's producer collective got it right early next year, when the series debuts on HBO Cinemax and HBO in Canada.

European audiences have the first say, however. The series pilot premiered on Germany's RTL Thursday night, drawing an impressive 4.01 million total viewers for a 17 per cent share of the 14-49 demographic. Those aren't blowout figures for RTL - Germany's leading commercial network - but should prove sufficient if the show can hold – or better build on - its initial audience. France's M6 bows the show in primetime next month.

Because of Transporter's complex financing structure, the series has to work in all four of its backing countries to guarantee a second season.

The eyes of the international industry are on Transporter, the most ambitious of a slew of new English-language drama series partially or entirely financed outside the U.S.. These series – such as Atlantique's Parisian cop procedural Jo starring Jean Reno and Jill Hennessy; Tom Fontana's British-Canadian-U.S. period drama Copper or Crossing Lines, a European-style Criminal Minds from Germany's Tandem Communications, France's TF1 and Sony Pictures Television International – were the buzz of international TV market MIPCOM in Cannes, which wrapped up Thursday.

"If it works, if the channels can make money with these series, I think you will see this model being used more and more,” Vance said. “It’s becoming harder to finance television because, frankly, the audience expects more – so to get the budget you need, you have to find ways to spread the risk. It just makes sense to do shows this way. As long as you can make them work for the audience.”

Initially, at least, Transporter seems to have worked for the German audience. The coming months will tell whether the ambitious action series works as well worldwide.