HBO enlists Minghella's 'Agency'


HBO has retained the services of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency."

The pay cable network, in partnership with the BBC, has ordered 13 episodes from the Weinstein Co.'s adaptation of the books by Alexander McCall Smith, which is being shepherded by Oscar winner Anthony Minghella.

Kicking off the series will be the two-hour pilot Minghella recently shot in Botswana from a script he wrote with Richard Curtis.

Ever since the Weinstein Co. announced its plans in the summer to produce a two-hour TV movie based on the popular detective novels, the film had been envisioned as a backdoor pilot for a potential TV series.

The BBC will air the two-hour pilot as a stand-alone movie next month, while HBO will run it as an opening episode of the series, which is slated to begin production in the summer for a launch in the first quarter.

Minghella and Curtis, who got their start as TV writers in the U.K., will executive produce. Sydney Pollack and Timothy Bricknell of Mirage Enterprises and Amy Moore of Cinechicks will serve as producers.

As part of the deal, HBO will get U.S. and Canadian television and home video rights to "Agency," and the BBC will handle U.K. television distribution. The Weinstein Co., which controls all other international territories, will take the project to MIP in April.

"Agency" centers on Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott), the proprietor of the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana. Anika Noni Rose plays her quirky secretary, Mma Makutsi, and Lucian Msamati stars as Ramotswe's devoted suitor, JLB Matekoni. Also in the pilot are David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, Colin Salmon and John Kani.

HBO brass had been tracking the project for a while and got to see the two-hour pilot six weeks ago.

"I was beaming," HBO West Coast programming chief Michael Lombardo said of his reaction to the movie. "I thought it was as perfect as I thought it was going to be. It was a fantastic piece of filmmaking that makes you want to continue following Precious, its appealing, sexy, funny heroine."

Also compelling for Lombardo was the fact that "Agency" "is the fist piece of any sort of filmmaking set in Africa where the storytelling is not through the eyes of a white person."

The two-hour pilot was shot entirely on location in Botswana with the cooperation of the country government, which is said to have invested $5 million in the film.

Because of logistical issues, the production of the series is expected to be based in the U.K., but a significant portion will be filmed in Botswana because "the country and the landscape are integral to the storytelling," Lombardo said.

For the Weinstein Co., "Agency" marks a foray into scripted series. The company has had success on the unscripted side with the Bravo hit "Project Runway."

HBO and BBC, longtime partners in the longform area, increasingly have been collaborating on series in the past couple of years, including "Rome" and "Extras."