How Europe is competing with U.S. TV fare

New generation of shows boasts big budgets, lots of talent

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CANNES -- The international drama market used to be as American as apple pie. This year, however, Europe is serving up a hearty portion of big-budget, English-language, talent-heavy fare that's bringing a new flavor to the global small-screen plate.

Financed by a rainbow coalition of international investors and often with top-tier U.S. cast and showrunners to sweeten their international appeal, such fare is squarely aimed at eating up primetime terrestrial and cable slots in multiple Euro markets.

Take "Borgia." As MIPCOM kicked off Monday, production began the same day on the 15th century drama from Lagardere's Atlantique Prods. and U.S. cabler Starz and financed by France's Canal Plus and Germany's EOS.

The 12-hour series inevitably will be pitted against a similarly themed project being produced and aired stateside by Showtime ("The Borgias") and licensed here by sister company CBS Studios International.

Whereas a decade ago such European minis often featured bland actors and B-writers and editors whose idea of pacing was, well, lumbering if not slumbering, the current crop looks and feels like anything coming out of Burbank, perhaps a tad more painterly.

Most importantly, the writing is better. "Borgia" is being penned by Tom Fontana, an American whose credits include "Homicide: Life on the Street," one of the best series of the '90s. Still, Fontana is hardly a name that comes to mind when one thinks of historical epics.

"Tom really understands story," EOS exec Jan Mojito said.

The $30 million project is Europe's biggest-budget series to date financed solely with European money. It features "The Wire" star John Doman among other fresh-faced European talent.

"Before, Europeans went to L.A. to do business," Klaus Zimmerman of Atlantique said. "Now, Americans are coming to Europe to seek out talent and creativity and create programs with European partners who have the means and the audacity to create original series for today's international audiences."

Added Takis Candilis, who was recently named CEO of Lagardere Entertainment: "We don't want to compete with the Americans on their own territory, but we want to compete in the world marketplace, because we can."

Canal Plus is so invested in this kind of new generation of lavish European drama that it has built its own in-house genre around it, which it calls "megafilms." The Gallic paybox has signed to produce another 13 episodes of "XIII," which aired last year on NBC. The series is produced by Cipango and Prodigy Pictures.

"These are major international projects made with big budgets that are high-end shows but at the same time are attractive to large audiences," Canal Plus CEO Rodolphe Belmer said.

Also on the "megafilms" agenda for Canal Plus is "Versailles" from Capa Drama, Marathon and Zodiak written by "Mad Men" scribes Andre and Maria Jacquemetton. The series, originally planned for a French-language production, will now be made in English.

"It's easier to find partners to finance a series if it's made in English," Canal Plus head of fiction Fabrice de la Patelliere said. "We want to make shows that, in terms of the level of quality, talent and scripts, are equivalent to major U.S. series, but this will take time. It's only the beginning — first, we need to show what we can do."

Lagardere also is hoping "Transporter: The Series" will make a splash. The $40 million co-production with Canada and Germany is based on EuropaCorp's big-screen franchise.

"We have a lot of demand everywhere," Zimmerman said. "Americans are becoming more open to new shows co-produced abroad, and they're interested in shows that don't just focus on the U.S."

As Lagardere and Canal Plus lead the French in the international drama game, Germany simultaneously seems to be at the heart of this newly fruitful approach, and EOS is driving a lot of the series, together with such co-partners as the French and Italy's RAI.

Even the BBC, once reluctant to partner with Continental players, is the co-creator with Germany's TeamWorx's "Laconia," which recounts a WWII skirmish at sea between British and German forces. And another WWII set piece with RAI focuses on the controversial pope Pius 12, who is played by American actor John Cromwell. Both are being licensed here by BetaFilm, which attracted a crowd of program buyers to its annual trailer screening brunch Tuesday at the Majestic hotel.

Other players from the German heartland also are mining the Continent's past while trying to bring a 21st century sensibility to the material.

Munich-based Tandem recently took on Ken Follett's best-seller "Pillars of the Earth" in an epic miniseries, complete with American writer (John Pielmeier) and an international cast. The $40 million, eight-hour saga has already aired on Starz in the U.S. and will get the red-carpet treatment by host broadcaster ProSieben in Germany. It has been licensed by Tandem in most major territories.

Tandem co-founder Rola Bauer, a Canadian now based in Munich, told a panel here that the mini has already made its money back.

"In fact, we paid back our gap financier so early, he was sorry not to have made extra interest!" she said.

Along with its American partner Scott Free Prods. (though, of course, that entity is owned by British brothers Ridley and Tony Scott), Bauer's company is deep into development on Follett's follow-up saga about the 14th century called "World Without End."

In the English-speaking part of the continent, "Camelot" is an international co-production between Graham King's GK-TV, Ireland's Octagon and Canada's Take 5 and developed in association with the U.K.'s Ecosse Films. Although "Camelot" is funded and will air stateside on Starz, the project will have a European flavor.

"Shows like ‘XIII,' ‘Borgia,' ‘Camelot' or ‘Pillars of the Earth' come from Europe, but there's a level of quality that allows them to be broadcast across the world," TF1 head of acquisitions Remi Jacquelin said. "U.S. studios are setting up shop across Europe because they're recognizing this trend."

While nonscripted series have been making the Europe-to-U.S. jump for years, the boom in such ambitious Euro-initiated scripted productions is new. In other words, thanks to popular European formats, the Americans have started to take notice of the creativity and talent outside of its borders.

"For nonscripted shows, the center of gravity is in Europe, particularly in the U.K.," Banijay executive vp Francois de Brugada said. "There's a real future for ideas that come from Europe to the USA."

Banijay's "My Parents Are Gonna Love You," for example, first aired on smaller DTT network NRJ12 in France but has been snagged by Fox for a U.S. version.

"Throughout Europe, the DTT channels are starting to have budgets that allow bigger shows and, since they're all trying to find their signature shows, they're apt to take more risks," de Brugada said.

Even Hollywood is starting to pay attention to what's happening abroad.

"Today, when you approach a network, they all ask, ‘How can we package this internationally?' Even for a territory the size of Germany, it's all about internationalization," Yellowbird Pictures' Oliver Schundler said. Yellowbird's German arm is behind international blockbuster "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

Elizabeth Guider contributed to this report.
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