MIPTV: 'Shared Vision' Still at the Crux of the Co-Production Conundrum

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Chris Albrecht and Colin Callender

Starz’s Chris Albrecht says success depends on determining who's in charge –- and giving them the resources to execute.

CANNES – Two longtime colleagues and collaborators, Chris Albrecht and Colin Callender, took the stage for the first so-called keynote at MIPTV Monday morning, but it turned into an insightful and amusing riff between the two on co-production and its challenges.

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Their remarks were timely: Co-productions in all shapes and sizes are once again all the rage, with American broadcasters, cablers and indie producers increasingly looking to European partners to share financial risk and help shape the creative vision. And Europeans are returning the gaze just as fervently.

The Starz CEO is also on the Croisette to support the world premiere of its latest scripted effort, Power, Monday evening in the Grand auditorium. Callender now runs his own production company, Playground, and collaborates or consults on a number of high-end projects between international broadcast partners, including a few involving Starz.

Seated and seemingly unrehearsed, the two executives revisited their multi-decade association at HBO and their more recent collaborations on Starz’s projects such as The White Queen. They agreed that trust was at the heart of the discussion among potential co-production partners. But even so, "every time you think you share the vision and have the structure of the project down, something unravels or comes apart," Albrecht said.

"On big series in particular," Albrecht and Callender concurred, "trust and process are the keys to success."

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Also central to a successful project is figuring out "who is in charge," and then "leaning back" enough to let that person get on with it. Albrecht pointed out that it was Callender who stepped in, for example, to help U.S. producer Tom Fontana understand the varying needs of the French and the German partners on the Borgias series, starring Jeremy Irons, that he spearheaded.

"Having someone who is expert at managing the different sides" in a complicated multi-country co-production is crucial, Albrecht suggested.

As he tries to put his stamp on Starz and rev up original production, Albrecht admitted that the company essentially has had to "find its way into good material and acquiesce in not having the final say." That’s because Starz is generally not putting up the bulk of the money.

Regarding The White Queen, for example, it was the BBC that had the final word, with Starz accepting "meaningful consultation."

The show worked well for the U.S. cabler, and its relationship with the BBC, Albrecht said, remains strong. In fact, for The Missing, another project with the BBC and an experienced production company, Albrecht said he didn’t personally need to be in the driver’s seat. "I know who the lead dog is, and that’s enough."

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For his part, Callender pointed out that history, while seemingly a safe subject to collaborate on, often reveals unexpected cultural differences and expectations among partners, as well as the different needs and expectations of the broadcasters who are part of a project.

The recent Dracula reboot is an example. The NBC/Sky co-production became tricky because NBC needed a Friday night, action-oriented show, while Sky was launching a female-skewing strand. Thus, he explained, "it had to be decided, in any given episode, whether to lead with an action scene or a character-driven scene." In short, he argued, process can get in the way even of a shared vision.

As for the latest trend in re-formatting European drama series, the two execs appeared not as enthusiastic as some of their peers. 'When I see a scripted original [The Returned, Prime Suspect, Queer as Folk were mentioned] I would ask, can I do better than the original?" Sometimes so, Albrecht intimated, but sometimes the result "just doesn’t retain the essence."

Think back to Upstairs, Downstairs, Callender reminded. "In the original British version, all the folks living downstairs thought they should be living downstairs; in the American version all the people downstairs thought they should be living upstairs." The remake, he was pointing out, didn’t capture the specificity of the class system and hence didn’t resonate.

And in the end, they concluded, it is all about resonance – and just as hard to create now as it was then.