Rome MIA: Why Italian Networks Are Betting on English-Language Series

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Daniel Sharman in 'Medici: Masters of Florence'

After the success of 'The Young Pope' and 'Medici: Masters of Florence' in reaching a global audience, Italy is forging ahead into international markets.

Rome's MIA market held a rare joint Italian TV Upfronts, with the country's top production companies presenting their latest works to an international audience. The market is growing each year, with more than 1,800 guests this year who set up 60,000 meetings, many focused on how to exploit Italy's expanding TV landscape.

While a number of traditional Italian shows were unveiled, it was revealed that a surprising number of new Italian TV productions are being shot in English. After 2016's The Young Pope and Medici: Masters of Florence were shot largely in English, many companies are focused on finding Italian stories with universal appeal.

After leading the way last year with Young Pope, Sky is once again planning a slew of primarily English-language series, including The New Pope, Zero Zero Zero and Django.

Paolo Sorrentino’s next chapter in Vatican drama, The New Pope, again produced by Wildside from Sky and HBO, will start production in 2018.

Zero Zero Zero, adapted from Roberto Saviano’s best-seller, will follow one shipment of cocaine from its production in Mexico to its distribution in Europe through the eyes of the main players in the drug trade. Stefano Sollima will serve as showrunner, with writers including Leonardo Fasoli and Mauricio Katz. Cattleya is producing with Sky Italia and Canal Plus. The eight-episode series will film across four continents, and while English will be the main language, other languages in the story include Spanish, French, Wolof, Arabic and Calabrian. Filming begins in March.

Sky Italia will produce Django with Cattleya and Oliver Bibas of Atlantique Productions. Fasoli and Maddalena Ravagli are writing the series. Sky Italia’s first Spaghetti Western will reimagine Sergio Corbucci’s famed 1966 film starring Franco Neri.

“I am convinced that one of the key strengths of European shows is and will be credibility, so we are choosing the language based on what would happen in reality,” says Andrea Scrosati, executive vp programming of Sky Italia, noting that is was only natural for the American lead character of The Young Pope, Lenny Belardo, to speak English.

Scrosati says that this dates back to their decision to film Gomorrah, the hard-hitting saga of Camorra families, in strict Neapolitan dialect. (The show is also broadcast in Italy with subtitles.) “This was a key component of the credibility of that show,” he says, which has become one of Italy's most popular shows in a country that is used to watching dubbed productions.

“Naturally, shows in English have potentially a stronger appeal on the international market, but that’s not why we are selecting those stories,” continues Scrosati. “We are choosing them because we believe they are stories that are different, where we can leverage at full the incredible talent that is working with us.”

Production company Lux Vide is also working on a number of English-language series, currently developing six projects for the international market, including its own (still untitled) deep-dive into the ancient Roman Empire. And it also is starting The Devils, a behind-the-scenes European drama set in the world of high finance. The project will be shot mainly in the U.K. and set in 2012, focusing on the European debt crisis.

But next up, it is shooting season two of Medici: Masters of Florence, created by Nicholas Meyer and Frank Spotnitz for RAI. The first season of the series, which was shot on location in Tuscany, is available in the U.S. on Netflix. The show reveals the emergence of the Renaissance through Lorenzo the Magnificent, who leads a “rock revolution,” where the youth fight to defeat the old world order.

Taking place 20 years after the first season, the eight-episode second season stars Daniel Sharman as Lorenzo the Magnificent, as well as Sean Bean, Bradley James, Matilda Lutz, Alessandra Mastronardi, Raoul Bova and Sarah Parish. Medici: Masters of Florence is directed by Jon Cassar and Jan Michelini, and produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Rai Fiction, Altice Group and Big Light Productions Ltd.

“This is an incredibly rich culture and stunningly beautiful country. It has not been exposed to the rest of the world in a long time,” says Spotnitz about the renewed interest in Italian stories. “Netflix was eager to come back for this season.”

“We are hungry,” says Lux Vide CEO Luca Bernabei of his decision to shoot the series in English. “I want our product to travel the world. I don’t want to be linked to this image of pizza, mafia, mandolino.”

While international sales continue to be a key driver for these series, companies are also banking on a number of local-language series with global appeal.

One of the most anticipated projects is HBO and RAI’s My Brilliant Friend, the first adaptation of Elena Ferrate’s internationally best-selling book series The Neapolitan Novels. The series is in production with Wildside and Fandango producing with Saverio Costanzo directing. And Lotus Productions has a number of upcoming shows including Western Colt, with Stefano Sollima as showrunner from an idea by Sergio Leone; and Beati Paoli, about the secret Sicilian sect from director Giuseppe Tornatore.

And judging from MIA’s Italian TV upfronts, the popularity of mafia dramas is not going away anytime soon. Cattleya presented the trailer for season three of Gomorrah and announced that Sundance Channel, which picked up the first two seasons, will also take on the next chapter for American audiences. Sky Italia has already ordered a fourth season for next year.

Cattleya also produced the neo-noir Roman mafia thriller Suburra that is currently streaming on Netflix, and it is hard at work on a second season. And Cross Productions' The Hunter tells the true-life drama of prosecutor Alfonso Sabella, who went up against top bosses of the Sicilian mafia in the 1990s.