Three sign on for 'Pillars of the Earth'

Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland in miniseries

A new TV maxi-series is trying to buck the trend and bring back appointment viewing for fictional sagas, a la "The Thorn Birds" or, more recently and modestly, "Angels in America" or "Broken Trail." Most of the big Euro stations have lined up to air "The Pillars of the Earth," but so far there are no broadcast takers in the U.S. or the U.K.

A Germany-Canada co-production spearheaded by Munich-based Tandem Communications and Montreal-based Muse Entertainment, the eight-hour saga, based on Ken Follett's best-seller, will be directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, who has helmed episodes of "Heroes" and "Saving Grace" and was Steven Spielberg's first assistant director on "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List."

"Pillars" starts lensing June 22 in Hungary and Austria. The premiere is set for the second half of 2010.

Ian McShane, who starred on HBO's "Deadwood," will play Waleran; Donald Sutherland takes the role as Bartholomew; and Rufus Sewell, who recently headlined "Eleventh Hour," plays Tom Builder. Others who have signed on for the shoot include Matthew Macfadyen ("Frost/Nixon") as Prior Philip, Sarah Parish ("The Holiday") as Regan Hamleigh, Hayley Atwell ("Brideshead Revisited") as Aliena, Eddie Redmayne ("The Other Boleyn Girl") as Jack and Gordon Pinsent ("Away from Her") as the Archbishop.

"It's a new world order," Scott Free TV president David Zucker said in describing the strategy of putting together financing abroad and then backing into a broadcast deal stateside. "Yes, there is more risk at the top, but there's more latitude on the creative side. It's not dissimilar to the indie film biz in this respect. Given how difficult the economy became here, we decided to plow ahead and get funding and casting done before trying to do a licensing deal in the States."

Zucker said there was "a lot of interest" among yank broadcasters, cablers and pay cablers but did not specify how close to a deal the producers were.

The novel has been adapted by John Pielmeier, who will also play the role of Cuthbert in the saga. His credits include "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" and "Hitler: The Rise of Evil."

"It's great to celebrate this moment after so many years of pursuing the rights to this outstanding book," Tandem managing director Rola Bauer said. "The fact that we have been able to raise the production financing in these economically challenging times is testimony to the enduring strength of fictional television event programming and brings us into Tandem's 10th year of international co-productions."

The historical novel set in 12th century England involves war, religious strife and power struggles as well as two interwoven love stories.

Tandem closed financing for the mega-production in May, a little more than a year after acquiring the rights to the book and bringing the title to MIPTV.

The mini already has been licensed to Germany's ProSiebenSat1, Canada's CBC and the Movie Network, Spain's Sogecable, Austria's ORF, Hungary's TV2 and stateside to Sony Pictures Home Entertainment for DVD. No broadcast deal is set for the U.S.

Big-budget so-called "event" minis have had a harder time in the U.S. in the past decade as appointment television has given way to time-shifting and viewing -- by young people at least -- on computers and other devices. However, finales of hit reality shows including "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" suggest that sizable audiences can be brought back if the buzz is big enough.

"Ken Follett's storytelling artistry presents a richness and brilliance we dream about when searching for outstanding properties for event television," Scott Free principal Ridley Scott said.

Tandem's Bauer sees "Pillars" as the first production in what she believes will be a revival of the limited series genre.

"It comes at just the right time -- when people are watching more TV and are spending more time with home entertainment," Bauer said. "The limited series has a certain exclusivity that sets it apart and makes it what used to be called 'must-see TV.' "

Published 20 years ago, the novel has been translated into 30 languages. In 2007, it was named Oprah Winfrey's 60th Book Club selection, prompting the U.S. publisher to ship an additional 1.4 million copies.

"Pillars" is executive produced by Zucker; Ridley and Tony Scott; Tandem toppers Rola Bauer, Tim Halkin and Jonas Bauer; and Muse president and CEO Michael Prupas. It's produced by John Ryan, whose credits include the Emmy and Golden Globe winner "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows."

Tandem, which specializes in minis and movies shot in English but with mostly European partners, announced in March it will co-produce with Stanley Brooks two movies based on a new series of novels by Patricia Cornwell.

Elizabeth Guider reported from Los Angeles; Scott Roxborough reported from Cologne, Germany.