Greenlight the Pope


It was inevitable. Given the tens of millions of TV viewers in this country and around the world who followed the passing of Pope John Paul II, you knew what was coming next: producers clamoring to turn his life into a miniseries.

Word first surfaced during the MIPTV annual international television market in Cannes, France, last week—only days after the pope's interment—that serious discussions were under way for a TV epic about his life. At the center of the project, according to industry sources, is Ettore Bernabei, the chairman of LUX, an Italian independent production company. The veteran producer has developed close ties with the Vatican during a storied career that includes working on several religious-themed international TV epics. Among the productions he has been part of are five biblical-themed movies that ran on TNT in the mid 1990s, including Abraham and Jacob, and Joseph: A TNT Bible Story. The LUX chief was also part of the co-production of Jesus on CBS in 2000. Jesus drew more than 20 million viewers, making it the year's highest-rated miniseries.

Some of the same people involved in Jesus are in discussions about the Pope John Paul II project, including Italian broadcaster RAI. Feelers have been put out to CBS as well. The producers are seeking the Vatican's cooperation with this project, as they did with the Jesus miniseries. It was screened at the Vatican, and Viacom Co-COO Les Moonves (then CBS president) got an audience with John Paul II. The word out of Cannes: The producers are aiming to air the miniseries next spring.

That may be wishful thinking, especially if Bernabei and company want to proceed with the Catholic Church's blessing. I remember when the Jesus project was in development, and let's just say that, with all those partners and with millions of dollars at stake, to say nothing of the religious sensitivities, the script went through several drafts. This new project likely will be similarly challenging, but given the subject matter and the high level of interest, it would take a brave man to put Pope John Paul II: The Miniseries in turnaround.

Certainly, religious-themed programming is a good bet in the entertainment business. We all know about the box-office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Last Wednesday, the premiere of NBC miniseries Revelations drew almost 16 million viewers while competing gainst American Idol (NBC did well with another religious-themed show that night: a special edition of Dateline devoted to the apparently inexhaustible subject of The Da Vinci Code).

It might have appeared a bit unseemly to huddle over discussions about a Pope John Paul II miniseries shortly after the man's funeral, but the project makes plenty of sense. It's easy to imagine the pitch:

Born in a small village in Poland, a young man named Karol Wojtyla considers becoming a professional actor before turning to theological study. The Nazi invasion of Poland and a crackdown on religious instruction force him into hiding. Post-war, he's ordained a Catholic priest and, by 1964, is Archbishop of Krakow and known as a courageous religious leader navigating the dangerous political waters of a Soviet-dominated country. Then, at 58, he's the Church's surprise choice in 1978 as the next Pope, the first non-Italian pontiff in more than 400 years. During his tenure, he survives an assassination attempt, plays a key role in the fall of Communism, and travels the world preaching to millions, railing against poverty, promoting peace, yet causing controversy with strict adherence to Church doctrine on abortion, contraception and other hot-button issues. Whether people are among the faithful or not, nobody denies his charisma or the dramatic scope of his life and work. Sold.