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For Renaissance Drama, An Enlightened Production - Broadcasting & Cable

For Renaissance Drama, An Enlightened Production

Fontana’s Borgia breaks new ground for global technologies, financing
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When the producers of Tom Fontana's Borgia start selling the new historical TV drama to cable networks later this month, a number of U.S. TV executives will be getting a closer look at what could be a new model for globalized primetime TV production.

On the business side, the lavishly produced Renaissance drama is funded almost entirely with money from international sales and European channels and was green-lit without a U.S. broadcaster, though Netflix has streaming rights for the first three seasons. Yet the co-production partners decided to break with the way European dramas are traditionally developed by bringing in Fontana, a high-profile American showrunner, as creator and executive producer of the series.

"As far as I know, this was the first time a show like this had been green-lit with no American partner," says Fontana, who was given total creative control and a mandate to produce Borgia in the American style.

On the technical side, the production also broke new ground with tools from the theatrical film world that are rarely used in TV. These include systems for efficiently managing a multinational production and the use of new cameras.

Fontana notes that Borgia was the first series to use the Arri Alexa Plus camera, which had gained significant traction in theatrical filmmaking because of its low-light capabilities. This allowed them to shoot up to 120 frames per second and rely heavily on natural light for a much more cinematic look. "Being the first to use it was a little scary, but the results are stunning," Fontana says.

After the success of such American-produced historical series as Rome and The Tudors, French pay-TV giant Canal Plus approached Atlantique Productions about creating a historical drama that could have a wide global appeal, recalls Klaus Zimmerman, executive producer of Borgia and head of the Paris-based studio, which is part of Lagardere Entertainment.

Atlantique came up with the idea of a series on the infamous 15th century Borgia clan and approached Fontana. "It was the first time in Europe that we were producing a major TV series in the American style with a showrunner coming over from America," Zimmerman says.

Going it alone without an American partner was not originally part of the game plan, but the producers soon discovered that Showtime was also developing a series on the subject, called The Borgias, from Neil Jordan. Attempts to merge the two efforts fell apart because the creative visions were so different, Zimmerman notes.

Even so, international sales and financing from such European partners as Lagardere, Canal Plus, German public broadcaster ZDF and international distributor Beta Film funded a 12-episode first season with a budget of about €24 million ($31 million). The budget for the second season, which is in post-production, increased by about 25%, and a third season has been green-lit, which will give the producers 36 episodes to sell in the U.S.

The decision to create an American-style show in Europe with European money also required some major changes in the production process. "With a European show, there is no writer, producer or showrunner involved through the life of the series," Fontana says.

The series also draws on a number of innovative technologies to streamline workflows and manage a production that involved a multinational crew shooting in Prague and Rome, with post-production work in New York and Prague. "We ended up doing things that you normally only see on theatrical films with much bigger budgets," says Aaron Seliquini, post supervisor for the project.

For example, high-speed Internet connections allowed HD files shot on Tuesday in Europe to be available to the post-production team in New York on Wednesday morning for editing on their Avids; also, Filmlight's Baselight software allowed color correction and other work to proceed smoothly from multiple locations. Skype, FaceTime, Google Documents, iPads-which were used to view dailies-and a variety of other online and consumer tools were also widely used to share content and communicate.

"The turnaround time in post was better than for some shows I've worked on that were just done in the U.S.," Seliquini says.

The final results did well with audiences, with record ratings on Canal Plus in France, and hefty viewing figures in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, Zimmerman notes.

"I think it shows that the [program financing and production] model is really starting to change and that there is a space for a different kind of independently financed show," he says.

The producers contacted Fontana with the idea for a series on the Borgia clan because of his previous successes as the creator of Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz and other award-winning series, and his longstanding interest in the Renaissance and the Popes.

Fontana immediately jumped at the idea. "I love research and I'm a faux historian, in the sense that I have 300 books on that period and the men and women who lived then," he says.

The series is based on intensive research, although getting a good read on the Borgias is still difficult because they were such polarizing figures, Fontana admits. As the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants heated up in 16th century Europe, Protestants often pointed to the Borgias and Pope Alexander VI, who sired a number of illegitimate children, as examples of church corruption, intrigue and greed. Alexander VI's enemies within the church also contributed to some of the clan's legendary excesses.

Fontana explains that he tried to work his way through the conflicting accounts and stuck to the known facts while filling in dramatic details that aren't in the historical record. "For a fiction writer, there is a lot of room to move within the historical facts," he says. "You just have to be honest with the few absolute facts that you have and have a sense of who the characters are."

While the series pulls no punches regarding the violence, intrigue, promiscuity and power plays of the Borgia clan, it is also careful to set the series in the Renaissance period, which produced an amazing flowering of knowledge, and to portray the Borgias as complex human characters.

"There are a lot of things that they supposedly did that weren't reported when [Alexander VI] was Pope," Fontana says. "Sometimes, scandals only come out after a person dies. I just felt that I can't write a show about bad people or good people. I can only write a show about people so I can't create a show about someone who is purely evil."

This complex mix of violent intrigue, Machiavellian power plays and the flowering of Renaissance literature, arts and science, also reminds Fontana of the modern world. "In 1492 [when the series starts], there is basically a revolution going on in terms of mankind moving from the dark ages to the enlightened age of the Renaissance," he says, which is comparable in many ways to the technological revolutions we are seeing today.

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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