Tailoring Film and TV for the World
CANNES: When the British Broadcasting Corp. agreed to co-produce a televised biography series with the U.S. cable channel Arts & Entertainment, it probably had little idea that J. Edgar Hoover and John Wayne would give it so much trouble.
Alleging that Mr. Hoover, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief, had a penchant for dressing up in women's clothes was one thing. But alleging that Mr. Wayne, for decades the Hollywood image of Wild West virility, was bisexual was quite another.
The BBC's American partners toned down the British treatment of Mr. Hoover's cross-dressing, but they drew the line on Mr. Wayne.
"They cut it out completely," said Paul Hamann, head of documentaries for BBC Television.
Mr. Hamann is also expecting conflicts over a series on the Middle East that it plans to co-produce with the Boston public-television station WGBH.
"The tone of the scripts on Israel will be an extremely delicate issue for the Americans," he said.
With global revenues now funding an increasing proportion of U.S. film and television production, broadcasters are being forced to wrestle with a growing number of subtle and not-so-subtle conflicts with their international production partners.
In the $1 trillion global film and television business, domestically produced television programs still draw the largest audiences.
But companies are striving to create programs with global reach, engineering co-productions from scratch and thoroughly revamping American series almost country by country.
In some cases, they are creating works that are meant to have no recognizable nationality at all.
The partners in this delicate cross-cultural dance include major Hollywood studios such as MGM Inc., Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures Corp. and PolyGram NV; smaller networks such as the documentary-based Discovery Communications Inc., and independent producers such as California-based PM Entertainment Group Inc.
What has driven the boomlet in international co-production over the past decade has been the explosion both in overseas television channels and networks and in program production costs.
"International sales that once accounted for only a fourth of revenues have quickly surged to 50 percent and will soon rise to 60 percent as markets in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America open up," said Frank Mancuso, the chairman of MGM.
Mr. Mancuso was in Cannes this week overseeing the launching of his studio's films and series at Mipcom, an annual television market attended by about 10,000 broadcast buyers and producers from around the world.
Films such as MGM's "Man in the Iron Mask" and series such as "Stargate SG-1" are "designed to have no nationality," enabling them to play as well in Bombay as they do in Brooklyn, Mr. Mancuso said.
The scramble to please all the world's viewers all of the time, or as many and as consistently as possible drives some producers to distraction.
George Shamieh, whose PM Entertainment distributes "L.A. Heat" and other action-oriented series, is pressured by Japanese programmers to inject more science fiction elements into programs, while Italian broadcasters complain of too much action, too little romance.
"One thing they all agree on is the need for the latest in gadgets and firepower," he said. "Audiences around the world cannot get enough of heat-seeking devices, remote pulse detectors and robots."
But the other elements of each production need careful consideration. In Britain, for example, Discovery's series on the Luftwaffe during World War II devoted far more attention to technical aspects of conducting air raids than the American edition.
"The Americans wanted a stronger focus on triumphs and heroics," said Chris Haws, the network's European vice president for commissions and production.
"We're constantly on the lookout not to fall prey to a Eurocentric bias," Mr. Haws said.
In Asia, the network encountered an entirely different set of potential flash points. Documentaries treating the Nanjing massacre by Japanese troops, an event that ignites rancorous debates between Japanese and Chinese, were pitched one way for Japanese viewers and another for Chinese audiences and overseas Chinese in the region.
Rather than tailoring programs region by region, PolyGram searches out existing titles that have "a branded notoriety," said David Ellender, the studio's president for international television. Its updated version of the 1950s series "Lassie" and its companion piece to "Star Trek," "Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict," trade on an instantly recognizable fictional formula to draw international audiences.
Elsewhere, Hollywood studios are strengthening their European base by establishing joint ventures.
Paramount is collaborating with the Berlin-based producer Ufa, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann GmbH, to develop European "movie franchises," said Gary Marenzi, president of the studio's international television group. Studio scriptwriters in California devise scenarios to be shot in English in Europe with a mix of European and American actors, with the aim of spinning off television series, he said.
"Even if we fail to place the film or series in the U.S., the joint venture is a way to reduce costs by not relying on big-name stars and taking advantage of European tax incentives and generally lower production charges," he said. Fox Television Studios, a subsidiary of News Corp., was started up in August with a similar ambition, "filling in as a sort of farm team for the majors," David Grant, president of the studios, said.