For a brief moment in mid-June, the producers of “Leonardo,” the upcoming big-budget series with Aidan Turner (“Poldark”) as the famed inventor, considered shooting the U.K. as renaissance Milan.
Luca Bernabei, CEO of the show’s producer Lux Vide, says the radical option was weighed partly because of spiraling COVID-19 rates and restrictions in Italy, and partly due to Turner’s co-star Freddie Highmore being only available for two weeks before jetting off to Canada to shoot “The Good Doctor.” But COVID was causing a similarly drastic shutdown in the U.K., meaning that in the end, Bernabei and Lux Vide head of production Daniele Passani made the decision to fly Highmore over to Italy and to build the dusty streets of Milan on the company’s backlot outside Rome.
While not every European production entity had the luxury of building their own sets to help solve COVID-19 production problems, the heads of some of the biggest independent shingles on the continent say that production continues to steam ahead as it has done for several months, and that they only see things ramping up in 2021.
“That night in March, when we stopped five sets at the same time and sent back home 600 people, was one of the most shocking days of my life,” recalls Bernabei. “In my 30-year career, I’ve been trained that whatever happens, the show must go on, you cannot stop the set. As a producer, what we do every day is make it work, and we’re doing that right now.”
As with Lux Vide, the COVID crisis hit Paris-based production firm Federation Entertainment right in the middle of production on its largest ever series, which company CEO Lionel Uzan even calls “my baby.”
The company was forced to shut down the adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” with David Tennant as the ambitious adventurer Phileas Fogg and Ibrahim Koma as his able sidekick Passepartout, for nine months because, as the title may suggest, the series is being shot across multiple countries.
After resuming in mid-November, Uzan says he can now see the light at the end of a nightmarish production tunnel, and anticipates that with a bit of luck, shooting will be completed in the next four weeks.
Despite the “tougher circumstances,” as Uzan describes them, that come with COVID production (positive tests and increased safety are being lumped on top of usual problems like authorization to shoot and location dilemmas), the Federation boss says that since the end of May, his company has not stopped prepping or shooting its series out of France, Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe; a testament to the recovering health of production across the continent.
“When you look at Europe in general, everyone is shooting shows, films and documentaries at the moment. That’s why I’m optimistic that we have been making our programs again for several months now and that will continue in 2021,” Uzan says.
Bernabei agrees that the outlook for production on European high-end dramas is positive, especially if the streamers and global production companies with which Lux Vide partners continue to agree to its increased financial demands to help carry the load of COVID-19 costs (Bernabei says those currently total €1.2 million ($1.45 million) and more than 50,000 tests for all Lux productions).
According to Françoise Guyonnet, Studiocanal executive manager of TV, it’s a matter of when rather than if production volume will return to its previous heights.
“It’s complicated, but I’m sure the level of production will be higher than ever as soon as we are out of this health crisis,” says Guyonnet.
Both Bernabei and Uzan note the appetite for high-end dramas out of Europe is larger than it has ever been, a sign, according to Uzan, that COVID has prompted everyone to “acknowledge that streaming is the future,” if they didn’t already.
“To me it’s not that the traditional broadcasters are desperate or that streamers are struggling with the lack of content shooting in the U.S., it’s more of an overall acceleration,” Uzan says. “More competition means a bigger need for product, bigger investments, a need for volume and everyone understanding that having local productions is as important as having big U.S. blockbusters.”
Bernabei points to the massive global success of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” as the kind of tone that buyers are most often looking to strike at the moment. He reveals that “Leonardo” is currently being adjusted for a “broader appeal,” which he is hoping to achieve by switching the music from classic to contemporary, and by bringing on “Queen’s Gambit” editor Michele Tesoro to make the episodes feel snappier.
“Is there anyone still working for niche in this business? We’re listening to the requests that are coming to us, and it’s clear that people are searching for broad products,” Bernabei says. “In my experience, the big American, international companies are asking right now for a really broad product that can bring relief, and that’s what we’re going to keep providing for them going forward.”
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