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RomaFictionFest: Keeping Scripted Television Alive, Part II
July 15, 2009  | By David Bianculli
Yesterday I reviewed some of the intriguing completed TV series screened in Rome last week at RomaFictionFest, an international gathering of creative and executive types interested in scripted television. Today I'll detail the best pitches for shows that haven't been made yet -- covering everything from a musical biopic of a largely unexplored chapter in the life of Frank Sinatra, and the story of a pygmy from the Congo who was displayed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo a century ago...

Here's the way the RomaTVPitching sessions worked. For three days, an auditorium full of people who develop TV for domestic and international markets -- including such active U.S. participants as Showtime, TNT and HBO -- sat and listened as prospective TV producers pitched their next ideas, showed short clip reels of related materials or examples of their previous work, and hoped to find some financial and/or creative partners.

Each team of pitchers got 10 minutes, after which the audience members were allotted five minutes to offer their succinct and unvarnished reaction. If the ideas didn't work, the wannabes knew almost instantly their new pet proects were not gonnabe. But a pitch that got buzz often got some instant interest, the promise of a same-day meeting, and the very real chance to turn a good TV idea into some actual good TV.

Series, miniseries and telemovies each got a day. It underscored the sad realization that, for broadcast networks in the United States, the market for TV movies and miniseries is virtually extinct. But cable outlets and boutique networks, abroad as well as in the states, offered some relief. Over the three days, here are some of the best proposals -- coming soon, we hope, to a TV set near you.

for-fame-and-fortune.jpgFOR FAME AND FORTUNE -- This was the most outstanding project to originate from the U.S., and if you saw the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you saw a scene with a character based on this real-life subject. In 1904, a pgymy named Ota Benga was among the Belgian Congo natives brought to the United States as part of the St. Louis World's Fair Afterward, Benga wanted to remain, and ended up being put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo. Unthinkable? Indefensible? Yes, but, as this TV project wants to make clear, Benga was as much opportunist as victim.

The project comes from Madison Davis Lacy, one of the original visionaries behind Eyes on the Prize, one of the best TV documentaries ever made. The director attached is British filmmaker Horace Ove, whose pioneering work predates even his bold 1968 work, Baldwin's Nigger. This is a project that should -- that must -- see the light of day.


TOM AND FRANK -- This project, from Brazil, wowed the audience by showing documentary clips capturing the 1967 studio and concert tour collaboration of Frank Sinatra and guitarist-composer-singer Antonio Carlos Jobim, the bossa nova popularizer of "Girl from Ipanema" fame. Writer Giuliano Cedroni sees it as a music-filled period miniseries, capturing the fiery pair's lengthy, unusual and sometimes stormy friendship. It may work better as a self-contained telemovie, but Cedroni definitely has struck gold here.


ALIAS GARBO -- Garbo was the code name of Juan Pujol Garcia, a WWII spy who was so effective as a double agent, he was awarded both an MBE by the British and an Iron Cross by the Nazis. Where did his true loyalties lie, and what was his story? That's what this Spanish production, written by British screenwriter John Howlett, will attempt to reveal. Howlett co-wrote the screenplay for Lindsay Anderson's If..., which makes this even more enticing.


SHAKESPEARE IN VENICE -- Do William Shakespeare's Venetian plays -- among them Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Othello -- have enough telling details about the place and culture that the playwright, in his "missing years," may have lived there? This Italian miniseries, written and directed by Alessandro Bettero, will make, and follow, that assertion. Shakespeare in Love was a worldwide hit in theaters, so why not a more dramatic, and investigative, approach?

THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE -- Another Italian project (this one from writer-director Fabio Segatori) this historical docudrama picked up interest immediately from potential co-production partners in France and Germany, where this 13th-century crusade began. Thousands of children were led on a march across the Alps, expecting the sea to part for them when they reached Marseilles. It didn't, but there's an individual true-life story to be told here as well, and its message of tolerance, as well as its love story, makes it a vey attractive dramatic property.


CLEOPATRA -- This comes from the BBC, and the pitch stressed comparisons to both Rome and The Tudors. Expect it to land on premium cable in the States, and to have its 13 episodes tracing the life of Cleopatra from her early childhood to her final asp-irations.

FIFTH BUSINESS: THE DEPTFORD TRILOGY -- This three-part, six-hour Canadian miniseries is based on that country's beloved novels by Robertson Davies, in which the throwing of a snowball (with a schoolmaster's paperweight packed within) figures in both the start and the climax of a story that spans 60 years. Writer Charles K. Pitts and producer Niv Fichman drew lots of interest on the strength of their pitch -- and even more when they dropped the name (though not yet for publication) of the famous Canadian director about to be attached to the project. I promised not to identify the famous Canadian director -- but your initial guess is likely to be correct.

MR. 7 MINUTES -- From Italy, this may be one of the purest, most playful ideas of all. The title character is a ruthless, impatient filmmaker (think Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold from Entourage, only as a producer, not an agent), whose waiting room is full of nervous screenwriters waiting to pitch him their ideas. Each of them, upon entering his office, is given precisely seven minutes, after which "Mr. 7 Minutes" coldly deconstructs their concept. The series is conceived as episodes that last precisely seven minutes, with each film "idea" fleshed out, and with a multiplatform exposure that includes, and is ready-made for, the Internet.

Seven minutes to pitch, then an instant dose of cold-blooded reality. Add a few more minutes, and that's RomaTVPitching, the exciting showcase, run by Pat Ferns, that already has served as a midwife to many international TV productions. Here's hoping the ones I just mentioned are among the next litter of actual programs to emerge from RomaFiction Fest...

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