Roland Emmerich’s gladiator drama “Those About to Die,” which Prime Video has acquired exclusive streaming rights for in several European territories, is an ambitious project creatively, but it also breaks new ground in business terms.
With a budget north of $150 million for a 10-episode first season, it is the most expensive independently produced European series ever. For Emmerich, the German filmmaker best known for blockbuster movies such as “Independence Day,” the show is a new departure as well as it is his first foray into television.
The project was initiated by Emmerich himself, but key to its greenlighting was the backing of streamer Peacock, which took U.S. rights, High End Productions, which holds European rights, and AGC Studios, which is selling rights for the rest of the world. Splitting the rights like this was always the plan, as High End’s Herbert G. Kloiber and Oliver Berben (pictured above) tell Variety.
High End was only set up two years ago, but behind it are some of the most experienced players in the European film and TV business. The company is a joint venture set up by Kloiber, who headed German media giant Tele München Group for more than four decades, and German film and TV company Constantin Film, headed by Martin Moszkowicz and Berben. The managing director is Jonas Bauer, who previously worked at Tandem Productions, where he worked on big budget shows like “The Pillars of the Earth,” and French TV and film giant Studiocanal.
Key to the ambitious scale of “Those About to Die,” which stars Anthony Hopkins, is its adoption of an independent financing model. In Europe, for example, High End has sold the streaming rights to Prime Video in an exclusive window, but it is also selling free-TV rights territory by territory. This approach was integral to the project from the get-go, Berben tells Variety, and the plan “really played out fantastically.”
“When we set the project up the whole idea was not to just go to a single streamer and sell the worldwide rights, but to separate [the rights],” Berben says. This was done to allow Emmerich and Kreuzpaintner “to have the budget they want, and create the show that they want.”
Berben sees their success in raising this record-breaking budget as a “fantastic sign,” indicating what High End can achieve in the future. It is a particular achievement considering the “perfect storm,” in his words, that has struck the television business, with the traditional advertising-funded broadcast model challenged, and the subscription streaming model not yet proving to be the panacea that some had hoped for.
“We were able to not only cross that storm, but use it, and not just rely on one single partner, but through the situation that we had bring in the best contacts that we had in Europe and the U.S. [to assemble the show’s budget], and that enabled us to create exactly the show [Emmerich and Kreuzpaintner wanted to create],” Berben says.
“For us as High End, it was a huge risk to go into that with such a large budget and investment that we took on. But it played out fantastically and is a clear sign that we have the chance to ‘fulfil our dreams,’ and go territory by territory, even though we did the European deal with Amazon for the first window.”
With regards to selling the free-TV window for the show, Berben adds: “We will take our time, especially because the free-TV market is in a huge shake up everywhere right now.”
Kloiber credits Emmerich with being the prime driver for the show from its inception. He explains how the show came to be greenlit. “Roland brought it to us, and at the time it was in the mode of getting greenlit; AGC took a big responsibility, and the deal with Peacock then followed, and pretty much simultaneously, we bought it for the European territories. And so, I think you can say it was very much Roland’s initiative, and he pushed very hard. It’s his first foray into television, so that’s what intrigued me. Having done 45 years of theatrical distribution, I thought it would be wonderful to see somebody like Roland step into the ring with the huge budget we allowed him to show us his hand.”
“Those About to Die” enters an international television market that has seen few historical dramas on this scale since HBO’s “Rome,” which ran 2005-2007, although in the movie arena Ridley Scott is about to unleash “Napoleon” and “Gladiator 2.”
Kloiber says: “This is an outstanding kind of pitch that we will present to the clients and the viewers. One that hasn’t been seen a lot, at least not for a very long time. So, we felt that it has a very good, exclusive window in terms of dealing with that. Historically, World War One and Two and the 20th century have been done a great deal over the last couple of years. This show, I think, is quite exceptional, and will stand out when it’s ready in 2024 as a very unique flavor.”
Berben adds: “Everybody’s looking for an IP or a big brand, and here basically you have two things. First, you have one of the biggest IPs in cinema, which is Roland himself. The whole thing relies on a non-fiction book [by Daniel P. Mannix], but when Roland first pitched the show, you could immediately see this is not just a pure, realistic storytelling of Ancient Rome: it’s the Roland style of how everything’s going to look, you know, with large animals, huge races, violence… with everything larger than life. And that’s what makes it so interesting.”
“Second, you have Rome, gladiators and the Colosseum, which is also a parallel to what’s happening in today’s world. When Roland showed us the first ideas, it was basically to show the audience how close the distraction through games and sports in ancient times is to everything that’s going on today—it’s basically the same as when we’re watching a football game or a Formula One race, everybody’s waiting for something to happen and not necessarily something good. And that’s the same thing in Rome, and the Roman elite knew that in order to take the masses where they wanted them to go, they needed something like this, and this parallel makes the whole set up very modern. It’s not just a pure historical, ancient time story. It’s realizing that we’re doing today what has been there always, and then we make it really bigger than life like Roland and Marco are doing it right now.”
Kloiber adds: “The mind-blowing idea is that on 50 Sundays in a year you had over 200,000 people gathering at the games. And then you had masses of people who are involved in all sorts of evil activities in the underworld, from fights, to gambling to prostitutes and whatnot. So, you have this larger-than-life perspective, which actually surpasses in many ways what you have in the present day.”
Berben says: “Also, one more thing is that a third of the budget of the whole Roman state was put into these games at the Colosseum. So, you know that what they were doing was more than just fun; it was to control the masses.”
“Those About to Die” is High End’s first project, and in terms of what it says about its ambitions, it is definitely a statement, according to Kloiber. Although the company’s output will be relatively low, the quality of its projects will be high.
“There will be a limited number of productions, but they will always be at the upper end of budgeting. And the ambition is not to do TV movies, or two parters, like the literary adaptations I did before, like “Moby Dick” or “Sea Wolf” or the Rosamunde Pilcher adaptations. No, the idea is really to do the outstanding, and that was the reason why we got together. And I got back out of my rocking chair to get a little excitement in my life. So there it is. We’ll try, and not all of it will be $150 million, but most of it will be outstanding in size.”
Berben adds that “Those About to Die” demonstrates “there are possibilities in creating material for the worldwide audience, not just through the U.S., but also through the European output.”
“Those About to Die,” which started shooting at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios in March and will continue until November, has been unaffected by the WGA and SAG strikes, Berben says.
“All the scripts were finished by the time the strike began, and on the actors’ side, we have one SAG actor, Anthony Hopkins, at the beginning of the shoot, but there was no strike at that time.”
Hopkins and a few other established actors aside, most of the cast are up-and-coming talent. “The idea is to have a season of 10 episodes followed by, hopefully, one, two or three seasons more,” Kloiber says. “When it comes to casting characters who stay on two or three seasons you get into terrible problems in securing the actors down the road. So, Roland and all of us decided that we would cast a couple of established actors, like Anthony Hopkins as Emperor Vespasian, but we have lots of young cast. And don’t forget, this is a very physical show. There’s an enormous amount of demand on people riding these chariots and fighting as gladiators. Obviously, there are also the senators and the patrician families, but the cast is, I think, a good mix of established actors and good-looking young people who should, hopefully, survive a couple of seasons on this.”
Berben adds: “Roland’s idea when it came to the casting was to create something new, something very diverse, and also based on characters who are from various territories across Europe and Africa. So, the whole idea was to use that approach because you don’t have to stick to a local cast, and we had the chance to go broader. We had weeks and months of training for the younger ones, even before we started shooting, because the roles are really very physical. Not just the fighting, but also the racing.”
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