A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. In the fall of 2002, HBO -- months from beginning production in Rome for its epic Julius Caesar series -- got interesting news: ABC also had a toga saga in the works. Not just any tale about ancient Rome. It too focused on Caesar and featured Octavian and Mark Antony. Et tu, Brutus? Yupthe ol' backstabber was in the script too. ''They could have picked any emperor! Go for Nero!'' recalls Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment.
Thus began one of the more thrilling chariot races in TV history. Networks queue up dueling projects often (most notably, ABC, CBS, and NBC all had salacious flicks on Amy Fisher in 1992-93), but they've never spent this much doing so. HBO, which began shooting Rome March 22, estimates it could invest a record $75 million-plus in the first 12 episodes; ABC, which usually spends around $1 million per episode for a first-year drama, has budgeted a staggering $30 million for eight episodes of Empire. Aside from sharing bank-busting budgets, Rome and Empire recount shockingly similar stories: Both track the fall of Caesar and the rise of his nephew Octavian (called Octavius in ABC's version) to emperor. But neither script is as engrossing as the chicken-or-egg debate raging between HBO and ABC: Who came up with their project first?
Strauss says HBO had been developing Rome since 1998, when she bought a buzz-worthy script by Bruno Heller (The Huntress) that begins with Pompeii and the Roman senate threatening to overthrow Caesar and goes on to feature an 11-year-old Octavian and his relationship with two soldiers. The pay-cabler sat on the script for months before buying it -- which may have opened the door for competitors to learn of its existence. ''Scripts are widely passed around,'' says one Rome conspiracy theorist. ''When a major voice like Bruno Heller emerges, everybody reads it.''
Susan Lyne, who was ABC Entertainment president until late April, says that her network's Empire, written by newcomer Thomas Wheeler, is an intimate look at Octavius' rule and his relationship with the fictitious gladiator Tyrannus. ''I don't think that you could argue we stole their idea,'' contends Lyne. ''Empire came out of a retreat that took place before I came to ABC in January 2002. [Former network chairman] Lloyd Braun was throwing around ideas when someone, perhaps Lloyd, asked, 'Is there a Gladiator, The Series?''' By fall of 2002, the network had secured its successful go-to guys for TV movies, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Annie).
HBO has managed to keep one aspect of its show exclusive: its enviable production space at the famed Cinecitta studios in Rome (the same backlot used for The Passion of the Christ). Since Cinecitta was packed -- Ocean's Twelve is shooting there too -- Empire set up shop at the smaller Roma Studios, where filming began only last week. The setback prompted some Romeans to speculate on whether this battle for space, not to mention the similarity of the projects, led to the departure of Empire's production designer and first assistant director. ''Every production changes crews during prep,'' demurs Empire's Zadan.