Tag Archives: Caroline Torrance

Buyers guide

Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.

Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.

The Returned: 'Significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content'
The Returned: ‘Significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content’

One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”

On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.

As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”

Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.

Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”

Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”

Prisoners of War (left) and its US adaptation Homeland, exemplifying the benefits of drama formats
Prisoners of War (left) and its US adaptation Homeland, exemplifying the benefits of drama formats

Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”

But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”

A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”

The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?

Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.

Mowbray: 'We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want'
Mowbray: ‘We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want’

Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”

Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.

Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”

Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”

Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”

Anglo-French copro The Tunnel was adapted from Danish drama The Bridge
Anglo-French copro The Tunnel was adapted from Danish drama The Bridge

One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.

Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”

Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.

Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”

Krüger: 'Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show'
Krüger: ‘Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show’

SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”

While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”

The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”

Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”

The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.

A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.

M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines, which Canal+ has acquired from Fox International Channels
M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, which Canal+ has acquired from Fox International Channels

The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”

In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”

Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).

But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”

Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”

The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.

Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).

The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”

Keshet UK's Sara Johnson
Keshet UK’s Sara Johnson

Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”

Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”

This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”

Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”

Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”

Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.

Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”

Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.

Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”

Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”

A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”


Creative Europe funding

Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).

Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grant  of up to €1m.

To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.

A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.

According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).

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Drama fit for a king

Costing US$30m to make and promising to push the boundaries of TV drama, Versailles is one of the most hotly anticipated period pieces in recent memory. DQ goes behind the scenes as the Louis XIV epic wraps its debut season.

Five years in the making, one of Europe’s most expensive and daring new dramas is about to be unleashed by France. Aptly, it’s called Versailles.

But despite its royal heritage, this is no regular French drama production. The €27m (US$29.7m) series – commissioned by French pay TV broadcaster Canal+ under its Création Originale drama strategy – surprises in more ways than one.

Jalil Lespert directs George Blagden's Louis XIV. All Versailles images © Tibo et Anouchka/Capa Drama/Zodiak Fiction/Incendo/Canal+
Jalil Lespert directs George Blagden’s Louis XIV. All Versailles images © Tibo et Anouchka/Capa Drama/Zodiak Fiction/Incendo/Canal+

The 80% French-funded series is created and scripted by British duo Simon Mirren (Without a Trace, Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks, The Escape Artist). They weren’t the project’s first showrunners. After a few false starts, and following the departure of André and Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men), Mirren and Wolstencroft joined two years ago via Anne Thomopoulos (Band of Brothers, Rome, Borgia, Black Box), who is exec producing the drama together with Claude Chelli (Braquo) of Newen-owned Capa Drama.

Canal+ greenlit the show in January 2014, before French coproducer Zodiak France funded a writers room in LA and production finally began last August, with filming wrapping in early March this year.

As it turns out, Mirren and Wolstencroft were destined for the part. Wolstencroft says he got the call from Mirren as he left a butcher’s in Brooklyn. “Simon phoned me and said, ‘Mate, do you know anything about Louis XIV and Versailles?’ ‘Well, I did study him at Cambridge and he is my specialist subject,’ I replied.”

Wolstencroft was tutored by historian Peter Burke, a Louis XIV expert who shared the research for his books on the monarch with his Cambridge students. He recalls: “At college I remember thinking this would be a brilliant movie but that it would never happen.”

While it’s nothing new for French productions to be scripted and shot in English, it’s certainly a bold step when the subject in question is so quintessentially French. Versailles will be dubbed into French, with Canal+ viewers given the choice of either language when the series launches this fall. But the approach has raised French eyebrows, with its English-speaking Louis XIV, played by British actor George Blagden (Vikings), in particular, proving controversial.

Simon Mirren
Simon Mirren

Making the show in English was a “very buccaneer, brave thing to do,” says Wolstencroft. “It’s clearly important in terms of its historical veracity to have a French version, but to film in English is bold and wonderful. Three billion people in the world speak English, so let’s take this story to the maximum audience, like the Americans do. The whole point is that the story exists on its own terms – it’s English-language, international entertainment.”

Chelli is similarly dismissive of the concerns: “Louis is married to a Spanish woman, his brother’s wife is English and his mother is a quarter Italian, so it’s not really just a French story but a European one.”

It was Chelli who first pitched the idea to Canal+ five years ago, after a visit to the Palace of Versailles’ central Hall of Mirrors left him wondering why no one had made a drama about France’s longest-serving monarch. “The guy’s incredible; he invented everything from architecture to fashion, music, ballet, haute cuisine – the lot,” Chelli says of Louis XIV. “It’s a long story, but here we are five years later with great showrunners and great stories.”

Canal+ is very clear about why it backed the production. “Versailles was a great subject for us in the first place, but we didn’t want to do another conventional historical series,” says Pierre Saint André, manager of French drama and coproductions for Création Originale at Canal+, which is headed by Fabrice de la Patellière. “We love Borgia, which aired on Canal+, but we wanted to do something different.”

Audiences for pay TV channels make it possible to take creative risks that their broad-reach, free-to-air terrestrial counterparts often cannot, especially in France, says Saint André. “For Canal+ as a pay TV channel in France doing original programming, it had to be something different, a distinctive approach and a fresh take on a specific story.”

David Wolstencroft
David Wolstencroft

The project was high budget from the start and needed coproduction partners. “We’re French producers and we don’t do productions of this scope, so it took some time to get the production together creatively and financially,” says Chelli.

Associate producer Aude Albano, of Zodiak France, adds: “Beyond bringing partners together, the big challenge of producing a major historical drama that looks beautiful and rich on screen is that it needs a lot of money.”

Chelli agrees: “It would have been impossible to do without the right funding, given the magnitude of the set and the rest of the production. If it had just been down to French money, we would have done it in a few months. With Versailles, you expect something beautiful – in terms of both the palace and the people. If you didn’t have the money, it would look ridiculous.”

The production’s grand scale also played a part in the appointment of French director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint Laurent, Headwinds) to direct the drama’s first two episodes. “He was on the same wavelength as all of us in trying to do something new and unique with the show,” says Saint André.

The series starts in 1667 with a 28-year-old Louis XIV. The palace itself is still a hunting lodge, and war is raging. The king has left Paris and relocated his court to Versailles to establish absolute power over rebel French nobles. “Versailles was basically a political project, but Louis XIV also wanted to build the most beautiful palace in the world, so that’s what he did,” says Chelli.

A central theme of Versailles is the relationship between Louis XIV and his gay younger brother Philippe, a heroic warrior played by Alexander Vlahos (Merlin, Privates). Philippe’s wife Harriette – sister to Charles II of England and one of Louis’ lovers – dies at the start of the series, soon after the death of the French monarch’s mother.

Caroline Torrance
Caroline Torrance

“It was a blow for Louis and the end of his innocence,” says Chelli. “He had to grow up and face the next step in his history. We’re telling a universal story of two brothers who love their mother. It’s about becoming a man. There’s nothing specifically French about it, and hopefully the viewers will relate.”

The drama is anything but a slavish retelling of the period, with the copro partners and showrunners not interested in delivering a history lesson. “This is a piece of drama and we’re taking a few liberties with dates and events. We’re inventing something that could have happened,” says Chelli. Albano adds: “We were obsessed by airing a very modern take on this part of history, and that’s why it’s also great to have non-French writers on the show, who are free from self-censorship.”

Saint André agrees: “That’s what was very convincing in Simon and David’s approach. They delivered what a French writer perhaps wouldn’t have dared do. But this was the liberty we needed for Versailles. We don’t want to specialise in historical dramas. We’re looking for contemporary stories and series, so it had to be different and modern, visually and in its storytelling – and I think Versailles succeeds in both aspects.”

Wolstencroft says he’s using Versailles’ history as a lens to view the modern world. “I’m a historian and I love France, but I often don‘t agree with the way history is perceived. It’s true of Britain, too, where there’s this kind of preserved taxidermy. True history is a living, breathing moment in time and everyone remembers it differently. Versailles is the birth of France as a superpower in Europe, the birth of fashion and haute cuisine, of architecture being used by a ruler – it’s a bit like the beginning of New Labour, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, and there are parallels all the way through.”

Then there’s Versailles the brand. “It’s the first global brand,” says Wolstencroft. “Most people don’t know about France or Louis XIV, but they do know about Versailles. It’s like the original Nike symbol or the world’s first Superbowl spot. Everyone had heard about it, and it grew and grew to become a shop window and a place to manipulate politicians, as well as the centre of culture.”

Aude Albano
Aude Albano

Applying the US scriptwriter-showrunner model has also helped deliver a singular vision and give authorship to the series in a market driven by the producer-director model. “It’s useful to have this streamlined creative process, because it meant we could keep our eyes on the prize, which is quite hard when you have the infrastructure that we have and the expectations of what a period drama should be,” explains Wolstencroft. “We had to stop ourselves from going into Downton or Masterpiece territory.”

Versailles is anything but, and Mirren and Wolstencroft deliver a blinder at the end of episode one.

Wolstencroft suggests France’s next step should be to “empower writers to understand the basics of production.”

“Even among those writing for UK TV, there are people who don’t know how to make a scene better, or don’t feel empowered to do so,” he says. “They might have opinions but keep them to themselves. The writer-producer model in the US is very empowering because it means authorship. It’s the opposite of how it works in France, with the director of a show usually being its originator. It may threaten the pillars of established power but, actually, you get better stories at the end of it, so everybody wins – as the US has demonstrated.”

Versailles’ modern approach is reinforced by contemporary electronic music and pared-back hairstyles and makeup, eschewing the huge wigs and chalky faces of the period. “We watch UK shows here and everyone loves Downton Abbey,” says Chelli, “but this is not Downton. We’ve tried to do something different. Versailles is shot in a different way. It’s more modern, the music is mostly electronic and the entire production looks much more contemporary than Downton and some of the other classic period pieces.”

The visually lavish production, however, is certainly in keeping with the period, benefiting from advice by Versailles experts to capture the historical context.

Alongside accessing French subsidies, the production’s French base was important in terms of location and the top local technical production skill the show required, says Chelli. “We really wanted to do it in Paris, even if it was much more expensive than, say, doing it in Hungary. The palace is near Paris, and we built the set here. For us it’s a way to tell the world that a French production can do as much as any other.”

Versailles5A huge recreation of Versailles was built by set designer Katia Wyszkop (Potiche, Van Gogh) at the Studio de Bry just outside Paris, where much of the production is shot. Top costume designer Madeline Fontaine (Amélie) oversaw the transformation of 2,500 metres of fabric to the tune of more than €200,000, while the inclusion of Louis XIV-style coaches and horses cost €3,500 per day. As well as the core members of the cast, there were 220 extras and a menagerie of animals including wolves, eagles and pigs.

Versailles’ coproduction model has deliberately avoided too many partners. “We didn’t want to have too much input from different sources,” says Chelli. “It’s not a very simple partnership, because of Canada and the showrunners, but we’d rather choose the right partners and do what we want before offering it to the public.”

Eighty percent of the budget is French, with 60% coming from Canal+ and French public subsidies, including from Région Île-de-France, where production took place, plus coproducer Zodiak Media in exchange for worldwide distribution rights to the show outside of Canada.

The project’s Canadian coproducer Incendo has a 20% stake, and has brought Canadian pay channel Super Channel on board. Incendo is now overseeing the post-production phase, which runs from March to August, including a second commercial 10×44’ cut for the broader-reach free-to-air channels to help finance the pay TV version.

“Part of the attraction for the Canadian market is the French version that’s already paid for,” says Incendo’s Ian Whitehead, Canadian producer for the show. Canada is also fielding two actors, Tygh Runyan and Evan Williams, as well as movie director Daniel Roby, who helmed the final three episodes and for whom Versailles marks a TV debut.

Whitehead sees an advantage in having a clear lead broadcaster in the form of Canal+, adding that if a big US partner had been brought in right away, the process could have taken far longer. “To have more independence was a risk for everyone, but I think there’s going to be a big pay-off, because it’s a clear vision,” he says.

The production is nevertheless charting new territory, and with it come a few inevitable challenges. “Essentially it’s a big ask for everyone,” says Wolstencroft. “There’s the translation issue – not just linguistically but culturally. It’s a hybrid. It’s the first time it’s ever been done and the first experience for everyone. We’re like the first people on the Moon, in a way. There was no rehearsal. You discover Easter eggs as you go – some good, some bad; some useful, some challenging. The goal for everyone at every stage was making the story better, because that’s what matters, and the emotion.”

Finding actors was another early challenge, adds Chelli. This was resolved with a predominantly British cast, featuring mostly young and up-and-coming actors. “We didn’t want to do a Euro-pudding and we didn’t want lots of accents. David Wolstencroft was adamant about that,” he says. Ten of the drama’s 18-strong main cast are from the UK, complemented by four from France, two from Canada and a pair from Switzerland, including Anatole Taubman (Quantum of Solace) as the evil Moncourt.

Versailles8“The good thing about working with young actors,” says Saint André, “is that when the story starts all the characters are in their 20s, which is somewhat unusual. It’s normally about old kings trying to keep the balance of power.”

For Whitehead, one of the distinctive features of Versailles as a slice of French history done in the English language “is that it actually crystallises where things are at with television now.”

“Had this been a less ambitious show, it might have been completely financed by Canal+. It would have had Canal+’s extraordinary production values, but maybe it would have had remakes or been dubbed into English versions for other broadcasters,” he says.

“Here, it’s fallen to all of us as producers to make something much more global. We’re taking in the vision Canal+ has for its own channel and combining it with what, for example, a North American audience would expect. And we’re doing that on what should be a French-language show. That’s something unique compared with dramas about any other period.”

Versailles forms the centrepiece of Zodiak Rights’ sales catalogue at this year’s MipTV, where it is premiering to buyers internationally. Caroline Torrance, Zodiak’s head of international scripted, says there have already been strong expressions of interest, although the decision was taken not to confirm any buyers in advance in order to get the best deal and platform for the show.

“It’s one of the most expensive European dramas ever made, but it’s taking the period drama into another space,” says Torrance. “The showrunners and Canal+ want to push boundaries. They don’t want just another period drama – and neither do audiences. It’s very important for Canal+ to do groundbreaking drama, and doing it in English will resonate with markets like the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.”

As for how Canal+’s French viewers will react when Versailles launches this fall, Saint André says: “We’ll see. Yes, we’re pushing the envelope, but our French subscribers watch tons of US and European shows that have been dubbed into French. We did it with Borgia and with Spotless.”

Development of a second season has already started, although Canal+ has yet to greenlight it. “If you’re doing these big, 10-episode series, you would want to be able to follow up without too long a delay between seasons,” says Torrance.

And there’s clearly much more story to tell. “Louis XIV is the longest-serving monarch in history,” says Wolstencroft. “I don’t want to scare the actors or anything, but there are so many phases of Louis’ life, and this is just the beginning. This is him revving up – he’s only around 30 at the end of season one. He died when he was 75, and we could go all the way to the revolution. This is only act one.”

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