French crime drama Kepler(s) tackles themes of mental health and the Calais migrant crisis in the story of a police officer secretly struggling with multiple personality disorder who is sent to investigate the murder of a student in the port town. DQ meets the writers and producers.
There aren’t many school projects that get developed into a six-part series, are commissioned by a national broadcaster and then screened at an international television festival. Yet that’s the journey travelled by Kepler(s), the first television series from French writing partners Jean-Yves Arnaud and Yoann Legave.
In their previous lives, Legave was a journalist while Arnaud worked for NGOs. But five years ago, having moved into making short films and writing, respectively, they applied to go back to their studies and subsequently began a project to create a television series.
That series was Kepler(s) and when they were introduced to EVS Productions’ Caroline Solanillas and Laurent Cevccaldi, they were given the chance to write a pilot.
“It’s crazy,” admits Legave, “but the project is crazy and it’s quite complicated, with multiple personalities and the location of the show in Calais, which is really politically hardcore at the moment.”
Solanillas says she thought the script was well written and, in particular, she was drawn to the contemporary themes that laid the foundations for a crime drama. “We like projects that focus on real topics of our world and Calais is one of these topics,” she says. “No one in France talks about it so we are the first and only series that is about migrants and refugees. Calais is a real place with all these people. It’s also a very cinematographic place.”
The titular Kepler, played by Marc Lavoine, is a cop who suffers from multiple personalities. Posted in Calais, he tries to put his life back together with his wife and daughter. But when the body of a young student is found in a migrant camp, Kepler is paired up with a young local cop named Alice, who is both his guide and a witness to his downfall.
During the series, which is commissioned by France 2 and distributed by France Télévisions, Kepler will uncover some truths about how refugees are exploited by a city that doesn’t want them but uses them anyway. The story also confronts themes of madness as Kepler attempts to control the ‘passengers’ in his head.
“We loved the idea that he was treating them like we treat the refugees – we need them but we imprison them,” Legave explains. “With what’s going on politically there, we think it goes well with this case.”
Kepler has three additional personalities that all clamour for control. The inspiration for the character came from the real-life case of Billy Milligan, a US citizen who was acquitted of several charges of rape after claiming insanity due to multiple personality disorder.
On screen, Kepler’s different personalities are dramatised inside a dark room, where each personality is personified by a different actor. “When a passenger takes control of the body, there’s a big black room with just light on in it and whoever is under the light has control of the body,” Legave explains. “We used that to write the show and make people understand what was going on in his head.
“When it’s in his head, the different personalities are played by different actors and then Martin, who plays Kepler, found really subtle ways to indicate to the viewers which one he was when the character is out in the real world.”
It is through the eyes of Alice, Kepler’s new partner, played by Sofia Essaïdi, that viewers discover and come to terms with his condition. She’s not the only one with suspicions about Kepler’s behaviour of his reasons for being in Calais, however.
“What we found interesting about Alice is she’s a young cop, she moves to Calais and it’s a really hard situation for her,” says Legave. “We talked to cops there, NGOs, refugees and tried to have a feeling for every situation. At the beginning, she’s exhausted with the situation, with her work and as the show progresses, she will discover his madness.”
Arnaud adds: “All the cops in Calais wonder what he has done to be in Calais. It’s not a promotion, so they keep wondering what he’s done. They discover an operation has gone wrong in Paris, but they don’t know exactly what’s happened and why he’s in Calais.”
Writing together, Arnaud and Legave would individually describe how they each saw a scene before they began to write the dialogue, splitting episodes between them and then coming back to share and discuss their work together. The first two episodes were developed with broadcaster France 2 over 10 months before the show was greenlit. The next four scripts were written in just four months before shooting took place in Dunkirk and Calais between September and December 2017.
“The difficult part was Calais and the political situation there,” Legave says of writing the series. “When we started writing the show, the Jungle [migrant camp] was at the centre of the show, but during the writing, the police broke it up. So we had to think about what we were doing and how to represent the city. Were we ignoring the fact they dismantled it or were we writing it like it is and making a bet that it will not change that much? Shooting there is complicated, too, because there are a lot of cops.”
“Everything in this show is complicated because there are a lot of scenes, a lot of action, a lot of different places and many characters,” admits Solanillas. “For us, it was the most ambitious show we have ever done. Everything was quite difficult.”
Solanillas says French broadcasters are becoming more ambitious, and the fact France 2 boarded Kepler(s) is proof the network is stepping out of its comfort zone.
Arnaud agrees that the show deals with subjects that aren’t a natural fit for the channel. “It’s one of the first times they’re doing this, especially taking place in Calais, which isn’t the sexiest place on Earth for a French broadcaster,” he adds. “They made the difference; the pilot script was just great. They read it and said they had to do it.”
From a pair of mystery dramas and the introduction of the ‘female Columbo’ to the story of a film director forced to make a new version of King Kong for a power-mad dictator, French drama is set to enjoy a breakout year. DQ casts its eye over some of the new series coming to the small screen.
Baron Noir season two The ‘French House of Cards’ returns. Produced by Kwai for Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
Why was Baron Noir season one so successful around the world?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: Politics is back – and even if Baron Noir is about French politicians, it deals with the same problems every politician has to face. That’s the reason the show reaches a global audience. The style of the series also had a great impact. Baron Noir is a thriller, a very tense drama with a cinematographic style, a dramaturgy you can’t escape, and editing that makes it as addictive as possible. The performance of the actors is also astonishing. It’s a universal story of revenge, which is one of the most powerful motivations in a drama.
How does season two move the story forward? We shot season two during the French presidential and legislative elections. No one is capable of predicting what is going to happen, so we have decided to follow our own story. What’s important is that the preoccupations and the big picture of the politicians’ lives are accurate and realistic, whoever is running the country in real life. So in season two, Amélie Dorendeu (Anna Mouglalis) is elected president and Philippe Rickwaert (Kad Merad, pictured) is her special advisor. But democracy is threatened by two evil forces: jihadism and the far right. Our two lead characters become ever more divided and separate from each other and fight to save the republic.
What are the biggest challenges in producing the series? We started shooting with four scripts out of eight, because of the availability of the cast. It was a challenging race to have the final scripts ready to shoot and keep the quality.
Zone Blanche (Black Spot) A local sheriff seeks the truth about a mysterious town. Produced by Ego Productions and Be-Films for France 2 and distributed by AB International Distribution.
Where did the idea for Black Spot come from?
Series creator Mathieu Missoffe: Based on initial conversations with producer Vincent Mouluquet, I originally set out to build a strong mystery set in an isolated place that would feel familiar and strange at the same time. We knew this had to be a very visual show to stand out, so we moved away from traditional urban crime shows, instead focusing on a small, colourful community surrounded by hostile and untamed nature. This is how our fictitious town of Villefranche came to life, a place that has its own rules and atmosphere, with a blend of influences ranging from Twin Peaks to Nordic noir.
What is the style or tone of the series? The show borrows from different genres to create its own unique identity. It doesn’t shy away from gritty crime scenes, but we twisted familiar crime show elements by adding a western movie look and occasionally flirting with fantasy as far as the surrounding nature is concerned. A slight touch of comedy is also part of the mix – a necessary addition to create the kind of entertainment we feel is relevant for today’s general audience.
How is French drama evolving? The good news is that most of the old taboos that used to drag down French fiction have now collapsed. Politics and religion are back on the map, while darker and edgier stories are gaining traction. It’s definitely an exciting time, with our traditional realistic auteur shows now able to coexist with series that are trying to open new doors in entertainment with exotic locations, big-budget coproductions or new genres. At the same time, talents in front of and behind the camera are finally crossing over between film and television, resulting in even more opportunities.
Capitaine Marleau (Chief Inspector Marleau) A ‘female Columbo’ tackles crime with her own offbeat methods. Produced by Passion Films for France 3 and distributed by France TV Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer Gaspard de Chavagnac: Our lead actor Corinne Masiero (far left) first portrayed Capitaine Marleau in French miniseries Entre Vents et Marées (Between Winds and Tides), directed by Josée Dayan. She played the part with such wit and originality that we immediately decided to pitch France 3 the character as the heroine of a new cop series. The network did not hesitate long before ordering a 90-minute pilot.
How was the series developed with France 3? After the success of the pilot, written by Elsa Marpeau and again directed by Josée Dayan, France 3 agreed to develop two more episodes and then three others. We are currently producing the second season.
How did you cast the series? As Masiero was not very well known, we sought famous guest stars for each episode. Gérard Depardieu agreed to appear in the first episode, followed by other actors familiar to French viewers – including Victoria Abril, Muriel Robin, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sandrine Bonnaire and Pierre Arditi. The result was an average of 4.3 million viewers for our first four episodes.
La Forêt (The Forest) A small town is gripped by fear when people begin to disappear in a mysterious forest. Produced by Carma Films for France 3 and distributed by About Premium Content (APC).
Tell us about the show.
APC founder and joint CEO Emmanuelle Guilbart: The Forest is a modern crime series with a gripping story set against a mysterious background. An audience-friendly thriller at heart, it does not, however, shy away from social themes, setting out to provide a realistic portrayal of issues surrounding today’s youth.
How would you describe the writing process? Contrary to the current writers room trend, The Forest was written by a single screenwriter, Delinda Jacobs. She came to us with a very precise idea of what the show would look like and the commissioning channel, which wanted to modernise its line-up, was very supportive from the start.
What was the biggest challenge during production? The biggest challenge for us was finding the right actors. We wanted the story to feel real, with life-like characters and true emotions, so we spent a lot of time looking for people who were able to convey this feeling to the audience. We think we found the right team with Alexia Barlier (pictured left, 13 Hours), Suzanne Clément (Mommy, Laurence Anyways) and Samuel Labarthe (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) for the main roles.
What new stories are being told in French drama? French drama has always had a social focus and a taste for realistic and intimate stories. What’s changing is that there is now a new appeal for modern narrative forms, new genres and writing techniques. The Forest is definitely part of that movement, keeping in line with parts of the French cinematic tradition but opening up to new and highly effective ways of telling stories.
Les Témoins (Witnesses) season two The return of the atmospheric crime thriller. Produced by Cinétévé for France 2 and distributed by Newen Distribution.
Why was Witnesses season one so successful around the world?
Director Hervé Hadmar: The plot, the atmosphere and detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier, below right). The audience just wants to know who this woman is.
How does season two move the story forward?Witnesses is, of course, the story of Sandra. In season one, she has learned that the ‘ideal family’ does not exist. Her husband is not Prince Charming – and Sandra herself is not so perfect. At the beginning of season two, she’s living alone with her two daughters. She still believes in love, of course, but has to ask herself, ‘Is love the greatest danger?’ As for the main plot, it centres on unravelling what happened to 15 men who are found dead, totally frozen, on a bus. It emerges that they all loved the same woman, Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot, below left). Who is Catherine Keemer? Is she responsible for their deaths? Season two explores the relationship between Sandra and Catherine.
How would you describe your directing process? I do not fight against the ‘principe de réalité’ – pressures of time or accidental events. I’m trying to use those little incidents, bad weather, for example, to create something new. I have learned to be excited by asking myself, ‘What the hell is going to happen today?’
What is the style or tone of the show? A Nordic noir with a delicate, strange and almost hypnotic atmosphere.
How is French drama evolving? With more mature themes and artistic values. Challenging ourselves and challenging the audience is very important. We have learned to take risks but there is still a lot of progress to make. For that, let’s hope success will continue to knock on our doors.
Transferts (Transfer) Five years after a man drowns, his mind is transferred into someone else’s body. But at a time when ‘transfers’ are outlawed, he must live undercover to avoid detection. Produced by Filmagine, Be-Films and Panama Productions for Arte, and distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer/co-writer Patrick Benedek: The series grew out of my friendship with Claude Scasso. For a while we’d been wanting to make a thrilling sci-fi series, aware that in France, at the time, no network wanted to go down that road. It was very liberating for me – I could give free rein to all my beginner’s mistakes! I didn’t imagine for a minute that the project would see the light of day.
How would you describe the writing process? Claude and I worked on the conception and construction of episodes together, in meetings and with notes. We spent entire days projecting ourselves into our characters and our universe – with a creative purpose but also with a keen critical eye on each other’s proposals – until we got that exhilarating feeling that we had something. That’s the advantage of knowing each other well, of not having an oversized ego and of being a team. After that, Claude would write a first draft of the treatments, which I would then rework. Finally, he would go over what I wrote, and I would go over what he did, until we were both satisfied.
What were the biggest challenges during production? In France, it’s always the same problem – do as much as possible as well as possible with the little financial resources we have. This means always knowing how to get the most out of your resources; knowing how to distribute them while maintaining your artistic vision.
Kim Kong While filming in Asia, a director is kidnapped by a neighbouring dictatorship and ordered to make a new version of King Kong. Produced by Kwai and Armance for Arte and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
What are the origins of the series?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and told to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which was called Pulgasari. We wanted to make a show about this situation, with a guy who is kidnapped by a dictator who wants him to make a movie. The other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel with a similar theme, being about an author who’s kidnapped by an deranged fan and forced rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. But our story is not about a specific regime or specific country; it’s really about creativity and constraints.
How do you balance the drama with elements of comedy?The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end, but in a similar style to movies like Gold Rush, M.A.S.H. or The Ladykillers. The subject is very serious and dramatic but we build in several contradictions that create comedy. It’s a question of life and death but the director has to deal with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the leader, so there are lots of elements where you can do nothing but laugh.
What was the biggest challenge? Mostly the casting and the language (with the show being filmed in French and Chinese). But also working out where we were going to shoot. As our dictatorship doesn’t exist in real life, we looked for a location for months before deciding to film 90% of the series in a studio in Paris.
As the creator of AMC shows Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul, and with writing and producing credits on The X-Files, Vince Gilligan’s place in the TV hall of fame is as secure as anybody’s. But he also has a couple of strikeouts to his name: X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen lasted a single season on Fox, while CBS’s Battle Creek shut down last year after just 13 episodes.
Maybe he is best suited to the morally ambiguous world of cable TV – which would be good news given that his next project is for HBO. Called Raven, the limited series will explore infamous cult leader Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978. It is based on a book called Raven: The Untold Story of Jim Jones by Tim Reiterman, a journalist who survived the tragedy.
Gilligan, who will work alongside Breaking Bad director Michelle McLaren, won’t have any shortage of source material. Aside from the book, the Jonestown massacre has been the subject of a film and a couple of high-profile documentaries. He will need to write quickly, however, because A&E is also reported to be developing a drama about Jones as part of a series exploring US cults.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of subject matter, venerable TV producer Dick Wolf is working with former One Direction band member Zayn Malik on a new series for NBC. Also involving Universal TV, Unigram and First Access Entertainment, it follows the formation of a successful boy band, exploring both the excitement and the pressure that comes with global fame.
The series, called Boys, is being written by Sherri Cooper Landsman and Jennifer Levin. Landsman and Levin have worked together on a number of shows including Brothers & Sisters, Unforgettable and, most recently, Beauty and the Beast. The latter, which launched in 2012 on CBS, ends tomorrow after four seasons on air – which makes the new show very timely.
“It’s exciting to be diving into this project with such passionate and prolific producers,” said Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment. “Zayn brings an authentic point of view to this world where kids are catapulted into fame at a dizzying speed. On top of our excitement around the ideas being discussed, we have a lot of respect for the project’s musical and digital ambitions.”
Still in the US, basketball superstar LeBron James’s production company Springhill Entertainment has sold a sports drama pilot to NBC. The as-yet-untitled show is about a brilliant doctor who specialises in treating the world’s greatest sports stars, with renowned orthopaedic/sports surgeon Dr James Andrews on board as an executive consultant. The script will be written by Matt O’Neill, whose main credit is the feature film Bait & Switch. O’Neill will work alongside Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton (Numb3rs) with the three all expected to be involved if the show progresses to series. For more on dramas with sporting subject matter, go here.
In mainland Europe, meanwhile, France 2 and ProSieben have been announced as the broadcast partners for Les Rivières Pourpres (Crimson Rivers), a new TV series from Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp and Maze Pictures. Based on a crime novel by Jean-Christophe Grange, the story has already had some success as a movie series starring Jean Reno (2000 and 2004). It follows two detectives investigating a series of gruesome murders.
Grange is involved in the writing of the series and will work alongside Franck Ollivier. Among his many credits, Ollivier helped adapt Besson’s Taxi film franchise into Taxi Brooklyn for NBC and was also part of the writing team that created Jo, an English-language French police procedural series created by Rene Balcer.
Although Ollivier has experience working on series with a French-English axis, Crimson Rivers will be produced in French. Explaining why, EuropaCorp’s Thomas Anargyros told Variety: “A few years ago, we would have made this series in English, but we now feel confident enough to shoot it in French. Our partners have also gained more confidence in our ability to produce world-class content with French talent.”
Ollivier’s credits run all the way back to 1995 and include Zodiaque, Le Maitre du Zodiaque and Interpol. Aside from Crimson Rivers, recent work includes Instinct and La Vengeance Aux Yeux Clairs. In the latter, which debuted last week on TF1, a woman returns to the French Riviera 10 years after the murders of her mother and brother, with a new identity and a desire for justice. The show picked up 6.3 million viewers across its first two episodes.
In other news, producer/distributor Entertainment One (eOne) has unveiled a strong slate of drama for next month’s Mipcom market, including Kiefer Sutherland thriller Designated Survivor, legal drama Conviction, hostage drama Ransom and crime series Cardinal.
We’ve discussed the first three in previous columns, but Cardinal is perhaps less well known. Adapted from Giles Blunt’s novel Forty Words for Sorrow, the first of six books in the John Cardinal Mysteries series, the story is based around the murder of a 13-year-old whose body is discovered in a mineshaft.
The drama is produced by Sienna Films and eOne in association with Bell Media’s CTV, with the financial participation of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, the Canada Media Fund and the Cogeco Program Development Fund, and with the assistance of the Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit and the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit. So it’s Canadian!
The series has been adapted by Aubrey Nealon, who also serves as executive producer and showrunner. Nealon has a rock-solid set of writing credits that encompasses series such as Flashpoint, Rookie Blue, Saving Hope and Orphan Black. Anyone interested in his work on Orphan Black should look at this BBC blog.
Cécile Bose mixes parenting with police work as the star of French crime drama Candice Renoir. She speaks to DQ about the long-running series as filming for its fifth season gets underway.
Amid the glut of hard-hitting, gritty crime series on television, Candice Renoir stands out from the crowd.
The show sees the titular protagonist – described as “a police lieutenant, divorced, four kids – and a blonde bombshell” – return from a 10-year career break spent raising her family to resume her duties in a port town in the south of France.
But despite facing defiance from her unit and a cynical superior, she determines to solve the most complex cases using common sense, acute observation and her experience of family life – for example, catching a killer because she knows the chemical make-up of a window-cleaning product.
Produced by Boxeur de Lune, the show is now in its fourth season on France 2, with production already underway on a fifth outing.
Audiences in Germany (ZDFneo), Canada (Radio Canada), Portugal (RTP2), Italy (Fox Crime) and Estonia (Kanal 11) have also fallen for Renoir’s charms following sales by Newen Distribution.
And Cécile Bois, who plays Candice, says there’s more to her character than meets the eye. “She’s not a cop. First of all, she’s a woman, a mother and then she’s a policewoman,” she says. “Candice Renoir is not the story of a policewoman, it’s the story of a mother who works in the police.
“The showrunners are doing a great job to get the balance between crime and family in the scripts. It’s always in their mind when they’re writing the scenarios. But I also put some of my own background into the character. When I feel like an investigation is too powerful, I try to create an atmosphere that shows the mother and woman she can be and play with the complexity of the character.”
That character, however, is not a superhero, Bois notes, adding that viewers like the fact she is flawed. “She’s not perfect, she doesn’t have an amazing body,” she explains. “She’s much more than just an object. She recognises her own defects. Female viewers can identify with the character. She’s not pretending to be anyone else; she has a lot of humanity. She can be tough but also quite fragile and that’s what makes the character beautiful and means she has a connection with the viewers.”
Producer Caroline Lassa describes Renoir as a “female Columbo” who uses her common sense and knowledge from raising four children to help solve cases that are often rooted in social issues facing France.
“Our scenes are 25% family life and the rest is crime,” says Lassa. “Usually we try to find crimes that can echo with Renoir’s family life, and she’s using things from her home life to solve the cases most of the time. We had an episode in which her son had to read Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. As Renoir explains the book to her son, she understands that the case she is working on is about a woman living in real misery who is obliged to sell her body to get things for her children.
“It’s not easy to find stories with good social angles and we have to try to find a new one for each episode – which becomes complicated after 40 episodes. But at the beginning when the series started, Candice had not been working for 10 years and had been living in Singapore, so it was easy to analyse society through her eyes.”
Season four of Candice Renoir launched to record figures on May 6 when 4.7 million viewers tuned in to France 2, representing a 21% audience share.
And Lassa, whose previous credits include detective series Maigret, puts the show’s success firmly at the feet of Bois. “She is the reason why it’s so popular,” the producer explains. “She’s a very good actress. When she gave her first audition for the series, it was unbelievable. It was better than what we had written. There are good scripts, a wonderful actress and it’s set in a nice place.
“It’s never easy to produce a television series. In France, we could develop 100 stories but only produce one. But since the first season of Candice Renoir, we knew we had found something special. We also have a very good head writer, Solen Roy-Pagenault, so it was a meeting between this author and this character. I was lucky. We can go on for at least three more seasons.”
CBS’s new legal drama Doubt will star Katherine Heigl. But it is the casting of transgender actress Laverne Cox in the show that is capturing the headlines.
US network CBS has given a series order to Doubt, a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl as a smart and successful defence lawyer who begins to get romantically involved with her client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal murder.
The show is significant because it also includes transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) in the cast. Assuming Cox’s role is one that doesn’t propagate the usual stereotypes that surround transgender acting talent, it will be a major breakthrough for the community, which usually finds it difficult to get meaningful roles outside niche cable channels and streaming services.
Doubt’s selection seems to have killed off another show’s chances of progressing to a full series – at least for now. Drew, which is a contemporary take on the Nancy Drew books, was in the running for a series commission from CBS until Doubt was chosen ahead of it. There is a chance it will pop up at another network, though, as CBS Studios is still shopping it around.
Another interesting CBS story, as predicted by the US press, is that superhero series Supergirl is moving to The CW for its second season. In doing so, production will relocate to Vancouver from LA.
The move makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite a very promising pilot episode, the show wasn’t really hitting the mark in the very exposed world of frontline network TV. Secondly, The CW (a 50/50 joint venture from CBS and Time Warner) already has a strong slate of superhero shows including Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, so it will be right at home.
The CBS announcements are part of a busy time of year for the US networks, which generally announce new series for their 2016/17 season in May. Another title in the news this week, for example, is NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption, a spin-off from the well-established James Spader series The Blacklist.
NBC is a big fan of brand extensions, having also recently announced the launch of legal series Chicago Justice to go alongside scheduling stalwarts Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago PD.
A bolder move by NBC is the decision to take Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan’s time travel series Timeless from pilot to series. Bizarrely, that means there are now three time travel shows coming through the US networks system, with ABC’s Time After Time and Fox’s Making History also greenlit as series (and remember, we’ve also just seen Hulu’s 11.22.63 air in the US).
Of course, for every new show there’s usually a cancellation to free up space in the schedule. This week’s unlucky victim on NBC is The Mysteries of Laura, axed after two moderate seasons. Other cancellations include ABC’s Castle, which is coming to an end after eight seasons on air. Create by Andrew W Marlowe, the show focused on a best-selling mystery novelist and an NYPD homicide detective who solved crimes together. When it started it secured an audience of nine to 10 million an episode, but as it comes to a close it is in the five to six million range.
ABC has also cancelled Nashville, Agent Carter and The Muppets. One other show it might have cancelled on the basis of its season one ratings was Shonda Rhimes’ The Catch, but instead it has decided to give the show a second chance in 2016/17.
This isn’t a massive surprise given Rhimes’ fabulous contribution to the network – but it has to go down as a bit of a risk. ABC’s faith in Rhimes has, however, been further underlined with the decision to order another new series called Still Star-Crossed, described as a sequel to Romeo & Juliet. Interestingly, ABC also had the option of going forward with a Shondaland comedy called Toast, but decided to call it quits on that one after a pilot.
Another project in the news this week is Paradime. This one is interesting because it has been optioned from a novel that hasn’t even got to publication yet, showing just how competitive the market for book rights has become. The novel, by Alan Glynn, is a psychological thriller about a man who returns to New York after a spell in Afghanistan and becomes obsessed with a businessman.
The show is being developed by ITV and One-Two Punch Productions, with Glenn Gordon Caron (Medium) onboard to write and direct the series. The appeal of the project is partly down to Glynn’s track record. His previous novel, The Dark Fields, was turned into the movie Limitless in 2011 and then a TV series.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the latest French thriller to be causing a stir is The Disappearance (Disparue), which has been compared to UK hits like Broadchurch and The Missing.
The show has been rating well on France 2, with an audience in excess of five million, and has now been picked up for broadcast by BBC4 in the UK. The Disappearance, written by Marie Deshaires and Catherine Touzet, is set in Lyon and tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who goes missing. As the police investigate the disappearance, a number of people close to the girl’s family are discovered to have secrets of their own that they wish to keep concealed.
Although Disparue is a French scripted series, it actually owes a fair amount to other parts of Europe. It is, for example, based on a Spanish series called Desaparecida that first aired in 2007/08. And it was directed by Franco-Swedish filmmaker Charlotte Brändström, who has worked on Scandinavian crime series like Wallander, thus adding a bit of Nordic Noir to the show’s DNA.
Still in France, Newen Distribution has sold its detective series Candice Renoir to Dutch public broadcaster NPO2. The show, which is one of the top-rated dramas on France 2, has previously been sold to ZDFneo in Germany, CBC in Canada, RTP2 in Portugal, Kanal 11 in Estonia and Fox Crime Italy, among other broadcasters.
French drama is evolving at an increasing pace, but while broadcasters and producers are widening their international horizons, the most dramatic changes are taking place at home.
Change is afoot in France, but while landmark international coproductions might be grabbing the headlines, traditional ciné movies and crime procedurals are being replaced by serialised dramas and a gamut of new genres on screen.
Tetra Media Fiction producer Emmanuel Daucé says French drama is in the middle of a revolution that dates back 10 years to when broadcasters shifted their focus from TV movies to series, inspired by the work of US premium cable network HBO.
Gritty crime dramas such as Braquo and Spiral subsequently broke through to the international market, and more producers are now trying to follow their lead as France seeks to capitalise on the increasing demand for global drama series.
One example is The Young Pope, which sees pay TV network Canal+ join forces with HBO and Sky to tell the controversial story of the beginning of Pope Pius XIII’s pontificate. The cast is headed by Jude Law and Diane Keaton, while all eight episodes will be directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.
“It was HBO series, which not many people watched in France, that changed everything,” Daucé explains. “Telling stories through images is so important in France that we needed a cultural validation that TV could be interesting, and HBO helped a lot.”
Stéphane Drouet, producer and co-founder of MakingProd, says he is developing series for “almost every broadcaster,” as well as producing season three of cop show Cherif for France 2.
“Networks are still looking for self-contained episodes, but more and more they’re looking for serialised drama,” he adds. “Broadchurch did really well on France 2 and it may have accelerated the need for this kind of programme. They realised it would really work in primetime in France.
“Of course, there are still cop dramas. It’s a format that still works so well. But for a lot of years it was mainly procedural – now it’s more serialised, which is a good thing, and it also opens the door to more serialised dramas that aren’t about cops.”
Paris-based Ego Productions is behind TF1 series Alice Nevers, which will begin production on its 13th season this autumn, while new drama Zone Blanche, commissioned by France Télévisions, will begin shooting in April 2016. Ego is also responsible for the French adaptation of UK drama Doc Martin, which ran for four seasons on TF1.
Executive producer Pascal Wyn says French drama is playing catch-up to other territories by trying to broaden the international appeal of its stories, in the face of traditional series that still prove popular among domestic viewers.
“At the moment, the TV drama business is trying to create a revolution,” he explains. “French TV producers all want to make French television better and more international, as in Sweden, Germany and, of course, the USA. French producers want to make programmes with international appeal.
“Broadcasters say they are looking for new stories, but in fact they are very suspicious of new programmes because traditional French drama always works.”
Another factor behind the changing face of the country’s TV drama, according to Endemol France MD Nicholas Coppermann, is the decreasing reliance on US series. As long-term output deals for series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy, House and NCIS come to an end or the shows are cancelled, primetime slots are opening up for domestic series.
“The channels used US dramas as primetime shows and it was very difficult to compete using French scripted drama,” Coppermann says. “Although there are some very good US series now, they aren’t as mainstream or coherent with French tastes.
“The channels that previously thought it was expensive and risky to pay for local drama compared with US series now feel they need some strong local pieces. They are also ready to buy more series. All this combines to create a much more favourable environment for French writers, producers, actors and directors.”
Endemol label Leonis Productions was responsible for telemovie L’Emprise, which told the true story of a woman who was acquitted of killing her abusive husband. Coppermann says the project represented a leap of faith for TF1, which he says was rewarded with the highest-rating French drama since 2007, attracting 8.6 million viewers (and 9.8 million after seven days).
The film, which debuted in January, has since been sold to Antenna 3 in Spain.
“Our drama business is up and running and we recently signed a deal for a procedural with TF1, as well as a thriller miniseries called Le Domaine for M6,” Coppermann adds. “It is penned by writer/director Hervé Hadmar, who was behind the huge French hit Les Témoins (aka Witnesses), a drama that made quite some noise because it was sold to Channel 4 in the UK before its debut in France, which is quite rare.
“TF1 used to be sceptical about miniseries, but it’s more open to them now. There’s a movement towards more serialised miniseries in France because it’s easier to grip the audience’s attention with those. However, the main free-to-air channels still need some self-contained shows. So both those genres are required at the moment.
“Canal+ wants more miniseries because it wants to create an event with every show. I think it has come to realise that its returning series, no matter how good, are not making so much noise, so it needs to bring back miniseries. TF1 has a slot for procedurals on Thursday and it wants that to be strong, but it’s also open to miniseries. The time of ‘no serialised shows,’ which was making things complicated for the French creative community, is now behind us, so there’s room for all kinds of dramas.”
Canal+ is currently preparing for the fall launch of Versailles, a 10-part historical drama created by Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft and produced by Capa Drama, Incendo and Zodiak Fiction.
But what is the cause of France’s late arrival to serialised series? Daucé says television in France has struggled to escape the shadow of cinema but, as in other territories, the tide is slowly turning in favour of the small screen. In particular, he credits another Canal+ series – breakout supernatural drama Les Revenants (aka The Returned) – for helping to improve the reputation of television series in France.
“Viewers weren’t very familiar with the format,” he says. “This is because of the importance of cinema in France. The biggest recent hit in France was Les Revenants. This is a brilliant TV series but its strength lies in its cinematic qualities. The filmmaking is brilliant. It was produced by Haut et Court, a production company that makes feature films, and was created by filmmaker Fabrice Gobert, not by someone from TV.
“Now, slowly, TV series in France are receiving hype. It’s only very recently that viewers and people in the industry have started to take more of an interest in television. There are two worlds in France — cinema and TV, and there’s still some friction between the two.”
Tetra Media Fiction’s slate includes period drama Un Village Français (pictured top), which will air its sixth season this autumn on France 3, with a seventh and final season due to begin production by the end of the year. It is also producing Les Hommes de l’Ombre, a political drama now in its third season on France 2.
Daucé adds that broadcasters are also now more open-minded about the type of series they broadcast. “Canal+ helped a lot, again with Les Revenants,” he explains. “This is a genre we never have usually. When I started Un Village Français, I was told period dramas were too difficult to produce and cost too much. But there have been a lot of period dramas since.
“Now we are, in a way, in a revolution of the way we think about TV series. Our problem is that for a long time we didn’t make TV series. We now have producers and writers who specialise in making them but this is still pretty new for us.”
With this shift in focus to television drama, the industry will only become more experienced, and this expertise will be boosted further by the surge of international coproductions being built in France.
In June, Canal+ and Swedish public broadcaster SVT unveiled Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), the first ever French-Swedish drama copro. It follows a French detective who is sent to the far north of Sweden to investigate the murder of a French citizen.
Created by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and based on an idea by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Patrick Nebout, it is produced by Atlantique Productions, Nice Drama and Filmpool Nord. The cast includes Leïla Bekhti and Gustaf Hammarsten.
Atlantique has also partnered with Keshet UK, the London-based production arm of Israeli distributor Keshet International, to develop English-language drama Crater Lake. The eight-part series, created by Ron Leshem, is described as a “life-affirming, character-driven show about death.”
Oliver Bibas, MD at Atlantique, says: “People are more and more aware of international coproduction opportunities. Canal+ has a strategy to do more coproductions. It is also focused on French drama, but there is a place for coproduction. It’s the same for Arte, and now we’re seeing what will be the next move for France Télévisions, which should also step up in this area.”
Bibas says Atlantique is now developing series it wouldn’t have considered as recently as two or three years ago. In particular, the company is remaking Django, a spaghetti western from the 1960s, and is also on board the reboot of science-fiction series Metal Hurlant with producer Jamie Mathieson. “They’re not something we would have done previously but because of online platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Canal Play, there are so many new outlets that you can go deeper into a niche genre, which wasn’t the case three or four years ago,” he says.
“We’re trying to get some more niche shows into development. Western and sci-fi are not traditional genres for scripted drama in France. But we feel that when we’re pitching shows to the networks, there is an appetite for this. The market is changing – there’s new demand from networks, and you have to find shows that are in line with our times.”
In fact, Netflix is already in production on its first French-langauge drama, Marseille, with Gerard Depardieu playing the lead role of the city’s mayor in a political story of power, corruption and redemption.
Created and written by Dan Franck, the eight-part series is produced by Federation Entertainment and will launch on Netflix in 2016.
Franco-German network Arte epitomises the change in attitude towards drama among French broadcasters. Switching from
TV movies to serialised programmes, it was among the first to import European shows, most notably Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing) and Borgen, plus Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans).
The channel is now forging ahead with its coproduction strategy. Launching this autumn is Occupied, a 10-part political thriller based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbø and developed with Norway’s TV2.
It has also partnered with Denmark’s DR and Borgen creator Adam Price on a new faith-based series called Herrens veje (aka Rides Upon the Storm).
Alexandre Piel, Arte’s deputy head of drama in charge of international acquisitions and coproductions, says he’s not sure if what is happening in French drama is a revolution but admits the landscape is changing fast.
“Our behaviours have completely changed in the last five years,” he says. “We jumped from 90- to 52-minute slots; from mainly standalone collections to serial dramas. That’s a major change.
“Canal+ was one of the first to establish the strategy. Arte followed and we were very much open to European content as a pioneer channel. Now everyone has an eye on European content.
“From international acquisitions to French content, the standards have changed and everyone has to cope with it. Then we have to see in the coming months – in terms of international distribution and coproduction – if it’s a major change or just a short-term change.”
Arte’s coproduction strategy began with it working as a minor partner on Occupied, before co-developing Herrens veje. It is also onboard sci-fi drama Trepalium. Piel hopes Arte’s next copro will be a French project on which the network can take the lead.
He adds that Arte is open to new ideas, as it doesn’t want to run the same sort of shows that air on other channels.
“It means more risk-taking but the idea is to jump on originality, creativity and innovation, and to be able to offer something more audacious,” he says. “That’s really the keyword in terms of ambition.
“There are a lot of projects on the market. There are plenty of series but some are quite similar. I feel there’s less difference, creativity and innovation than a few years ago, but that’s normal. The industry is restructuring so we need new and different projects and a different way to work altogether.
“That’s why we’re doing a lot of pre-buys on series including Wolf Hall, Indian Summers and Danish series Norskov. We’re trying to understand the way some channels and producers are working so we can work with them in the future.”
Meanwhile, MakingProd is developing Destination Mars, about an expedition to the red planet, with Russia’s Star Media, Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions and Poland’s Synergy Films. It is also producing Salazar, a period coproduction with Spain’s Plano a Plano and distributor Eccho Rights.
But while Drouet acknowledges that international coproductions are gaining traction, he says networks are still predominantly focused on homegrown drama.
“French drama is becoming more and more attractive for partners and producers, so we have a lot of people coming to us saying they would like to make international coproductions,” he says. “A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible but now it is, and it shows the success of TV drama in France.
“There will always be a strong demand for domestic drama but even now the pure French TV series are getting better and better. And even if it’s a purely French series, we have interest now from foreign countries to get shows like The Returned or Witnesses. It shows there’s a new era of TV series in France.
“Even though the shows are taking place in France and are spoken in French, now they interest foreign markets more and more because the stories we tell are more international and more universal.”
Bibas agrees that domestic drama is still the model in France. “We have a very traditional setup,” he explains. “It’s nobody’s fault – this is the way the French system has been for the past 20 years – but now more and more producers and networks are opening up a bit to something that is more modern in terms of French drama, and it’s a very good thing. We’re on the right track but it takes time to change the market.”
Those of you who attended Channel 21’s International Drama Summit in London last autumn may have seen the trailer for a new French crime drama called Witnesses (Les Témoins). Created by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, the eerie six-part series begins with a series of corpses being placed in various homes.
Roll forward a few months and Witnesses has emerged as a huge hit for French public channel France 2. Having debuted on March 18 to an excellent 5.3 million viewers (Mediametrie), it went on to average 4.3 million (17.4% share) across its run. This makes it the natural successor to other breakout French hits such as Spiral, Braquo and much-discussed supernatural thriller The Returned.
Witnesses’ strong ratings (and the reward of a second series) will be welcome news to all those international broadcasters that acquired the series from Newen Distribution ahead of its launch on France 2. Presumably inspired by the international success of The Returned, Channel 4 (UK), RTL Crime (Germany), NRK2 (Norway) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to act. With Norway due to show the series in primetime, it looks as though the French are doing a good job of reclaiming the word ‘noir.’
The next obvious question is whether the Witnesses format will appeal to US broadcasters. There is undoubtedly strong demand in the US for good scripted ideas, but a poor showing for Gracepoint (based on UK series Broadchurch but regarded as similar in tone to Witnesses) and a modest outing for A&E Network’s version of The Returned may lead to caution. One factor that may influence a decision on Witnesses is how the original fares on Netflix, which began streaming it on May 1.
One of the surprise hits of recent months is Wolf Hall, the BBC2 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novel about the life of British King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. Starring the formidable Mark Rylance and superbly scripted by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall opted against resorting to the sugar-rush scripted devices that are often used to hook in and hold on to TV viewers. Indeed, with its sombre lighting, stately pace and intricate plotting, it was exactly the kind of series that could have erred on the side of being worthy but dull.
Instead, it has proved the point that audiences often have more intellectual stamina than broadcasters give them credit for. After a strong showing on BBC2, Wolf Hall’s premiere episode on PBS Masterpiece secured 4.4 million viewers (Live+7). Masterpiece executive producer and drama industry veteran Rebecca Eaton called it “yet another high-water mark in Masterpiece’s history”.
Anyone familiar with TV ratings will know that most dramas tend to shed viewers after their first episode as a percentage of the audience decides a show is not for them. So the acid test is really whether it can then sustain its performance from then on. Judged in this way, ITV four-part thriller Safe House is a solid hit. Starring Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Fortitude, Doctor Who), the series started with 5.3 million viewers and then dropped to 4.8 million in week two. However, it has just concluded with 4.75 million (live+1), making it the top-performing drama in the UK outside soaps. The show’s distributor is All3Media International, which has not provided any news yet on international sales. But with strong UK ratings and Eccleston attached, it should do brisk business abroad.
At MipTV last month, Electus CEO Ben Silverman spent a lot of time talking up the prospects of Jane the Virgin, the US adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela that has been airing for the past eight months on CW Network. Silverman, who has an uncanny knack of delivering international hits, believes Jane the Virgin can have the same kind of success as Ugly Betty (which he brought to ABC in 2006). With the current show, Silverman’s role is to sell the international format rights to the US version, while the completed series is being sold by CBS Studios International. It’s also worth noting that the original telenovela is being sold on the international by RCTV.
It’s too early to tell if Silverman is right to put Jane in a similar category to Betty, but there are positive signs for the show. For a start, the ratings across the first run of 22 episodes (1-1.3 million) were pretty good (especially among the 18-49 demo). There’s also the fact that CW has recommissioned the show, which means it is getting up to the kind of volume international broadcasters like. E4 in the UK has already started airing the series and an unnamed German broadcaster is close to picking up the format.
On top of all this, the show – created for the US by Jennie Snyder Urman – has received a healthy level of critical praise, both from the US and UK. To top it all, lead actress Gina Rodriguez recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane, something that won’t do the show’s sales prospects any harm.
Still in the US, the spring shakeout at US networks is now virtually complete, with shows renewed, cancelled or picked up from pilot. One casualty is Fox’s The Following (starring Kevin Bacon), which is being shut down at the end of its current run (May 18). The Kevin Williamson-created series started strongly in series one with ratings in the 6-10 million range. But by the middle of season three the show was muddling along with 3-3.5 million viewers.
Williamson’s direct involvement in the series diminished some time ago, presumably so he could devote his energy to Stalker, a 20-part programme he created for CBS. Unfortunately, that show has also been cancelled after just one season, with ratings dipping to around the six million mark at the end. Williamson (whose earlier credits include Dawson’s Creek, the Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer) still has a success in the shape of The Vampire Diaries on CW, but it will be interesting to see what he will now turn his hand to if he decides he has spare capacity.