French producers Odile McDonald and Valérie Pechels, from Wildcat Productions, discuss their country’s creative liberation in TV drama’s new ‘golden age.’
We’ve heard a lot about how we are in the second ‘golden age’ of television. Drama production, specifically, has experienced a glorious resurgence and arguably some of the best-quality TV drama ever produced has emerged in the last five years. And when you think of the source of all this great television, the US and the UK immediately come to mind – but that is changing.
More and more, we’re seeing great dramas that have global appeal coming from Israel, Sweden, Australia and, of course, France.
We have been working in France for our entire careers and we’ve never experienced the degree of acceptance and enthusiasm to work with French producers that we see now. This is largely attributable to some of the incredible international coproduction success stories that have originated in France.
Hit series like Borgia (and The Borgias in the US) and Versailles (pictured top) were made possible by copro partners across Europe, and Canada. Companies in France that have shown a willingness to invest in ambitious projects like these have certainly helped promote French firms as serious production partners.
Another contributing factor to France’s TV drama renaissance is the evolution of the talent pool. We are increasingly seeing great screenwriters writing in English. Or, if their English isn’t strong, French-speaking writers are paired with English writers who excel in writing dialogue.
Lately we’ve come across some very talented writers who speak English but have never written in English, so they don’t know if they can do it. We tell them, ‘Go ahead. Run! Do it! Just try. We’ll just see how it comes.’ The worst-case scenario is that we’ll need to pair them up with someone who can help with English. We don’t want to put up any barriers to creativity.
This freedom is allowing writers to pursue some amazing stories. Whether for an international copro or a French national production, a feature or a TV series, it’s all the same: you need a great story. For us, the story drives everything. We find stories through writers and directors, and sometimes an actor tells us how they want to create a specific character. Wherever it comes from, a great story is the impetus for bringing the right talent and partners to the project.
France is fertile ground for storytellers because we have some fantastic historical novels and events that remain untapped by television producers. There is some very strong IP out there just waiting to be developed. What we love about historical drama is that it allows us to explore a moment of history. Looking back through the spectacles of today, it gives you the opportunity to understand who we are, what we are and where we are going now. We are exploring a couple of projects set in the 1930s and we think it’s interesting how such shows can shine a light on where society stands today, and the great challenges it faces when we compare it to the world as it was in that decade.
The incredible success of historical dramas like Downton Abbey, The Tudors, Vikings, The Crown, Versailles and The Borgias has created a great opportunity to raise significant budgets for ambitious storytelling. We also see historical drama as a vehicle to address bigger social issues, which is especially true in our quest to develop strong female characters. These dramas are a great way to address women’s issues through the years, examine where we are now compared to the past, appreciate the progress we’ve made and consider how we can ensure those advances don’t slip away. As two businesswomen, that’s something that has become a central focus of our development slate. The coproduction model allows us to explore ambitious subject matter.
Whether we are developing a historical or a contemporary drama, we always look for a strong story that will attract an incredible cast, but we are also always looking for strong brands. A certain level of recognition is important if you want to get financing for your project, and that also helps shows stand out in the sea of entertainment options viewers have today.
Talent is a big part of that, but if you have a strong brand and a great story to begin with, securing a great cast is not difficult. Recent examples include FX’s Feud: Bette & Joan, about the infamous bad blood between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon), and National Geographic’s Genius, which studies the life of Albert Einstein (played Geoffrey Rush).
Furthermore, the French production community, like others all around Europe, is thriving thanks to the proliferation of distribution channels. Having many places where you believe your project can exist and will exist gives you much more latitude as a producer.
The high level of platforms for content unleashes our confidence to develop more. Producers tend to second-guess themselves about whether the network will like a show or the audience will watch it. But, especially at the beginning of a project, you should never do that. If you think, ‘I’m not going to do that because it’s never been done,’ you are destined to do the same thing over and over again. We have to do things that have never been done before, both creatively and in terms of financial structure.
We are currently developing a sci-fi project set in the near future, which is a first for us. The fact there are more partners around the table liberates us from that pressure [of working in a new genre] and is a huge contributor to this drama renaissance we are now experiencing.
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.”
While US cable channel Spike gears up for the launch of its Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut (July 19), UK broadcaster ITV has announced that it too is planning a Tutankhamun-themed drama. ITV’s production, however, will focus on the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon. Starting in 1905, four episodes will trace Carter’s early expeditions around Egypt, leading up to the big discovery in 1921.
Tutankhamun will be written by Guy Burt, an ITV favourite who is also penning a reboot of classic horror story Jekyll and Hyde for the broadcaster. Previous collaborations between ITV and Burt include critically acclaimed scripted series The Bletchley Circle, which told the story of a group of female code-breakers during and after the Second World War. (See Burt talking about season two of that project here.)
Something of a writing prodigy, Burt first attracted attention when he published his debut novel After The Hole (later adapted into a movie called The Hole) aged 18. After writing two more novels and securing a first in English at Oxford University, his career moved in the direction of screenwriting. Aside from the above-mentioned projects, he worked on the likes of Murder In Mind, Wire In The Blood and Kingdom. Latterly, he collaborated with Neil Jordan and David Leland on period drama series The Borgias, joining the project at the end of season two and writing four episodes in the third and final season.
The new Tutankhamun drama was ordered by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea and will be filmed in South Africa next winter. Executive producers include ITV Studios’ creative director of drama Francis Hopkinson, who says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, whilst the adventurous and extrovert aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”
In an unusual alliance, but one hinting at the future of content rights management, US cable network Lifetime has come onboard a BBC1 drama based on one of Agatha Christie’s best-known works, And Then There Were None. International sales of the three-part miniseries will be handled by A+E Studios International, which is keen to beef up its drama portfolio.
The writing job has gone to Sarah Phelps, whose early career took her via the Royal Shakespeare Company to BBC soap EastEnders, where she wrote more than 50 episodes. A prolific radio and theatre writer, her other TV credits include The Crimson Field, a short-lived drama about the lives of medics and patient at a First World War field hospital.
Phelps has also proved her novel adaptation expertise with previous projects such as Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) and The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling). The latter was also an Anglo-American coproduction (BBC/HBO) and came in three parts, securing an audience of 8.8 million for episode one, dropping to 5.95 million for episode three. In all likelihood the new project will go into a similar Sunday evening slot with transmission intended for autumn or winter 2016.
The BBC’s decision to greenlight the miniseries is linked to the fact that this year is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth. It is also planning an adaptation of another of her novels, Partners in Crime, although there are no details as yet.
HBO’s star-studded remake of classic sci-fi movie Westworld is gradually moving forward. The project, which will feature the likes of Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton, has just added Borgen star Sidse Babbett Knudsen to the cast.
Scheduled to air in 2016, Westworld is from JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, plus Warner Bros TV and Jerry Weintraub Productions. Writing duties will be shared by husband-and-wife team Nolan and Joy.
Nolan, who will also direct the reboot, is the brother of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. He created crime drama Person of Interest and has co-written screenplays such as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar with his brother. Joy, meanwhile, broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies, before going on to write some episodes of Burn Notice. Aside from Westworld, IMDB credits her as writer on an “untitled female superhero Spider-Man movie,” scheduled for 2017. There were also reports in 2013 that Legendary Pictures had paid US$1.75m to secure the rights to a sci-fi movie script by Joy entitled Reminiscence.
Still in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, there are reports that Luther creator Neil Cross is remaking Sapphire & Steel, a 1970s series about a pair of interdimensional crime fighters sent to Earth to investigate strange happenings. Speaking to the Nerdist Writers’ Panel podcast, Cross called the Sapphire & Steel characters a “proto” version of The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, and said the show was close to getting a commission from a UK broadcaster. Cross, whose other credits include Spooks and Doctor Who, said he is also working with Darren Aronofsky on HBO scripted pilot River View and on two new one-hour episodes of Luther.
Finally, Netflix has confirmed that Gérard Depardieu will take the lead role in its first original French drama. Depardieu will play the mayor of Marseille in a series of the same name. Produced by Paris-based Federation Entertainment, the drama will also star Benoît Magimel as a young politician aiming to depose Depardieu’s character.
Shot entirely in France, Marseille is created and written by Dan Franck, writer of La Separation and Les Hommes de l’Ombre and co-writer of Carlos, which won a Golden Globe for best miniseries. Explaining why he took on the project, Franck says: “Creating a series for an enormous audience and without any constraints will let us push to its limits a story about the Shakespearean theatre of politics, in a city where Alexandre Dumas and Jean-Claude Izzo, among others, have planted many spears.
“Netflix has given us a blank page to create a House of Cards in French that breaks through unspoken hypocrisy. This is a writer’s dream and a great opportunity for French producers and creators to enter a new world.”