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French drama: Vive la revolution

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.

Emmanuel Daucé
Emmanuel Daucé

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.”

Cherif, which airs on France 2
Cherif, which airs on France 2

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.”

Pascal Wyn of Ego Productions
Pascal Wyn of Ego Productions

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.”

Les Hommes de l'Ombre
Les Hommes de l’Ombre

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.”

L’Emprise tells the true story of a woman acquitted of killing her abusive husband
L’Emprise tells the true story of a woman acquitted of killing her abusive husband

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).

Political thriller Occupied
Political thriller Occupied

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.

Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans)
Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans)

“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.”

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BBC’s novel approach

US is the first of David Nicholls' novels to be adapted for TV, with two previous books having been made into movies
US is the first of David Nicholls’ novels to be adapted for TV, with two previous books having been made into movies

There are reports this week that UK-based indie producer Drama Republic is developing David Nicholls’ hilarious and poignant novel Us for the BBC. The UK pubcaster is yet to confirm the project but it is likely to be a three- or four-part miniseries, with acclaimed British playwright Nick Payne lined up to write the screenplay. It’s the kind of high-profile book-based project that would sit comfortably in the Sunday evening slot that has been occupied in recent times by The Casual Vacancy and Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange.

Nicholls has written three previous novels, two of which were adapted as movies (Starter for Ten and One Day). So the fact this one is being lined up as a TV project is another indication of the shift in the balance of power towards small-screen drama.

The switch from film to TV will suit Nicholls’ work, which is narratively and emotionally very rich. In the case of Us, the story is told from the point of view of Douglas, a married man whose wife Connie announces that she plans to leave him when their 17-year-old son Albie goes to college. Douglas takes the two of them on holiday to Europe to try to convince Connie to change her mind, while also hoping it will be an opportunity to emotionally reconnect with his son. Inevitably, the trip doesn’t go to plan.

Nicholls recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC
Nicholls recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC

It’s interesting that Payne will handle scriptwriting duties, given that Nicholls has a good TV screenwriting track record himself. Having first come to prominence as a writer on series such as Cold Feet and Rescue Me, he recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC, about a man who starts an affair with a woman he meets on a commuter train. Aired in 2014, that project drew an audience of 5.7 million across two episodes on consecutive nights, which isn’t too bad. Perhaps, though, the decision has been swayed by the poor reviews that the movie version of One Day received, with the LA Times calling it a “heartbreaking disappointment of a film.” There’s no question that One Day the novel is far superior to the film, so maybe Us will benefit from some outside input, with Nicholls presumably on hand in an executive producer role.

Just last night, I was thinking to myself that there aren’t enough dramas about female serial killers. So imagine my surprise when I saw that World Productions (Line of Duty) is making a two-part drama for ITV about Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer who used arsenic to kill three of her husbands so she could claim against their insurance policies. Called Dark Angel, the production is based on David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer and was commissioned by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea.

Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt (right) will star in ITV's Dark Angel
Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt (right) will star in ITV’s Dark Angel

As far as anything in this life is a dead cert, this is it. Why? Because it will be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and star Joanne Froggatt (also Downton). Anyone familiar with Downton will recall that Froggatt’s character Anna Bates spent some time under suspicion of murder – so there’s a neat link between the two shows.

Fea said of the show: “The combination of a tautly written script, an outstanding cast and great producers in World Productions make this a really exciting addition to the slate.” Dark Angel will start filming in August in Yorkshire and County Durham. It will be supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund, while Endemol Shine International is distributing it globally.

Still with ITV, the channel has also just commissioned six more episodes of WW2 drama Home Fires. Inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book Jambusters, it follows a group of women in a rural community during the war. It was created and written for TV by Simon Block (Lewis, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall).

WW2 has inspired a surprising number of drama series in recent years. The UK’s other recent offerings include the BBC’s Land Girls and ITV’s Foyle’s War, while Canada has given us Bomb Girls (set in a munitions factory during WW2) and, more recently, X Company. The latter is a spy thriller that debuted on CBC in February 2015. After the show’s first season generated a good response, CBC quickly took the decision to give the series a second run of 10 episodes.

ITV has renewed WW2 drama Home Fires for a further six episodes
ITV has renewed WW2 drama Home Fires for a further six episodes

WW2 has also inspired some good dramas out of continental Europe. The most high profile is Germany’s Generation War, which is one of the few German dramas to have secured sales to the English-speaking market. Another interesting title is Un Village Français (A French Village), a French show created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit. Set in a fictional village in German-occupied France, the show first aired on France 3 in 2009 and has slowly but surely picked up a loyal international fanbase. With a seventh and final series planned for 2016, the entire oeuvre was sold by 100% Distribution to MHz Networks in the US (and has also sold to MBC in Korea).

Explaining why Un Village Français has found an audience in such diverse markets, Cecilia Rossignol, director of sales & acquisitions at 100% Distribution, said it is because the show is not primarily a story of war. “It is about people who find themselves in extreme situations and must make choices. In this, it is a universal series.”

Un Village Français will air its seventh and final season next year
Un Village Français will air its seventh and final season next year

In recent weeks, we have discussed the success of Jane the Virgin, a Venezuelan telenovela that was remade for The CW in the US. With a second series recently recommissioned by The CW, there are now reports that Mediaset in Spain is to make a local version of the show. The deal underlines the beauty of having a strong formattable scripted franchise. Not only can buyers choose between licensing the Venezuelan or the US format, they can also acquire either of the completed series. With every new completed series the options increase, turning small local successes into globally successful franchises.

On a separate note, SVoD service Netflix announced this week that it will continue its rapid global roll-out with launches in Italy, Portugal and Spain during October. Echoing the recent launch in France, this may result in a new wave of investment in local productions. It might also provide a way for shows from these countries to break into the English-speaking markets (Netflix could, for example, acquire global rights to a local show and then test it in different territories if it performs well in its originating market). Overall, Netflix now has 62.3 million subscribers and is aiming to have services in around 200 countries within two years.

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