As Versailles concludes after three seasons, executive producer Claude Chelli and costume designer Madeline Fontaine discuss the making of the lavish French historical drama.
For three seasons, French historical drama Versailles captivated viewers around the world with its daring mix of passion, power and betrayal, all set within the court of King Louis XIV.
The English-language series introduced the 28-year-old king of France, who commissioned the most beautiful palace in Europe, which came to serve as the king’s gilded prison — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. As the Canal+ series progressed — the 10-part third and final season begins tonight in the UK on BBC2 — it exposed the dark underbelly of power as the monarch struggled to retain control of his palace and his people.
The concept of Versailles, created by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, took more than four years to develop, executive producer Claude Chelli recalls, as coproducers Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo sought to bring together a broadcaster and coproducers to assemble the financing.
“It was a big project with a big budget,” he says. “The first season is always difficult to find your mark; you don’t know what’s necessary or what’s superfluous. But after that, the second season was very nice and the third season felt like home.”
That success was reaped not only in France but around the world, as the series drew viewers in the UK, US (Ovation and Netflix), Scandinavia (C More) and elsewhere following deals with distributor Banijay Rights.
“It’s very surprising because France is a small country as far as drama is concerned, so we never expect things to go that wide. It was an incredible surprise,” Chelli admits. “Of course, we put a lot of money, effort and time into gathering talent but the reception from everywhere else is amazing.
“We know on a show like that, we’re not only working for France. It’s a €30m [US$30m] show so we need Europe at least; we need the world. But we’re very impressed by the reception in America and the work and effort that Ovation put in to support a show like this. We’re very proud of the show.”
Though ultimately necessary to bring the various financial pieces together, Versailles didn’t start out as an English-language series. Indeed, it was originally in French, but the switch was done to bring in the money to build the budget the show demanded.
“So we switched from French to English very early on in order to get that money,” Chelli says. “We also knew we were going to be criticised in France, but that doesn’t really matter because the show is more powerful. Everyone understood why we needed to do it in English.
“Because we knew we had to gather the best talent in France, we knew we couldn’t cut corners to save money. We knew we had to have great costumes and that Madeline [Fontaine, costume designer] would dress the last extra at the end of the road the same way she would dress the main cast.”
Money was also required to build and dress the sets. “Ultimately nothing of the 17th century is left in France because if you go to Versailles, nothing is 17th century. Marie Antoinette came after Louis XV and hated the decor and the furniture and curtains, so she destroyed everything and changed it. So we knew we had to recreate the 17th century. That’s when we decided to build the sets because they’re very specific. And we had to create all the costumes. That was the biggest challenge.”
But why make a series about Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, at all? For those not au fait with French history, Chelli describes the monarch as a major influence across every artistic department.
“He invented dance, he invented music, he invented cooking, basically,” he notes. “He invented architecture, the French garden. He made war with almost everyone and built castles. But also, what’s interesting about Louis XIV is that the origins of the French Revolution are there behind his actions. He spent so much money on war and building castles that the people of Paris and France were starving. It took some time for the people to revolt but the germs of the French revolution are in the third season. That’s what’s interesting about Louis XIV – it’s both the beginning of a new world and the end of the ancient world.”
When it came to creating the elegant gowns, outfits and dresses worn by the cast, costume designer Madeline Fontaine says that it was imperative she knew as much about the period as possible.
“Then, of course, after that, each character and the place they have in society is very important for the colours of every outfit,” she explains. “You also have to know how far we are from reality and be able to create the atmosphere of the period — to take the audience to the period and not to take them away. That’s the challenge anyway.”
Fontaine’s research covers the period’s history, its paintings and key pieces of writing, which she compiles to inform her own impressions of the time the series recreates. “My job is the interpretation of this information,” she continues, “and then you give the public your interpretation of your feeling of the period. It’s very interesting. I like this moment and once you go into the information, you can find what you need to make it.”
The key to Fontaine’s role, however, was not how many different outfits she could design for the characters — which were key to viewers’ understanding of their role in the series — but how they could evolve by changing smaller pieces rather than the entire costume.
“The public has to follow the characters, so if they change [their costumes] too much, that becomes more difficult,” she says. “So we can change different pieces of the outfit. For the extras we had 200 outfits, with three or four pieces for each one. Then you have to find the fabric for each of them, so it was a very big undertaking.”
Having worked across both television and film, with credits including Amélie and Jackie, Fontaine describes the process as the same, though the rhythm is decidedly different.
“On movies, you have the script from the very beginning and most of the time it doesn’t change so much and you have a schedule so you can prioritise what you need and save some things for later,” the designer reveals.
“Here we have the stories pretty late and we shoot cross blocks, so everything has to be ready at the same time. We don’t have so much flexibility. We have to be ready much more quickly than on a movie, and we shoot quickly too. So if you forget something, it’s done, it’s too late! It puts pressure on the workshop because everything has to be ready for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
Fontaine won a Bafta in 2017 for her work on Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
“It was a real surprise and recognition of my work from British costume designers meant a lot to me,” she adds. “The challenge with any period project is to make it true, so the challenge is the same. You just have to do it the best you can all the time. That’s how we work.”
Capa Drama will follow Versailles with Netflix’s second original French drama, Osmosis, which follows in the footsteps of Marseille and is due to launch later this year. The eight-episode series is set in a near-future Paris in which a dating app called Osmosis can find anybody’s true love.
With so much contemporary drama on French television, creating new landscapes — rooted in the past or thrown into the future — is one way to give creators free rein to tell their stories. “For artistic reasons, you have to invent a whole new world,” Chelli adds. “Osmosis is sci-fi but it’s the same thing as Versailles — you have to invent a new world. As a producer, it’s the really exciting side of things.”
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.
On Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.
The Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).
Victoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.
The Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.
Versailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.
Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.
The Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.
Mary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.
The Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.
Charles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.
The Japanese have a good strike rate when it comes to exporting animation and entertainment formats. But they have struggled with drama. There are a few reasons for this but, when it comes down to it, the core problem is that scripted shows that work in Japanese primetime don’t travel that well.
The country’s leading players want to do something about this because the revenues they are generating from the domestic media market aren’t as strong as they used to be. So now they are looking at formats and coproductions as ways of building up their international profile and generating a new revenue stream. They are also starting to ask themselves if there is a way of making shows that can tap into the world drama zeitgeist that has propelled Korean, Turkish, Nordic and Israeli drama around the globe.
There were a couple of examples of the way Japan is seeking to shift its mindset at the Mipcom market in Cannes this week. One was a deal that will see Nippon TV drama Mother adapted for the Turkish market by MF Yapim & MEDYAPIM. The new show will be called Anne and will air on leading broadcaster Star TV. It’s the first time a Japanese company has struck this kind of deal in Turkey.
Also this week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK screened Moribito II: Guardian of the Spirit, an ambitious live-action fantasy series based on the novels of Nahoko Uehashi – likened by some to JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.
Produced in 4K and HDR, this is the second in a planned trilogy of TV series, the first of which consisted of four parts. The show has been attracting interest from channel buyers beyond Japan’s usual sphere of influence, suggesting the country may be starting to have the kind of international impact it wants.
Interestingly, NHK brought the actor Kento Hayashi to Cannes to help promote the Moribito franchise. Hayashi also starred in Netflix’s first Japanese original, Hibana, another scripted show that has captured the attention of audiences and critics around the world.
Away from Japanese activity, companies that had a good week in Cannes included ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which said its hit period drama series Victoria has now sold to more than 150 countries, including new deals with the likes of Sky Germany, VRT Belgium and Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+. It also sold comedy drama Cold Feet – renewed for a new season in 2017 – to the likes of NPO Netherlands, ITV Choice Africa, Yes in Israel, TV4 Sweden and NRK Norway.
Further evidence of the appeal of lavish period pieces came with the pre-sales buzz around Zodiak Rights’ Versailles, which is going into its second season. At Mipcom, the show was picked up by a range of broadcasters and platforms including BBC2 (UK), Amazon Prime (UK), C More (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), DirecTV (Latin America) and Movistar+.
Moving beyond period pieces, other shows that cut through the promotional clutter included Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s time-travel drama Timeless, which sold to the UK’s Channel 4 to air on its youth-skewing E4 network. The show was also picked up by the likes of OSN in the Middle East, Fox in Italy, AXN in Japan, Viacom 18’s Colors Infinity in India and Sohu in China.
SPT also sold new sitcom Kevin Can Wait to Channel 4 in the UK, though perhaps the most interesting Sony-related story at Mipcom was the news that its international television network group AXN has joined forces with Pinewood Television to a develop a slate of six TV drama projects.
The series will be financed in partnership between Sony Pictures Television Networks and Pinewood Television. The plan is for them to air on AXN channels in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a programming emphasis on high-impact action, crime and mystery. The deal was brokered by Marie Jacobson, executive VP of programming and production at SPTN, and Peter Gerwe, a director for Pinewood Television.
Jacobson said: “As we look for alternative paths to expand original series development, Pinewood TV make for the ideal partners. We are look forward to developing projects with them that play both in the UK and on our channels around the world.”
Other high-profile dramas to attract buyer attention at the market this week included StudioCanal’s Swedish-French eight-hour drama Midnight Sun, picked up by ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel and DR in Denmark.
Distributor FremantleMedia International licensed its big-budget series The Young Pope to Kadokawa Corporation in Japan, while Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution licensed The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to French pay TV operator Canal+.
Another show that enjoyed some success this week was DRG-distributed The Level, a six-part thriller that was picked up by ABC Australia, UTV in Ireland, TVNZ in New Zealand and DBS Satellite Services in Israel, among others. Produced by Kate Norrish and Polly Leys, joint MDs of Hillbilly Films, the show follows a reputable cop with a secret that is about to unravel. The show has previously been picked up by Acorn Media Enterprises for the US market.
Reiterating the growing interest in non-English drama, Global Screen enjoyed some success with Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the true story of how brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler set up Adidas and Puma. France Télévisions acquired free TV rights and will air the series in early 2017 on France 3, while Just Entertainment in the Netherlands has landed video, pay TV and VoD rights. Other buyers included DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), LRT (Lithuania) and HBO Europe (for Eastern Europe).
Turkish drama successes included Mistco’s sale of TRT period drama Resurrection to Kazakhstan Channel 31. Eccho Rights also sold four Turkish dramas to Chilean broadcaster Mega. The four shows were all produced by Ay Yapim and include the recent hit series Insider. This continues a good run of success for Turkish content in the Latin American region.
While Mipcom is fundamentally a sales market, its conference programme is also a useful way of tuning into international trends and opportunities in drama. There was an interesting keynote with showrunner Adi Hasak, who has managed to get two shows away with US networks (Shades of Blue, Eyewitness) in the last three years despite having no real track record with the US channel business. He believes the current voracious demand for ideas has made this possible: “This is a small business, where everyone knows everyone. If you create material that speaks to buyers, they will respond.”
Participant Media CEO David Linde also talked about the way his company is starting to extend its influence beyond film into TV and social media. Known for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc, Snitch and Spotlight, the firm’s expansion into TV will see a new series about journalists breaking stories, developed by the team behind Oscar winner Spotlight.
US premium pay TV channel Showtime is one of the most loyal commissioning networks in the world, revealing a willingness over the past few years to let its scripted series run and run.
Looking back at Showtime’s classic titles, for example, serial killer drama Dexter ran for eight seasons before it finished in 2014. And even then it might have continued had lead actor Michael C Hall not wanted to pursue other acting opportunities.
Nurse Jackie and Californication also lasted seven seasons on Showtime – an impressive performance in our short-attention-span society.
Looking at current shows, top performer Shameless was granted a seventh season earlier this year. And this week Showtime announced that it had greenlit seventh and eighth seasons of Homeland, the espionage series derived from Israel’s Prisoners of War (Hatufim). That news comes despite the fact that the sixth season of Homeland doesn’t premiere until January 2017.
Homeland, starring Claire Danes, looked as though it might be running out of steam at the end of season four and heading into season five. But a strong recovery in the back half of season five reaffirmed its versatility and its importance to Showtime’s schedule. The show will now run until at least 2019.
In parallel with the Homeland announcement, Showtime also announced that there will be a fifth season of Ray Donovan, which stars Liev Schreiber as a fixer for LA’s rich and famous. The show, which runs in batches of 12 episodes, is currently in the middle of season four and rating pretty consistently. With an average audience of around 1.2 million (same-day figure), it is currently the third best-performing drama in Showtime’s line-up.
Showtime’s other dramas aren’t as far advanced as these titles, but they all seem to be benefiting from similar support from the channel.
Billions, The Affair and Masters of Sex have all been renewed, while Penny Dreadful probably would have been if creator John Logan hadn’t decided to call it a day. Even House of Lies managed five seasons before cancellation, despite the fact its ratings were looking pretty limp by the end of season four.
Showtime’s willingness to back its dramas for extended runs will probably become an industry norm over the next few years. While it’s important to refresh schedules with new productions, the TV drama market is now so cluttered that established series with consistent audiences are worth their weight in gold.
The extent of the competitive challenge has been well documented by FX Networks president John Landgraf, who has used the last couple of Television Critics Association Summer Tours to unveil research into key trends in scripted TV. Last year, for example, he said the US industry was poised to have more than 400 original shows a year on air. This year, he revised that figure up to 500 originals a year.
In Landgraf’s view, this is too many to make economic sense, so he is expecting a crunch to come at some point. He backed up this view by saying that while the top 20% of scripted series average 10.5 million viewers, the bottom tier attracts a mere 380,000.
This brings us back around to Showtime and longevity. If you have a show that rates moderately well then it makes sense to keep it going as long as possible. Why cancel it and replace it with a new show that might end up in the uneconomic end of the spectrum? That would be like a supermarket deciding to eject Heinz and Persil from its shelves in favour of completely new brands.
The attraction of sustaining shows over several seasons is reinforced by the amount of money that SVoD players are now pumping into new content. With Netflix spending around US$6bn a year on content and Amazon aiming to triple the number of new shows it has on its platform, long-running scripted franchises become even more important –which is why we’re seeing more of a trend towards multi-season commissioning.
Of course, this doesn’t mean networks should stick with every series regardless of ratings. Some series simply aren’t very good and need to be killed off so others can bloom. But as far as possible, networks need to be launching series that can last. This is why we are seeing such a strong trend towards IP that is already known (film and TV reboots, books, comics) and the use of talent packages that audiences are likely to respond well to. Anthologies and series spin-offs reinforce this overall trend.
Showtime’s key rivals are not quite as advanced in the longevity stakes but they are moving a similar way. FX, for example, reached seven seasons with Sons of Anarchy and looks like it will hit a similar mark with American Horror Story. There is now also talk of a Sons of Anarchy prequel.
Starz, meanwhile, is putting its shoulder behind Power and Outlander. At AMC, The Walking Dead has hit the magic seven and Fear The Walking Dead may eventually go the same way. Mad Men reached seven seasons and so did Breaking Bad if you count in its spin-off Better Call Saul.
Netflix has commissioned as far as seven seasons of Orange is the New Black and USA Networks has taken its hit show Suits to seven seasons. HBO’s Game of Thrones will go at least as far as eight seasons and it would be a major surprise if the network gives up there (some kind of spin-off must surely be in the works).
Elsewhere in a quiet week for scripted series, BBC2 in the UK has acquired the second season of French period drama Versailles, which will air on the channel next year. The first series rated well on BBC2 and has sold extensively around the world. In the US, it is soon to air on Ovation while distributor Zodiak Rights has also licensed it into around 130 countries. In addition, SVoD platform Netflix picked up second-window streaming rights in the US.
Also in the news this month, Portuguese public broadcaster RTP is working with producer BeActive on a drama set in the world of electronic sports. Called The Players, the series follows a group of friends as they journey to the European championship finals of League of Legends, a popular online video game. BeActive claims it is the first scripted series to focus on the world of e-sports. That’s interesting given our column last week on the role of sport in scripted TV.
When US network ABC broadcast its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, it attracted a staggering audience of 28.8 million. This achievement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the network had no real confidence that a show about slavery would rate well.
A+E Networks never stood a chance of matching that figure with its updated version of the miniseries, but it will be delighted with the audience it achieved on Monday night. All told, 5.3 million tuned in to premiere of the eight-part drama, which aired across four sister channels – A&E, History, Lifetime and LMN. That figure is the best same-day debut for a miniseries since 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde.
Whether Roots can sustain that level of performance remains to be seen. An IMDb score of 7.1 suggests that the audience is either lukewarm about the show or polarised. The possibility of a polarised audience raised its head when rapper Snoop Dogg took to social media to complain about the number of black-focused films and TV shows that tackle slavery. “When are you going to make a series about the success black folks is having?” he wrote.
The show’s producer, Will Packer, rejected the criticism. In an interview, he said: “I don’t think we should get too comfortable as a country, as a society or as a race of people. I think this is a story that’s important enough that it should be told in repeated ways.”
The good news for Packer and A&E is that critics are on their side. Giving the show four stars, The Daily Telegraph applauded the “towering performance” of Malachi Kirby in the role of Kunta Kinte, while The Wrap called it “an enormously gripping experience” that is “spectacularly shot” and “exceptionally well acted.”
A&E can also take comfort from the fact that international broadcasters have bought into Roots in a big way. A&E Studios International has sold the show to broadcasters in more than 50 territories, including SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS in Thailand, D’Live in South Korea, Atresmedia in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada.
Another positive story for the A+E family has been Lifetime’s satirical drama UnREAL, co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The show didn’t have an especially strong debut but a shrewd piece of online streaming during the first half of season one helped it find its audience. You can see this in the numbers. Having drifted from 815,000 at launch to 550,000 for episode four, it then bounced backed to around 810,000 for episode five, also boosting its appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds. Subsequently it managed to bring in around 700,000 per episode.
Season two is about to air, but such is Lifetime’s confidence in UnREAL that it has just announced a third series of 10 episodes in 2017. A big part of the show’s appeal to Lifetime is that it is helping to bring down the average viewer age of the network – with a median age of 43.
Commenting on the commission, Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming for Lifetime, said, “UnREAL is that rare series that redefines a network. It not only reflects culture, but pushes culture forward by creating television’s first female antihero. The overwhelming fan and critical reaction set the bar incredibly high, but the writers and executive producing team, coupled with the outstanding performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, have taken the second season to even greater creative heights. We are thrilled about the new ground we will break with season three.” An added bonus is that the show is produced by A+E Studios.
Another leading female-skewing network, Hallmark, has also just announced plans to renew one of its key series. The show is Good Witch, which comes to the end of season two on June 19. Having established itself as Hallmark’s top drama with an audience of around 2-2.5 million per episode, Good Witch has now been given a third season by the channel. Set in the small community of Middleton, Good Witch tells the story of a good-hearted enchantress and her teenage daughter who shares her powers.
Elsewhere, Fear The Walking Dead seems to have fallen into a nice stable pattern for AMC. Now in the middle of its second season, it attracts between 4.4 million and 4.5 million an episode on its first showing. This then rises by a couple of million when Live + 3-day viewing is tallied up. Clearly these figures aren’t in the same league as The Walking Dead, but there isn’t a cable channel in the US that wouldn’t want to attract this magnitude of audience.
Finally, Canal+’s lavish period drama Versailles launched on BBC2 in the UK this week on the back of plenty of hype in the media. Having been described as a “bonkbuster” by The Sun Newspaper and the “most explicit” drama ever by The Daily Express, it’s no real surprise that the show attracted a healthy 1.8 million viewers. The acid test, of course, will be how the show settles once the audience has satisfied its curiosity about the sex quotient…
There were 11,000 delegates at MipTV this week, 3,900 of whom were content buyers. And top of their shopping list was drama, with a wide array of titles being picked up by free-to-air, pay TV and SVoD channels and platforms.
MipTV doesn’t see much activity from the major US studios, which prefer to focus on the LA Screenings next month. So this meant the attention was more on European and Asian drama, with a few US cable titles also attracting attention.
A big winner at the market, for example, was ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which sold its period drama Victoria into the Nordic region, the Netherlands and Canada. There was also interest in BBC Worldwide’s Anglo-French fashion drama The Collection, which sold to SVT Sweden and DR Denmark.
As the above titles indicate, British dramas tend to secure an initial wave of sales in Scandinavia and other English-speaking markets before picking up deals in other territories. This point was underlined by deals done on Capital. Distributed by FremantleMedia International, the adaptation of John Lanchester’s novel has been sold into the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
If there was a clear trend in terms of sales, it was the continued importance of SVoD platforms, which seem to be doing almost as many drama deals as traditional networks.
Hulu picked up eOne’s The Book of Negroes, while All3Media International sold Irish drama Red Rock to Amazon Prime Video in the US. Channel 4’s international drama strand Walter Presents, meanwhile, acquired two series from Keshet International – Baker & The Beauty and Milk & Honey – plus Spanish drama Locked Up.
Perhaps the most high-profile SVoD deal of them all saw Netflix acquire Marcella from Cineflix Rights. Created by The Bridge writer Hans Rosenfeldt and produced by Buccaneer Media for ITV in the UK, Marcella delves into the psychology of a troubled female detective investigating a serial killer. Larry Tanz, VP of global television at Netflix, said: “We got involved with the series early on in the process to gain the opportunity to bring Hans’s great storytelling to our members around the world.”
Other dramas that secured good deals at the market include the Content Television-distributed Line of Duty, which sold to DirecTV Latin America, BBC Worldwide Benelux and Hulu in the US, which picked up VoD rights.
There was also an interesting deal that saw Zodiak Rights’ Versailles picked up by US pay TV channel Ovation. Ovation isn’t really known as a drama buyer, so it’s another good indication of the demand for event dramas.
One company that has got more interesting to the international market in recent years is Italian public broadcaster Rai, which until recently was only really interested in commissioning mainstream scripted shows for primetime slots on flagship channel Rai 1. But there has a been a definite shift as a result of the wider changes taking place in the international drama market.
On the one hand, the company is now producing edgier, younger-targeted drama for Rai 3, with the result that it is attracting more attention from international buyers. An example at the market was Close Murders, which was on the verge of being picked up by Franco-German network Arte at Mip.
On the other, Rai has started getting interested in supporting English-language event dramas. At the market, for example, it was one of the backers of Wild Bunch TV’s epic new period drama Medici: Masters of Florence, which has now been greenlit for a second season.
One new development at the market was the launch of the Mip Drama Screenings, a showcase for 12 new drama titles that was held on April 3 in the JW Marriott Hotel. The event, heavily skewed towards European content (but with a Chilean and an Israeli-originated show involved) was well received by buyers and put the spotlight on some interesting series.
Writer/producer Frank Spotnitz, whose Medici was among the shows screened, called the screenings “an excellent platform. We had the undivided attention of 400 buyers who were able to watch extended excerpts and trailers in a nice theatre, with proper sound and picture quality. When you are running around at a hectic TV market like MipTV, a focused and quiet environment is valuable for both the filmmakers and the broadcasters. I hope the screenings expand in the future.”
At the end of the screenings, one show is given an award called the Coup De Coeur for being the best of the bunch according to the buyers. This year it was Belgium’s Public Enemy, which is distributed by Zodiak Rights.
It’s too early to know how Public Enemy’s success at the screenings will impact on its sales – but it certainly should help. Sarah Wright, director of acquisitions at Sky and one of the executives on the advisory board that selected the show, said: “We chose Public Enemy because we felt it was brave, it was strong, it was fresh, it had twists and turns. It feels like something that will travel.”
Last week, we name-checked a few scripted format deals. By the end of MipTV a couple more had bubbled to the surface. Onza Entertainment sold the format for Spanish drama The Department of Time to China’s Guan Yue International, while Russia’s NTV commissioned a local version of Nordic Noir hit The Bridge.
In a related development, Lionsgate licensed its new show Feed the Beast (starring David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess) to AMC’s UK pay TV channel. This show, about two friends who launch a restaurant, is based on a Danish scripted format.
This market was very much billed as being about Germany – this year’s Country of Honour. But it was noticeable that France was actually among the most high profile in terms of deal-making. StudioCanal, for example, used the market to announce that it was acquiring stakes in a number of international production companies, including Spanish powerhouse Bambu, producer of hit shows like Velvet, Gran Hotel and the first Spanish-language series ordered by Netflix. The firm’s sister company Canal+, meanwhile, launched Studio+, which is billed as the first global premium series offer for mobile devices.
The new company will produce exclusive premium drama series for smartphones, tablets and a dedicated app. Each series will consist of 10 10-minute episodes, with an average budget of €1m (US$1.14m). Studio+ president Manuel Alduy said the service will launch in September in France with 25 complete original series, before opening in Europe, Russia and Latin America in partnership with major local telecoms. Early series include drama Amnesia starring Caroline Proust, action series Brutal and Urban Jungle and thrillers Kill Skills and Madame Hollywood. Sixty more shows are currently in development.
Explaining the thinking behind the series, Dominique Delport, president of Vivendi Content (Canal+’s parent company), said 60% of smartphone users watch shortform video. He said the directing talent for the new series comes from advertising and music, sectors that have experience of reaching Studio+’s target audience of 15- to 35-year-olds.
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
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.”
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).
Costing US$30m to make and promising to push the boundaries of TV drama, Versailles is one of the most hotly anticipated period pieces in recent memory. DQ goes behind the scenes as the Louis XIV epic wraps its debut season.
Five years in the making, one of Europe’s most expensive and daring new dramas is about to be unleashed by France. Aptly, it’s called Versailles.
But despite its royal heritage, this is no regular French drama production. The €27m (US$29.7m) series – commissioned by French pay TV broadcaster Canal+ under its Création Originale drama strategy – surprises in more ways than one.
The 80% French-funded series is created and scripted by British duo Simon Mirren (Without a Trace, Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks, The Escape Artist). They weren’t the project’s first showrunners. After a few false starts, and following the departure of André and Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men), Mirren and Wolstencroft joined two years ago via Anne Thomopoulos (Band of Brothers, Rome, Borgia, Black Box), who is exec producing the drama together with Claude Chelli (Braquo) of Newen-owned Capa Drama.
Canal+ greenlit the show in January 2014, before French coproducer Zodiak France funded a writers room in LA and production finally began last August, with filming wrapping in early March this year.
As it turns out, Mirren and Wolstencroft were destined for the part. Wolstencroft says he got the call from Mirren as he left a butcher’s in Brooklyn. “Simon phoned me and said, ‘Mate, do you know anything about Louis XIV and Versailles?’ ‘Well, I did study him at Cambridge and he is my specialist subject,’ I replied.”
Wolstencroft was tutored by historian Peter Burke, a Louis XIV expert who shared the research for his books on the monarch with his Cambridge students. He recalls: “At college I remember thinking this would be a brilliant movie but that it would never happen.”
While it’s nothing new for French productions to be scripted and shot in English, it’s certainly a bold step when the subject in question is so quintessentially French. Versailles will be dubbed into French, with Canal+ viewers given the choice of either language when the series launches this fall. But the approach has raised French eyebrows, with its English-speaking Louis XIV, played by British actor George Blagden (Vikings), in particular, proving controversial.
Making the show in English was a “very buccaneer, brave thing to do,” says Wolstencroft. “It’s clearly important in terms of its historical veracity to have a French version, but to film in English is bold and wonderful. Three billion people in the world speak English, so let’s take this story to the maximum audience, like the Americans do. The whole point is that the story exists on its own terms – it’s English-language, international entertainment.”
Chelli is similarly dismissive of the concerns: “Louis is married to a Spanish woman, his brother’s wife is English and his mother is a quarter Italian, so it’s not really just a French story but a European one.”
It was Chelli who first pitched the idea to Canal+ five years ago, after a visit to the Palace of Versailles’ central Hall of Mirrors left him wondering why no one had made a drama about France’s longest-serving monarch. “The guy’s incredible; he invented everything from architecture to fashion, music, ballet, haute cuisine – the lot,” Chelli says of Louis XIV. “It’s a long story, but here we are five years later with great showrunners and great stories.”
Canal+ is very clear about why it backed the production. “Versailles was a great subject for us in the first place, but we didn’t want to do another conventional historical series,” says Pierre Saint André, manager of French drama and coproductions for Création Originale at Canal+, which is headed by Fabrice de la Patellière. “We love Borgia, which aired on Canal+, but we wanted to do something different.”
Audiences for pay TV channels make it possible to take creative risks that their broad-reach, free-to-air terrestrial counterparts often cannot, especially in France, says Saint André. “For Canal+ as a pay TV channel in France doing original programming, it had to be something different, a distinctive approach and a fresh take on a specific story.”
The project was high budget from the start and needed coproduction partners. “We’re French producers and we don’t do productions of this scope, so it took some time to get the production together creatively and financially,” says Chelli.
Associate producer Aude Albano, of Zodiak France, adds: “Beyond bringing partners together, the big challenge of producing a major historical drama that looks beautiful and rich on screen is that it needs a lot of money.”
Chelli agrees: “It would have been impossible to do without the right funding, given the magnitude of the set and the rest of the production. If it had just been down to French money, we would have done it in a few months. With Versailles, you expect something beautiful – in terms of both the palace and the people. If you didn’t have the money, it would look ridiculous.”
The production’s grand scale also played a part in the appointment of French director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint Laurent, Headwinds) to direct the drama’s first two episodes. “He was on the same wavelength as all of us in trying to do something new and unique with the show,” says Saint André.
The series starts in 1667 with a 28-year-old Louis XIV. The palace itself is still a hunting lodge, and war is raging. The king has left Paris and relocated his court to Versailles to establish absolute power over rebel French nobles. “Versailles was basically a political project, but Louis XIV also wanted to build the most beautiful palace in the world, so that’s what he did,” says Chelli.
A central theme of Versailles is the relationship between Louis XIV and his gay younger brother Philippe, a heroic warrior played by Alexander Vlahos (Merlin, Privates). Philippe’s wife Harriette – sister to Charles II of England and one of Louis’ lovers – dies at the start of the series, soon after the death of the French monarch’s mother.
“It was a blow for Louis and the end of his innocence,” says Chelli. “He had to grow up and face the next step in his history. We’re telling a universal story of two brothers who love their mother. It’s about becoming a man. There’s nothing specifically French about it, and hopefully the viewers will relate.”
The drama is anything but a slavish retelling of the period, with the copro partners and showrunners not interested in delivering a history lesson. “This is a piece of drama and we’re taking a few liberties with dates and events. We’re inventing something that could have happened,” says Chelli. Albano adds: “We were obsessed by airing a very modern take on this part of history, and that’s why it’s also great to have non-French writers on the show, who are free from self-censorship.”
Saint André agrees: “That’s what was very convincing in Simon and David’s approach. They delivered what a French writer perhaps wouldn’t have dared do. But this was the liberty we needed for Versailles. We don’t want to specialise in historical dramas. We’re looking for contemporary stories and series, so it had to be different and modern, visually and in its storytelling – and I think Versailles succeeds in both aspects.”
Wolstencroft says he’s using Versailles’ history as a lens to view the modern world. “I’m a historian and I love France, but I often don‘t agree with the way history is perceived. It’s true of Britain, too, where there’s this kind of preserved taxidermy. True history is a living, breathing moment in time and everyone remembers it differently. Versailles is the birth of France as a superpower in Europe, the birth of fashion and haute cuisine, of architecture being used by a ruler – it’s a bit like the beginning of New Labour, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, and there are parallels all the way through.”
Then there’s Versailles the brand. “It’s the first global brand,” says Wolstencroft. “Most people don’t know about France or Louis XIV, but they do know about Versailles. It’s like the original Nike symbol or the world’s first Superbowl spot. Everyone had heard about it, and it grew and grew to become a shop window and a place to manipulate politicians, as well as the centre of culture.”
Applying the US scriptwriter-showrunner model has also helped deliver a singular vision and give authorship to the series in a market driven by the producer-director model. “It’s useful to have this streamlined creative process, because it meant we could keep our eyes on the prize, which is quite hard when you have the infrastructure that we have and the expectations of what a period drama should be,” explains Wolstencroft. “We had to stop ourselves from going into Downton or Masterpiece territory.”
Versailles is anything but, and Mirren and Wolstencroft deliver a blinder at the end of episode one.
Wolstencroft suggests France’s next step should be to “empower writers to understand the basics of production.”
“Even among those writing for UK TV, there are people who don’t know how to make a scene better, or don’t feel empowered to do so,” he says. “They might have opinions but keep them to themselves. The writer-producer model in the US is very empowering because it means authorship. It’s the opposite of how it works in France, with the director of a show usually being its originator. It may threaten the pillars of established power but, actually, you get better stories at the end of it, so everybody wins – as the US has demonstrated.”
Versailles’ modern approach is reinforced by contemporary electronic music and pared-back hairstyles and makeup, eschewing the huge wigs and chalky faces of the period. “We watch UK shows here and everyone loves Downton Abbey,” says Chelli, “but this is not Downton. We’ve tried to do something different. Versailles is shot in a different way. It’s more modern, the music is mostly electronic and the entire production looks much more contemporary than Downton and some of the other classic period pieces.”
The visually lavish production, however, is certainly in keeping with the period, benefiting from advice by Versailles experts to capture the historical context.
Alongside accessing French subsidies, the production’s French base was important in terms of location and the top local technical production skill the show required, says Chelli. “We really wanted to do it in Paris, even if it was much more expensive than, say, doing it in Hungary. The palace is near Paris, and we built the set here. For us it’s a way to tell the world that a French production can do as much as any other.”
A huge recreation of Versailles was built by set designer Katia Wyszkop (Potiche, Van Gogh) at the Studio de Bry just outside Paris, where much of the production is shot. Top costume designer Madeline Fontaine (Amélie) oversaw the transformation of 2,500 metres of fabric to the tune of more than €200,000, while the inclusion of Louis XIV-style coaches and horses cost €3,500 per day. As well as the core members of the cast, there were 220 extras and a menagerie of animals including wolves, eagles and pigs.
Versailles’ coproduction model has deliberately avoided too many partners. “We didn’t want to have too much input from different sources,” says Chelli. “It’s not a very simple partnership, because of Canada and the showrunners, but we’d rather choose the right partners and do what we want before offering it to the public.”
Eighty percent of the budget is French, with 60% coming from Canal+ and French public subsidies, including from Région Île-de-France, where production took place, plus coproducer Zodiak Media in exchange for worldwide distribution rights to the show outside of Canada.
The project’s Canadian coproducer Incendo has a 20% stake, and has brought Canadian pay channel Super Channel on board. Incendo is now overseeing the post-production phase, which runs from March to August, including a second commercial 10×44’ cut for the broader-reach free-to-air channels to help finance the pay TV version.
“Part of the attraction for the Canadian market is the French version that’s already paid for,” says Incendo’s Ian Whitehead, Canadian producer for the show. Canada is also fielding two actors, Tygh Runyan and Evan Williams, as well as movie director Daniel Roby, who helmed the final three episodes and for whom Versailles marks a TV debut.
Whitehead sees an advantage in having a clear lead broadcaster in the form of Canal+, adding that if a big US partner had been brought in right away, the process could have taken far longer. “To have more independence was a risk for everyone, but I think there’s going to be a big pay-off, because it’s a clear vision,” he says.
The production is nevertheless charting new territory, and with it come a few inevitable challenges. “Essentially it’s a big ask for everyone,” says Wolstencroft. “There’s the translation issue – not just linguistically but culturally. It’s a hybrid. It’s the first time it’s ever been done and the first experience for everyone. We’re like the first people on the Moon, in a way. There was no rehearsal. You discover Easter eggs as you go – some good, some bad; some useful, some challenging. The goal for everyone at every stage was making the story better, because that’s what matters, and the emotion.”
Finding actors was another early challenge, adds Chelli. This was resolved with a predominantly British cast, featuring mostly young and up-and-coming actors. “We didn’t want to do a Euro-pudding and we didn’t want lots of accents. David Wolstencroft was adamant about that,” he says. Ten of the drama’s 18-strong main cast are from the UK, complemented by four from France, two from Canada and a pair from Switzerland, including Anatole Taubman (Quantum of Solace) as the evil Moncourt.
“The good thing about working with young actors,” says Saint André, “is that when the story starts all the characters are in their 20s, which is somewhat unusual. It’s normally about old kings trying to keep the balance of power.”
For Whitehead, one of the distinctive features of Versailles as a slice of French history done in the English language “is that it actually crystallises where things are at with television now.”
“Had this been a less ambitious show, it might have been completely financed by Canal+. It would have had Canal+’s extraordinary production values, but maybe it would have had remakes or been dubbed into English versions for other broadcasters,” he says.
“Here, it’s fallen to all of us as producers to make something much more global. We’re taking in the vision Canal+ has for its own channel and combining it with what, for example, a North American audience would expect. And we’re doing that on what should be a French-language show. That’s something unique compared with dramas about any other period.”
Versailles forms the centrepiece of Zodiak Rights’ sales catalogue at this year’s MipTV, where it is premiering to buyers internationally. Caroline Torrance, Zodiak’s head of international scripted, says there have already been strong expressions of interest, although the decision was taken not to confirm any buyers in advance in order to get the best deal and platform for the show.
“It’s one of the most expensive European dramas ever made, but it’s taking the period drama into another space,” says Torrance. “The showrunners and Canal+ want to push boundaries. They don’t want just another period drama – and neither do audiences. It’s very important for Canal+ to do groundbreaking drama, and doing it in English will resonate with markets like the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.”
As for how Canal+’s French viewers will react when Versailles launches this fall, Saint André says: “We’ll see. Yes, we’re pushing the envelope, but our French subscribers watch tons of US and European shows that have been dubbed into French. We did it with Borgia and with Spotless.”
Development of a second season has already started, although Canal+ has yet to greenlight it. “If you’re doing these big, 10-episode series, you would want to be able to follow up without too long a delay between seasons,” says Torrance.
And there’s clearly much more story to tell. “Louis XIV is the longest-serving monarch in history,” says Wolstencroft. “I don’t want to scare the actors or anything, but there are so many phases of Louis’ life, and this is just the beginning. This is him revving up – he’s only around 30 at the end of season one. He died when he was 75, and we could go all the way to the revolution. This is only act one.”