Once dominated by U.S. TV imports, France has now jumped into the golden age of TV in a big way, powered up by France’s top film and television players who have internationalized the local TV drama landscape and turned it into a major growth business.
The drive of France’s top film companies and media groups — notably Gaumont, Studiocanal, Lagardere, Wild Bunch TV, and EuropaCorp — to embark on the production and distribution of high-profile TV drama has allowed for the emergence of upscale French and European shows that cross borders.
“In the last 10 years, the export of French fiction programs has gone up by 100% (to $46 million in 2015), thanks to the rising quality of TV drama as well as the boom of multi-territory streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, local VOD platforms as well as TV and cable channels,” says Mathieu Bejot, managing director of TV France Intl., which hosts the Rendez-Vous confab in Biarritz every fall.
Olivier Wotling, director of fiction at Franco-German net Arte, concurs. “Netflix, for instance, has played a major role in showcasing foreign series, boosting the appetite of global audiences for local shows, and maximizing their exposure around the world.
“Case in point: Netflix picked up ‘A Very Secret Service’ and streamed it across 50 markets and, in spite of the fact that it’s a satirical comedy series set in the ’60s, it’s proven successful in U.K., Germany, and Spain, from what Netflix has told us,” says Wotling.
Canal Plus was the first French TV player to commission upscale, internationally driven series for primetime, with Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and Tom Fontana’s “Borgia” among its series. It’s now delivered productions such as Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope,” Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft’s “Versailles,” and Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein’s “Midnight Sun.”
“With ‘Borgia’ and ‘Versailles,’ we thought, ‘why should all the big European historical series be handled by Hollywood when have the artistic and industrial means to take them on?,” says Pierre Saint-Andre, a key exec at Canal Plus’ fiction division.
“We realized that French audiences were watching the best of U.S. shows and we were forced to raise our game in terms of writing and production value,” says Saint-Andre.
Even if global audiences are open more than ever to foreign series, lensing shows in English still presents many advantages, says Saint-Andre, who notes that “Versailles” was a huge international sales hit.
As it turns out, “Versailles” was also a ratings success in its home market, France, as well as the U.K. on BBC2, and in the U.S. on Ovation, where its Oct. 1 premiere pulled more than half a million viewers and was the most-watched Ovation series premiere of the network’s history, according to Parrot Analytics.
“Versailles” will next stream on Netflix.
Although it was created by a pair of Hollywood-based British showrunners and stars British actors George Blagden and Alexander Vlahos as Louis XIV and his brother Philippe d’Orleans, respectively, the series still had a French touch. It shot on location in the palace of Versailles and had a French director, Jalil Lespert (who directed the first two episodes) and key French crew including set designer Katia Wyszkop (“Farewell, My Queen”) and costume designer Madeline Fontaine (“Jackie,” “Yves Saint Laurent”).
But France has also seen a surge of “Babel”-style, cinematic TV drama series that take place across multiple locations and are shot in various languages with actors of different nationalities. This breed of series, mostly coming from Canal Plus, includes “Young Pope,” “The Bureau,” “Midnight Sun,” as well as “Cannabis” from Arte.
Arte has followed Canal Plus’ path toward international series, but is not yet making English-language series.
“At Arte, we’re not going the English-language route, we’re following the footsteps of our Scandinavian big brothers by pursuing series that have a European flavor and a local grounding, like Lucie Borleteau’s thriller drama ‘Cannabis,’ which delves into the private lives of drug smugglers [who work between] between France and Spain, or even ‘A Very Secret Service,’” says Wotling. He adds that Arte’s shows sell across 20 to 30 territories.
French pubcaster France Televisions, whose local series roster was for years dominated by the French soap “Plus Belle La Vie,” ventured off the beaten path with “Call My Agent,” a sharply written, “Entourage”-style dramedy series depicting the ins-and-outs of a French talent agency. Produced by vet talent agent
Dominique Besnehard at Mon Voisin Prods., “Call My Agent” has been nominated for an Intl. Emmy Award.
Mon Voisin is one of the many film production companies that have started making TV dramas.
“Whether they’re tackling French, English, or foreign-language drama series, these producers have a knowledge of the international market so they’re able to make shows with that global perspective in mind,” says Wotling.
These film producers are also highly experienced in raising financing through co-productions with foreign partners and pre-sales, points out Wotling, citing Eric and Nicolas Altmayer’s Mandarin Production, which is behind “A Very Secret Service” and Tonie Marshall’s Tabo Tabo Films, which produced “Cannabis.”
The internationalization of the drama biz is a big plus for French networks, allowing them to access more ambitious series without having to increase their investment significantly.
“With co-productions like ‘Borgia’ or ‘Young Pope,’ budgets rise thanks to the partners on board, but our investment stays the same,” Saint-Andre says.
France’s second-biggest commercial channel, M6, a big purveyor of U.S. shows and the last network to join the original drama playing field, is also starting to invest in primetime-bound French series, notably “Frozen Dead,” created and co-written by Pascal Chaumeil (“Heartbreaker”) and produced by Gaumont Intl. Television.
“Going forward, it’s obvious that we’ll see more and more international co-productions. TV networks now know the pitfalls of ‘Euro pudding’ and we’ve seen that the Scandinavian and Dutch producers have succeeded in making this model work, and will become regular partners, along with TV makers from the U.K., Italy, Germany, and Spain,” says Carole Baraton, head of Wild Bunch TV, which is selling Frank Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer’s “Medici: Masters of Florence” with Dustin Hoffman, along with other anticipated shows.
Key French TV series at Mipcom
Call My Agent!
Directors: Lola Doillon, Antoine Garceau, Cédric Klapisch
Creator: Fanny Herrero
Producers: Dominique Besnehar, Michel Feller, Cédric Klapisch,
Aurelien Larger, Harold Valentin
Cast: Cécile de France, Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet
Sales: TF Intl.
Talent agent comedy-drama nominated for Intl. Emmy Awards, season two’s in production.
Director: Lucie Borleteau
Producers: Tonie Marshall, Véronique Zerdoun (Tabo Tabo), Arte, Arcadia Motion Pictures
Writers: Virginie Brac, Hamid Hlioua, Clara Bourreau
Cast: Kate Moran, Yasin Houicha, Pedro Casablanc, Jean-Michel Correia, Christophe Paou
Sales: Lagardere Studios
Drama series created by Virginie Brac (“Spiral”) features “Sopranos”-style journey through cannabis trade between Spain and Africa.
Director: Alfred Lot
Writers: Manon Dillys, Sébastien Le Délézir
Producer: Mandarin Télévision
Cast: Patrick Ridremont, Solène Hébert, Slimane Yefsah
Sales: TF1 Intl.
Detective Fred Vitulo discovers that his new trainee, Emma, is a special forces’ an android. As she develops human emotions, he starts to fall for her.
Grizzy and the Lemmings
Director: Victor Moulin
Writers-Producers: Antoine Rodelet, Josselin Charier
Sales: Hari Intl.
A comic encounter between a grizzly bear and family of lemmings
Manon, 20 Years Old
Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Writers: Antoine Lacomblez, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Producer: Nicole Collet (Image & Compagnie)
Cast: Alba Gaia Bellugi, Déborah François, Marina Foïs
Sales: Film & Picture
Sequel to “3 x Manon”: Manon, is now 20 years old, and confronts violence and injustice, with resilience and rebellious spirit.
Directors-writers: Mans Marlind, Bjorn Stein
Producers: Olivier Bibas, Patrick Nebout (Atlantique), Stefan Baron, Mikael Wallen, Henrik Jansson-Schweizer (Nice Drama)
Cast: Leila Bekhti, Gustaf Hammarsten
Co-production murder mystery between SVT and Canal Plus, set in Lapland.
Director: Fabien Nury, Kim Chapiron, Philippe Triboit
Writer: Fabien Nury
Producers: Ariel Askénazi, Didier Hoarau, Bénédicte Lesage
Cast: Mathieu Spinosi, Olivier Rabourdin, Anne Suarez
Sales: Newen Distribution
Mipcom Intl. Drama Screening
Canal Plus original drama about a 20-year-old geology student exploring an abandoned mine in French Guiana.
Pirata & Capitano
Director: François Narboux
Creators: Emilio Gallego, Jesus Gallego
Producers: Millimages, Aliante
Pre-school animation series. Millimages is sponsoring MipJunior’s opening party to mark company’s 25th anniversary.
The Frozen Dead
Director: Laurent Herbiet
Writers: Gérard Carré, Pascal Chaumeil, Caroline Van Ruymbeke
Producers: Damien Couvreur, Isabelle Degeorges, Sidonie Dumas,
Cast: Nicolas Abraham, Lubna Azabal, Charles Berling
Sales: Gaumont Intl. Television
Murder-mystery set in the French Pyrenees revolves around ; DNA on headless horse corpse leads to serial killer in high-security asylum.
Directors: Daniel Roby, Christoph Schrewe, Jalil Lespert, Thomas Vincent
Writers: Simon Mirren, David Wolstencroft, Andrew Bampfield, Sasha Hails
Producers: Aude Albano, Claude Albouze, Ian Whitehead
Cast: George Blagden, Alexander Vlahos, Tygh Runyan, Stuart Bowman
Sales: Zodiak Rights
France’s biggest-ever TV series, produced by Capa Drama, about how King Louis XIV built Versailles Palace. Season two began shooting in February.