This summer, French telco Orange made headlines when it revealed it was planning a five-year, €100 million ($120 million) investment in “ambitious” series via its new Orange Content division. Another European telco giant, Altice, which owns SFR in France, has previously said it is committing €160 million ($191 million) to produce films and television shows.
These latest moves in the French pay-TV space, alongside Netflix’s local content push, are shaking up the country’s traditional drama production landscape—one that has long been dominated by France Télévisions, TF1, M6 and Canal+.
“There is a huge increase in the actual level of French production,” reports Vanessa Shapiro, president of worldwide TV distribution and co-productions at Gaumont, the storied film outfit that has stepped up its television activities in recent years. Gaumont’s Glacé (The Frozen Dead) aired successfully as a limited series on M6 earlier this year, and the procedural L’Art du Crime (The Art of Crime) is slated for France 2. In the works for Canal+ is Nox, a six-parter that will air in 2018.
“You see fewer U.S. series and more French series on air on the major broadcasters,” Shapiro continues. “I don’t see that changing for the next two or three years at least. The appetite for the French series is very strong. The French audience wants to watch local content.”
And fiction is the preferred content genre for the French. According to the CNC, of the 3 hours and 43 minutes of television French viewers averaged each day in 2016, 24.4 percent of that time was spent with scripted productions. CNC also reports that last year, for the first time since 2009, the French national channels devoted more time to domestic scripted series than American ones. French shows represented 82 of the 100 top-rated scripted programs last year, versus 59 in 2015 and 61 in 2014.
For acclaimed French writer and producer Thomas Bourguignon, whose production outfit Kwaï is now part of the FremantleMedia family, “It is a challenging and exciting time for producers.”
Bourguignon is indeed very busy at the moment. On the heels of wrapping Kim Kong for ARTE, he is working on the second season of the well-received political thriller Baron Noir for Canal+ and several development projects, among them a fantasy series, La Dernière Vague (The Last Wave), and a crime pilot for TF1, Babel.
“The programs offered by the platforms and the new players in pay TV open up the game and strengthen the competition for original and audacious programs,” Bourguignon observes. “The audience wants original, powerful and bold series. And the [more established] broadcasters are looking for programs that stick in people’s minds.”
Françoise Guyonnet, the executive managing director for TV series at STUDIOCANAL, which sells the aforementioned Baron Noir, backs up Bourguignon’s view, noting, “To stand out among the competition, broadcasters and platforms are commissioning high-end, diverse scripted series. French drama today is so exciting because of the depth and breadth of the genres available—from contemporary to costume drama, from action to political thrillers.”
New on the company’s slate is Paris etc., following the lives of five women in the French capital.
“Broadcasters and platforms are always seeking new high-quality content that enables them to drive good ratings, win new subscribers and create a buzz,” notes Malika Abdellaoui, the managing director of Newen Distribution, whose new lineup includes CAPA Drama’s Netflix commission Osmosis and Telsète’s daily thriller Demain Nous Appartient (Tomorrow is Ours) for TF1.
Platforms, she says, “are looking for new concepts, distinctive characters and strong hooks (famous names, high concept, well-known brand) to promote the show and attract viewers.”
CATCHING A BREAK
The health of the French production landscape has much to do with the country’s well-established financing structure. “We have a fairly comprehensive system of financial media aid in France,” says Takis Candilis, the head of scripted at Banijay Group. “Firstly, there is financial assistance provided by CNC,” which, according to its latest annual report, supported 897 hours of fiction last year.
“Regional subsidies are also an option with aid available from provincial authorities designed to encourage the hiring of local crews and strengthen the local economy,” Candilis continues. “Finally, there are tax credits available for the production of French-language programs. A new ‘international’ tax credit has recently been introduced for foreign productions filmed in France, but it is also available for French productions in English. Versailles was the very first production to benefit from it.”
CAPA Drama’s 17th-century series, one of a number of French scripted productions on the Banijay slate, is heading into its third season.
“We have just finished production on a series that we have co-produced with Elephant & Cie, Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour etre heureux (Don’t Worry Be Happy), which is an adaptation of the long-running Jarowskij comedy series Solsidan,” Candilis adds. “We are also very excited that France will be the first country to go into production with a local version of the Norwegian hit Skam (Shame).”
Versailles, which sold into 130-plus markets, is a French-Canadian collaboration and one of a number of international co-pros involving French broadcasters.
“Unfortunately, co-productions are still very minor,” says Kwaï’s Bourguignon. “Canal+ and ARTE are more involved than the other broadcasters. However, France Télévisions and TF1 are aware of the [impact] that a show produced with big foreign partners can [make].” Bourguignon believes that the “new frontier” for French drama is international collaboration, “to produce more ambitious programs for an audience that is more demanding and curious. I think the market is [ready] for this new step.”
He is already working with another FremantleMedia company, Wildside, in Italy, on the thriller Il Miracolo (The Miracle) for ARTE and Sky Italia.
“Because of the financing structure in France, there was no need” for co-productions, says Emmanuelle Guilbart, a joint CEO of About Premium Content. That, however, is changing “because of the competition between the different players. There is a [demand] for bigger, more premium, more expensive shows that people cannot afford by themselves.”
Newen’s Abdellaoui expects more international alliances in drama and, with that, “the quality and audacity of shows will increase.”
When asked if she is seeing more French platforms opening up to international co-pros, Gaumont’s Shapiro says, “Yes, and no. When it is in French, it’s usually 100-percent French; there’s no international partner for it. When it’s in the English language, having other international partners helps with the financing. TF1 has done it, Canal+ has done it.”
Canal+ has been the most forward-thinking when it comes to co-pros, with recent examples that include the first French-Swedish drama partnership, STUDIOCANAL’s Midnight Sun. The thriller “uses multiple languages and has the wonderful French actress Leïla Bekhti (A Prophet) in the lead role,” Guyonnet says. “It won an Audience Award at Series Mania in Paris and has been acquired by more than 90 territories.”
FLYING THE FRENCH FLAG
French dramas are indeed traveling far farther than they ever have done. In addition to Midnight Sun, Guyonnet says that STUDIOCANAL has had international success with Baron Noir, sold to Walter Presents in the U.S., among other platforms.
“Our goal is always to get behind strong, dynamic dramas that have local and international appeal and transcend borders,” Guyonnet says. “We have expanded our partnerships with leading companies throughout Europe because we know that they will develop projects with authentic and intriguing storylines that will work in their country of origin as well as globally.”
At Newen, top sellers have included Candice Renoir, licensed to 40-plus markets; Les Témoins (Witnesses) sold in more than 100; and Ouro. Abdellaoui says that “distributors are now key in the financing. Newen Distribution can be involved at a very early stage, from the development to the deficit funding. We are working on a development slate with producers in order to share with them the risk and to guarantee us good content.”
Gaumont’s Shapiro believes that the sheer volume of French drama production has helped to elevate the genre globally. “There is a better understanding and ability to work with these series because there are a lot available on the marketplace. People are more familiar with them, so it’s becoming easier to sell them compared to years ago when it was not the norm.”
Shapiro also sees interest in French scripted formats, mentioning Gaumont’s own The Art of Crime, set in the Louvre. “The concept is great because it can be redone by any other country with their national landmarks.”
For producers, French drama gaining traction globally has been a boon to the local industry. “With the growing success of French series abroad, distributors are more confident and are positioning themselves very early, from the concept [stage],” says Kwaï’s Bourguignon. “Competition between French and international distributors is more intense, and I feel that we are stepping into the global fiction market. Thus, the amount of the minimum guarantee has become [critical] to the financing plans of our series.”
Newen’s Abdellaoui feels that “producers have no choice but to solicit international sales to help the financing of the series” in this competitive climate. “Broadcasters and platforms are more selective in their choice of acquiring and co-producing series. Quality is getting better, viewers are more demanding and with this trend of high production values comes higher budgets.”
SPINNING THE STORY
Abdellaoui is also expecting French producers to introduce “new storytelling narratives and more disruptive formats,” especially as a way of drawing in millennial audiences.
There has been a glut of police dramas in France over the last few years, and Shapiro says that Gaumont is looking at developing other kinds of stories as platforms look to refresh their lineups. “In our development slate, we’re trying to offer different genres. We’re developing a comedy, a dramedy, a period piece and more serialized drama. But we still have two or three cop procedurals—that’s what the broadcasters want.”
At Kwaï, Bourguignon likewise hears lots of requests for crime dramas, particularly procedurals, but has also seen interest in shows that speak to current events, as well as comedies.
“The current climate has been described as the golden age of drama,” says Banijay’s Candilis. “I think we will see more drama production than ever before, and more French drama exports available on the international market, including major international co-productions with big, universal stories to tell.”
Pictured: Banijay Rights’ Versailles.