PARIS — Whatever the state of Franco-U.S. relations, some things never change.
One of them is how much the French love a good American copshow.
Leading Gallic adcaster TF1 already serves up seven hours a week of “Law & Order” in its various guises. But later this year, in an international first for the show, the web will unveil its very own Gallic adaptation of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
The series is being produced by TF1’s drama unit Alma Prods., which acquired the format rights last year. But TF1 didn’t just pay up and ship out.
In an unusual trans-Atlantic partnership, the new adaptation is being made in close collaboration with Dick Wolf and NBC Universal Television, which will hold worldwide distribution rights, except for French-speaking Europe.
TF1 is used to calling the shots on dramas that it airs, but in this case, the web’s U.S. partners have approval rights over key artistic elements, such as script and cast.
“This was not a transaction. We are in it together,” says Leslie Jones, VP of international sales and format production for NBC Universal. “The people at TF1 said to us, ‘Yes, we want your help.’ Two heads are better than one.”
But why, exactly, are Wolf Films and NBC Universal going to all this trouble?
As one of the U.S.’ most successful drama series, “Law & Order” has traveled about as far as it can go in Europe. Probably the only way to occupy even more terrain is to go local.
Making a French version has two advantages. It opens the show to the wider audiences achieved almost exclusively by homegrown fare. Even though “Lost” was a success on TF1 last summer, net’s ratings-topping summer miniseries “Dolmen” drew nearly twice as many viewers to become the highest-rated drama this year.
And secondly, all over the continent the adaptation will be a newly attractive proposition to broadcasters with quotas of European programming to fill. According to current Euro rules, major webs must give at least 50% of their airtime to European product.
Last fall, seven key people on the French side, including TF1’s drama topper Takis Candilis and scribe Franck Olivier, flew from Paris to attend a weeklong boot camp on the set of “Law & Order.”
Recalls Jones: “It was very intense. They watched us prepping and shooting a show, so they saw how we implement things. They lived, breathed and ate ‘Law & Order.’ ”
The TF1 folk also received tips on how to cast Detective Robert Goren, played in the States by Vincent D’Onofrio.
“We talked about exactly what type of character Goren is, and we went into great depth about what kind of actor is capable of playing that part,” Jones recalls.
Despite the thousands of miles and six-hour time difference that separate Paris and New York, contact between the two sides is “very frequent,” says Jones, aided by a Paris-based agent for NBC Universal, whose job it is to liaise with TF1. Wolf has said he will travel over to Paris to be there when shooting begins, which is a few months away.
For the moment, TF1 is reading the recently completed first draft of the script by Olivier, author of “Dolmen.” Next, the folks Stateside will get their chance to vet it. It makes things easier that Rene Balcer, the U.S. show’s exec producer and showrunner, is a French-Canadian, says Jones.
“He understands the nuances of the language and will be able to appreciate how good a cultural adaptation it is. We want to make sure that it is really French.”
Challenges include adapting the scripts to reflect the differences between the U.S. legal systems and France’s Napoleonic Code.
Then there is the casting process. TF1 is currently drawing up a short list of actors that will be submitted to Wolf and NBC Universal, ahead of shooting late spring or early summer.
“We’re taking this inch by inch. We’ve got soft deadlines because we want to make sure this show is as good as it can be,” says Jones, who spells out the expectations at NBC Universal: “We’re looking for an aftermarket for this show. With TF1 providing the French content and us able to bring the distribution side, I think there is great potential.”