DEAUVILLE, France– French TV ratings are dominated by U.S. series. Franchises such as “CSI” and “Criminal Minds,” dubbed into French, routinely take a third of the primetime audience, while left-field skeins “The Sopranos” and “Dexter” also have a substantial following.
Local series no longer get that kind of reception. So what is stopping Gaul from making TV the American way?
Scribes from both sides of the Atlantic, including “Sopranos” creator David Chase and “Dexter” showrunner Clyde Phillips, traveled to France for the Deauville American Film Festival’s first TV sidebar — Deauville: Season 1 — where they wrestled with that problem.
“The old recipes that used to work here don’t work any more,” says Frederic Krivine, writer of “Un Village francais,” a series about a Gallic village under Nazi occupation that has done better than most in recent years.
Most American writers learned the trade on series constrained by ad breaks, and many voiced the opinion that even without such limitations on cable, that sense of pace remains.
But the most significant difference is that Hollywood scribes write as the series is being shot, while in Gaul, the writing is finished first.
“I think that’s not a very constructive business model,” says Phillips. “During the year, while we are working, if we see something isn’t succeeding, we can change it. Therefore, the show has a creative vitality.”
French writers present were happy to admit taking inspiration from U.S. series. But they have trouble getting innovations past the broadcasters.
Cathy Verney writes and directs “Hard” for paybox Canal Plus. It’s about a widow taking over her husband’s secret porn business. She was closely monitored by the channel for taste and decency, of course, but it drew the line when she wanted to give one character a Dexter-style dark side.
“They didn’t want us to dirty the heroes and heroines,” she says. “I think that would have been allowed in the U.S.”
Virginie Brac has had a better experience using flashbacks in forthcoming gangster series “Les Beaux mecs” for France 2.
“To my own amazement, I was supported by the channel. France 2 didn’t bother us at all, despite this narrative structure, which is a bit sophisticated for France, but not at all sophisticated by U.S. standards.”
More than anything, she says, French TV lacks audacity. “Our broadcasters are very conservative.”
For Krivine, French TV lacks intimacy, a close bond with the audience that makes series addictive. But it cannot expect to change overnight.
“American TV has been addictive for 50 years, made by people working in a competitive environment. We’ve only just started to think about it,” she says.
France also lacks the critical mass of the U.S. industry, which turns out a huge range of series. “We don’t see most of them in France, and a lot of them are crap. But they are addictively written crap,” Krivine adds.
Deauville plans to dive deeper into U.S. TV series following the success of the first event this year, which unspooled Sept. 4 and 5.
As well as organizing the debate between French and U.S. script writers, the fest devoted its opening weekend to screening unseen and classic episodes of skeins such as “House” and “The Sopranos,” plus newer fare including “Modern Family,” “The Good Wife,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Treme,” “How to Make It in America” and “True Blood.” Chase and Phillips also held master classes.
Expressing satisfaction with attendance and industry interest, fest topper Bruno Barde says he wants to go further next year. “I want to organize not a market but something to involve the economic actors from this sector of TV in the festival,” he says.
He thinks this can be informal. “For example, David Chase is here, and there is a French producer who said, ‘I want to meet him because I want to produce his next film.’ So I organized something.”
There may also be synergies between TV series and the fest’s docu program, both of interest to Gallic broadcasters.
As well as inviting more writers, Barde hopes to welcome more TV actors. This year, Chace Crawford of “Gossip Girl” was in town along with America Ferrera of “Ugly Betty” and Kim Cattrall of “Sex and the City,” who were there to support films.