French TV: Small screen, big rewards

TV fare draws high-profile feature producers, talent

Small screen, big rewards | French TV biz keeps animators hopping | Buyers get ready to Rendez-Vous | Franco files

With film markets facing a shaky future, some of France’s high-profile production outfits — Haut et Court (“The Class”), Fidelite Films (“Little Nicholas”), Agat Films (“Don’t Look Back”) and EuropaCorp (“Taken”) — are diversifying, producing ambitious, well-polished one-hour TV drama series, created by high-profile screenwriters and helmers.

“Television currently offers more opportunities to new talent than the film industry, which has been weakened by the global economic recession, the dearth of local financing sources and the inflation of production costs in a country like France,” explains Caroline Benjo, co-prexy of arthouse shingle Haut et Court. “There’s a whole new generation of French talent looking to tackle unusual subjects, explore different narrative codes and give a new edge to local dramas.”

Several TV projects are in development:

  • Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, having recently acquired TV producer Cipango, is developing a bevy of series, including “Transporter,” based on the hit franchise.

  • Marc Missionnier’s Fidelite has “Les Beaux Mecs,” a gangster series starring up-and-coming Simon Abkarian, in development for pubcaster France 2, and “La Croisiere,” a TF1 comedy skein. It’s also producing the second season of “Pigalle” for Canal Plus.

  • For Arte, Haut et Court is producing “Xanadu,” a series about a family inheriting a porn film empire, and co-developing with Canal Plus “Les Revenants,” based on Robin Campillo’s film, directed by Fabrice Gobert (“Lights Out”).

  • Agat Films and Hassan Mebarki’s Neviva Films are developing a series penned by Abdel Raouf Dafri (“A Prophet”) for Canal Plus.

“The line between film and TV is increasingly blurred,” notes Missionner. “Three or four years ago, film business people weren’t interested in working in television. But with the boom of sophisticated U.S. fare, many now realize there’s a market in France for good one-hour TV series.”

But big challenges loom. Of Europe’s Big Five, France is the only country where U.S. shows take a bigger share than local series.

“The absence of originality, the poor quality of scripts and the lack of ambition have limited French TV dramas,” says Dafri. “That’s because in France, free-to-air channels are required to invest a percentage of revenues in local series, whereas in the U.S., shows are produced with a real desire to provide audiences with quality entertainment.”

Indeed, producers, directors and scribes say there’s a shortage of TV outlets in Gaul willing to go off the beaten path and take risks.

Benjo says Haut et Court has been lucky to find partners who have allowed them creative freedom., like Arte and Orange for “Xanadu” and Canal Plus for “They Came Back.” “Canal Plus and Arte have realized that French fiction needs be more ambitious and compelling to compete with Anglo-Saxon series and attract new audiences.”

Per Fabrice de la Patelliere, Canal Plus’ fiction division head, working with crossover talents broadens the canvas of dramas.

“Folks who’ve worked on feature films are often more daring and left-of-field when leaping into TV,” says de la Patelliere. “They bring an audacity and originality that’s much-needed in French fiction dramas.”

Dafri, who started his career with “La Commune,” a dark French drama in the vein of “The Wire,” says he became a screenwriter to work in TV.

“When you work on a series, you can follow your characters and explore the depths of their psyche like you could never do in a two-hour film,” explains Dafri. “That’s priceless for a screenwriter.”

Canal Plus, which pioneered the trend toward upscale one-hour drama series four years ago with “Spiral” and “Mafiosa,” recently stepped up its game with offerings such as Olivier Marchal’s “Braquo,” Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and Mabrouk El Mechri’s “Maison Close.”

Economic and commercial factors drive this trend.

“France’s TV fiction business has the advantage of generating recurring revenues and is risk-free because French broadcasters fully finance shows before they go into production,” says Serge Siritzky, editor of trade magazine Ecran Total. “With DTT channel numbers skyrocketing in France in the past two years, producers can now seek long-term leverage from second-window sales, which were previously very weak.”

But it doesn’t come cheap: French free-to-air channels can’t shoulder their budgets alone.

“Film producers know the international market well, and they intuitively aim at making TV shows with international potential,” observes Mathieu Bejot, TV France Intl. CEO. “That way they’re able to tap different financing sources and generate upside from international sales.”

Over at Arte, fiction director Francois Sauvagnargues says he’s looking for international partners to raise financing for “Oasis,” an eight-part English-language vampire series.

“At Arte, we’re looking to set ourselves apart from other French channels: We don’t develop cop series, procedurals or medical shows. But we’re financially limited,” he explains.”Working with talented film directors and producers is a big plus: They’re able to bring great production values to any project.”

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