Upscale productions are balanced by cheaper fare

In the cash-strapped international TV biz, big Gallic companies are increasingly teaming up with distribution and sales powerhouses to boost the chances of financing up-scale productions — or they are tapping formats.

With an estimated budget of $30 million, “Versailles,” an English-language series about the court of King Louis XIV, underscores the former trend.

Penned by “Mad Men” scribes Andre and Maria Jacquemetton and backed by French pay TV giant Canal Plus, the 13-episode show is produced by Capa Drama and Zodiak Entertainment-owned Marathon, which will handle distribution.

“Capa came to us because we have a solid track record and strong international ties, notably in the U.K. and the U.S.,” explains Pascal Breton, senior VP of fiction at Zodiak, which recently acquired U.K. indie RDF Media.

“We’ve tied down half of the financing from France; and once we finalize the script’s treatment, we’ll search for one or two co-producers — American, Canadian or European — to raise the other half of the budget,” Breton adds.

French groups increasingly target markets beyond Gaul’s borders because its easier to raise capital there, says Bertrand Villegas, founder of the Wit, which provides information and research on international TV markets and programs.

But, Villegas warns, “There’s only a limited number of French or European subjects like ‘Versailles’ that can attract overseas audiences.”

Dark-edged and daring series like Canal Plus’ Olivier Marchal-helmed crime thriller “Braquo” or Franco-German cultural web Arte’s Haut et Court-produced “Xanadu,” about a family-owned porn business, mark the renaissance of Gallic fiction.

They play a key role in branding and giving credibility to the webs, but “they aren’t conceived for the international marketplace,” says Mathieu Bejot, CEO of TV France Intl., the sales promotion arm of the state-backed CNC, which wrapped its annual five-day Biarritz Rendez-Vous on Sept. 10.

A wide range of French drama sparked buyers’ interest at the Rendez-Vous.

Repped by AB Distribution, “The Sparrowhawk,” a comicbook-based series about an adventurous French knight, topped the list of most-watched programs at the mart.

The $11.5 million skein (which comprises six one-hour episodes) has been pre-bought by Gallic pubcaster France 2 and French-speaking cable network TV5 Monde.

Meanwhile, format sales are booming for scripted and nonscripted programs.

“These deals climbed 26.5% in 2009, and they will continue to grow as networks invest on strong concepts,” Bejot says. “It’s not necessarily cheaper to buy a format rather than an actual show but it’s a way to minimize risks in terms of local ratings.”

A few popular Gallic skeins, such as commercial web M6’s cop laffer “The Rookies” and pubcaster France 2’s family comedy “Desperate Parents” have been optioned for U.S. remakes, and coming-of-age dramedy “Clara Sheller” got a German makeover.

Canal Plus procedural “Spiral” might well get a U.S. version as the series’ sales outfit, 2001 Audiovisuel, which changed its name to Newen Distribution on Sept. 1, is holding negotiations on the format with a U.S. network.

“Many local companies either have launched a format division or they’ve been working on it on a case-by-case basis,” says Bejot, who will bring 12 Gallic companies to the first edition of the Remakes Market, a two-day Los Angeles confab kicking off Nov. 30, centered on the sale and acquisition of adaptation rights for movies, TV ideas and books.

Event is managed by Basic Lead, a Paris and Los Angeles-based event management firm that organizes NATPE’s Discop TV marts, and the Media Faculty, a Paris-based training consultancy that provides learning and development solutions to media professionals.

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