Canal Plus Stocks Up on High-End English-Language Series (EXCLUSIVE)

With the launch of Netflix in France, the competition for subscribers has heated up, and Gallic pay TV giant Canal Plus is now, more than ever, banking on premium original drama, and building bridges with local and international film and TV talent, to keep its 11 million subs happy, and lure more.

A decade ago, Canal Plus was all about soccer and films. But today, the TV landscape has changed, and the paybox — which has lost some of its French soccer rights to Al Jazeera’s Bein Sports — has begun to measure its value in high-quality local series rather than be overly dependent on U.S. drama imports (such as “Scandal,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Revenge”). Fabrice de la Patelliere, the boss of Canal Plus’ fiction department, is kicking off a new chapter in the pay TV group’s history by joining forces with James Gray on “Hard Apple,” an English-language adult-skewing animated series; and “Braquo” creator Olivier Marchal’s series “Section Zero,” produced by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp.

Canal Plus’ budget for original fiction in 2015 is $60 million, up from $54 million from 2014.

“We love thrillers, and we’ve had a good track record with shows like ‘Engrenages’ (‘Spiral’), ‘Braquo’ and ‘The Tunnel,’ but don’t want to limit ourselves to dark-edged, violent and/or black-leather-type series,” emphasized De la Patelliere, who added that Canal Plus was eager to test new grounds and foray into different genres.

Gray (“The Immigrant”) will exec produce “Hard Apple” and will supervise all creative aspects, including the writing.

“Animation for adults is rare on television, even though it’s a very rich field of expression,” explained the mild-mannered De la Patelliere, who is notoriously picky on scripts and has originated lots of hits and very few misses since joining Canal Plus in 2012. “We love Jerome Charyn’s crime novels, the visual universe of the Hanuka brothers and sensibility of James Gray. This project is the unique occasion to bring together all this talents.”

Inspired by New-York-born author Jerome Charyn’s “Isaac Sidel” novels, the series opens in the 1970s and charts the rise of New York detective Isaac Sidel who covers three decades of crime and political corruption.

“Hard Apple” will feature animation designs – decor, characters — created by Israeli illustrators Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, who have worked for the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, as well as Ari Folman’s film “Waltz With Bashir.” The series is being produced by Yonatan Israel (“Watermarks”) and Bruno Nahon (“The Churchmen”), Arnold Barkus, Adam Yaffe, Lalou Dammond and Joaquin Baca-Asay.

Going forward, Canal Plus will likely develop more English-language series such as period piece “Versailles” (sold by Zodiak, it’s France’s most expensive skein ever, with a budget of around $30 million for the 10-episode run set in the storied palace) and London crime drama “Spotless” (being sold by Tandem). The increase in shows made in English is due partly to economic necessity — English-lingo series sell better around the world — and also to Canal Plus’ increased collaboration with Studiocanal, which in recent years has acquired Tandem in Germany, Red in the U.K. and launched SAM Prod. in Scandinavia.

“Spotless” (pictured above) is the first collaboration between Studiocanal, Tandem and Canal Plus.

“We would rather partner up with channels that share a similar editorial mandate, such as Channel 4 or Sky, but we’re also open to work with free-to-air networks like BBC or SVT which are known for their high-quality drama fiction,” explained De la Patelliere.

In the last few years, notably with the success of “The Returned” (which won an international Emmy nod), Canal Plus has been approached by U.S. channels but they haven’t found the right material to collaborate on, noted the exec. “We don’t just want to board projects that are already developed; we’re looking to be creatively involved from the start and associate our brand with the shows we do,” said the exec who started his career at Gaul’s top commercial net TF1.

De La Patelliere says the company is still committed to Gallic skeins with global appeal, such as Eric Rochant’s thriller “Le “Bureau des legendes,” bowing on Canal Plus April 27.

The paybox may not rely on soccer and cinema for subs anymore, but riding the trend of high-end scripted drama may give it a winning edge.

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