Los Angeles-Based Direct to Series Showcase Spotlights Best of French TV

After facing changing audiences tastes and serious competition from U.S. imports, France has finally emerged as a top European purveyor of premium drama.

Shows like “Trepalium,” a thriller dealing with unemployment and apartheid; “The Last Panthers,” a crime series about the Pink Panthers jewel theives; and “The Bureau,” a spy skein that unfolds in the French Secret Service, underscore the willingness of Gallic producers, creators and broadcasters to tackle global issues through genre formats.

All three shows are among the programs that will be presented at the third edition of Direct to Series, the French TV showcase that unfolds Oct. 27-28 in Los Angeles. The confab was launched to spur collaborations between French and American writers, and new co-productions between French and American producers and promote locations, says Olivier-Rene Veillon, managing director of the Ile de France Film Commission.

French audiences, fed a steady diet of U.S. primetime series for a decade, have become much more sophisticated, and Gallic producers have had to place a bigger emphasis on scripts. The first season of “The Bureau,” a hit on pay channel Canal Plus, was written “the U.S. way,” with 10 scribes who worked together in a writers’ room — a first in France.

Gritty French police shows such as “Spiral” and “Braquo,” which were locally grounded and dealt with social issues on a micro scale, had notched ratings and international sales success, but this new breed of high-concept series with strong scripts are addressing social and political matters on a much larger scale, with an uptick in production values and international location shooting.

For “The Last Panthers,” production shingle Haut et Court TV hired screenwriter Jack Thorne, who has a degree in European politics. “(Thorne) was highly interested in the issue of ‘gray’ zones in Europe, where clean and dirty money gets mixed up, and where criminals’ interests weigh more than political ones. Through the tale of the Pink Panthers he was able to give these issues a bigger scope,” says producer Caroline Benjo, Haut et Court’s co-founder.

“The Bureau,” which was created and co-penned by Eric Rochant (“The Patriots,” “Mobius”), focuses on international issues such as the rise of Isis, counterterrorism and counterintelligence, says producer Alex Berger, co-founder of Oligarchs Production. Both “The Last Panthers” and “The Bureau” are co-produced and commissioned by Canal Plus.

Trepalium,” an Arte miniseries, takes place in a near-future where 80% of people are unemployed and segregated by a wall from the remaining 20% who live in luxury, but are alienated by their jobs. The series is helmed by Belgian director Vincent Lannoo and co-written by Thomas Cailley, whose debut pic, “Love at First Fight,” was a critical hit.

“I wanted to avoid social realism to tackle this subject because I knew that the political thriller genre would work best: It breaks barriers and allows us to reach more people,” says Katia Rais, producer and founder of Lagardere-owned Kelija. Rais is now working on “Ad Vitam,” a second miniseries. That show, which is also for Arte, is a thriller dealing with the aging of the population.

Raising the coin for these ambitious shows is often challenging, since they are not English-language productions; however, the market is being energized by new players who have diverse needs.

“The English language makes a difference for the most mainstream shows, but for the auteur-driven series aimed at pay TV channels or streaming services, the most important aspect is that the story remains locally grounded while being internationally relevant thanks to universal themes,” Benjo says. “Local is global and that’s true for the language, (and) s Subtitles are no longer a turn-off.” added Benjo.

Berger points out that “The Returned,” and most recently “Deutschland 83” and “Narcos,” demonstrated that viewing audiences are getting more savvy and are comfortable watching series in a foreign language.

The proliferation of multi-territory streaming services, from Netflix to Amazon and Hulu, drives this trend toward niche or local series with global appeal, says Pascal Breton, founder of Federation Entertainment, which is producing “Marseille” for Netflix. “First, because the majority of people around the world don’t speak English, and secondly because these digital platforms have a (constant) need for fresh content,” he says.

But, per Berger, “shooting in a foreign language is still a gamble.”

“ ‘The Bureau’s” first season was budgeted at €16 million ($18 million). Canal Plus covered two-thirds and then we have to find (the rest) one-third so we made a deal with Federation Entertainment, which financed the development, deficit financing and distribution,” said Berger.

Cast is also becoming key for French shows. Producers are looking for critically-acclaimed actors from diverse backgrounds. “Trepalium” stars Ronit Elkabetz (“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”), Lubna Azabal (“Incendies”) and Pierre Deladonchamps (“Stranger by the Lake”); “The Last Panthers” stars Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim (“The Past”) and John Hurt; “The Bureau” stars Mathieu Kassovitz and Brad Leland (“Friday Night Lights”), who joins the show in its second season.

While sales of French TV fiction have almost doubled in the last two years, “Versailles,” the €30 million ($34 million) English-language drama charting the rise of King Louis XIV, reps nearly two-thirds of these sales.

“Versailles,” repped by Zodiak Rights, will also be presented at Direct to Series.

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