Alex Berger
Photo by Martin Dale

‘Bureau’ producer Berger on new French TV tax rebate: ‘This changes everything’

PARIS— Eric Rochant’s spy thriller series “The Bureau,” produced by Alex Berger and Eric Rochant’s The Oligarchs Productions, in conjunction with Pascal Breton’s Federation Entertainment, has won Best TV Series from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics.

The prize ceremony was held at the French Cinemathèque on Monday Feb. 1. Other awards included Best French Film, which went to Philippe Faucon’s “Fatima,” and Best Foreign Film to László Nemes’ “Son of Saul.”

The French Syndicate of Cinema Critics (Syndicat Français de la Critique de Cinema) is the prestigious film critics’ guild that organizes the Critics Week sidebar at Cannes.

“The Bureau” was backed by the Ile de France Region, and was lensed in various locations in the Paris Region, as well as at Luc Besson’s Les Studios de Paris in La Cité du Cinéma.

Starring Mathieu Kassovitz, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and  Lea Drucker, it provides an inside view into the DGSC, the French intelligence service, set against the backdrop of operations in Syria.

The series has a distinctive filmic approach, in terms of its scripts and realistic shooting style. In addition to Rochant, directors include Hélier Cisterne, Laïla Marrakchi and Mathieu Demy.

The first series was broadcast by Canal Plus in April 2015, with strong ratings. It also performed well on Sky in Italy, RTL Prime in Germany, VRT in Belgium, and SVT in Scandinavia. U.K. rights are currently under negotiation with two broadcasters.

“We were very honored to receive this award,” Berger told Variety. “Not just because of the award in its own right but also because we imported a new production technique into France for the series, based on a showrunner-structure and a writing room. We have Eric at top, then 3-5 senior writers, 4-10 junior writers and interns who will move up. Just like in the U.S..”

The writing team had exclusive access to the French intelligence services, in part because of admiration for Rochant’s 1994 spy drama “The Patriots” which has been used by the French secret service (DGSC) as a training film.

“We wanted to be as accurate as possible for the series,” explains Berger. “We contacted the DGSC and asked if we could interview someone. At first they said no, but when we told them that the project involved Eric Rochant they called back and agreed. When we showed the first two episodes to them it was one of the most emotional moments in my life.” He added: “We were taken through the DGSC building through a tunnel to another section. We entered a dark room. We heard the closing titles and then the lights came up and we saw there were 300 secret service agents watching. They gave us a standing ovation. We were utterly taken aback. They all thanked us, and said it was right on the nail. None of these people can tell their families what they do. But this series is so realistic it gets the message across.”

Berger considers that “The Bureau” represents an auteur approach to making TV series, following in the footsteps of U.S. directors such as Steven Soderbergh. “We had conversations in the mid- to late 2000s about how mind-blowing and innovative it was to see film directors taking series to a whole new level. We were influenced by stuff coming from the States such as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos”, “The West Wing”, and “House of Cards.”

Berger and Rochant pitched the series along these lines to Canal Plus and explained how they would use a rigorous industrial approach to produce one season every year.

The Oligarchs Productions currently has three English-language series in development with U.S. writers and directors — one for a leading U.S. pay TV channel and two others for U.S. and European paybox channels. One of the shows is “La Maison,” based on a French fashion house. Another is “Evolutionaries,” about the evolution of the human race as a consequence of new technologies.

France’s new tax rebate scheme for TV series has provided major impetus to their production plans.

Until now TV series have benefited from an effective rebate of between 5% and 8%. But from Jan. 1, 2016, TV series benefit from a 25% rebate and can also be shot in languages other than French.

“This changes everything,” suggests Berger. “This is money that goes directly into production. Up until now we’ve been considering different locations when writing the script, influenced in part by where we can find the best tax breaks. We don’t have to think like that any more.”

Berger believes that the new TV tax rebate scheme will significantly increase production levels in France.

“We have the best studios in Paris, such as Luc Besson’s Les Studios de Paris in the Cité du Cinema. Then we have excellent technicians. France has an amazing talent base. The only constraint is the amount of hours you can shoot in a day, due to legal restrictions.”

Berger also believes that there is rising professionalism in the French TV industry, which is paying dividends in terms of attracting foreign audiences, and cites the examples of series such as “The Returned” and “Versailles”.

“When you’re a French series, you’re competing against the world for its attention span. There’s a tremendous amount of amazing fare. You need to deliver on time and with quality.”

Berger praises the risks taken by Canal Plus and his excellent relationship with the broadcaster’s subsid Creation Originale, run by Fabrice de la Patellière.

“They are our real partner,” he explains. “Their notes on the script and on the edits are very important for us.”

When it comes to marketing the series, Berger emphasizes that he oversees the process.

“The niches are getting bigger in the international TV market,” he says. “For example, TV series from Scandinavia have played an important role in this process. There is now room for foreign-language series.”

Berger believes that “The Bureau” offers a new way of looking at the intelligence services and the geo-political questions associated to the Arab world, which the French see differently from the Americans or the British.

“Eric is very knowledgeable about communism, whereas my father worked in naval intelligence  in London during the cold war and my upbringing was simply that communism is evil. There are now multiple perspectives related to issues in the Arab world, where we are essentially seeing a civil war unfolding and don’t know how to respond.  In today’s world we need collaboration rather than defiance and antagonism. The French can often provide a more precise analysis of the current situation because of the country’s history. They have a long presence in Northern Africa and have large ethnic communities from this part of the world. We feed these elements into ‘The Bureau’ which makes it culturally relevant and intriguing. Audiences want to see what will happen to the main characters and also gain an insight into the bigger picture.”

Season 2 of “The Bureau” will bow on Canal Plus in Spring 2016, with the first two episodes screening in Berlin. The third season begins shooting in September.

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