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It’s not HBO, it’s Canal +

Paybox ventures into drama for 1st time in seven years

PARIS — The beleaguered Canal Plus Group’s “movies and sport” premium channel is attempting to make good on its aim of becoming Gaul’s answer to HBO.

Production has just started on the $4.8 million historical swashbuckler “Lagardere,” the paybox’s first foray into TV drama in seven years.

The TV film based on Paul Feval’s oft-adapted 19th century novel “The Hunchback” is being produced by Telfrance, one of Gaul’s leading indie production outfits.

“Lagardere” is about a heroic swordsman who disguises himself as a hunchback to take revenge against his enemies. Big screen adaptations include Philippe de Broca’s 1996 “On Guard” starring Daniel Auteuil.

The company is also developing six 52-minute episodes of France’s first sci fi series, “The Sixth Dream,” for Canal Plus.

The French film biz laments the end of a golden era for pay TV deals — Canal Plus was the industry’s principal backer for more than 15 years, but has lately become much more selective in its acquisitions. However, the producer of “Lagardere” is convinced that a new day is dawning for TV production.

“For a long time fiction producers in France only had three possibilities — TF1, France 2 or France 3,” Michelle Podroznik, Telfrance’s head of fiction, tells Variety. “From now on I think Canal Plus is going to be a fourth client — and the more the better.”

“Lagardere” will air as a 140-minute made-for-TV film on Canal Plus during the end-of-year holiday season before resurfacing as a miniseries on pubcaster France 2 in 2004.

Canal Plus is paying $1.2 million for the pay TV rights, while France 2 has ponied up $2.7 million.

Telfrance’s science fiction project dates back to Dominique Farrugia’s short reign as paybox topper, which ended earlier this year during yet another management reshuffle at the Canal Plus Group.

The thinking back then was for the floundering French web to take its inspiration from America’s HBO by creating its own original programming.

Current management claims to have ditched that approach, pointing out the lack of series development know-how in France.

But with subs continuing to dip and major upheavals to contend with the group as management slashes costs, the paybox has decided to pursue Telfrance’s sci-fi project plus two others.

The new made for TV version directed by Henri Helman will star the Gallic TV actor Bruno Wolkowitch, hero of the France 2 cop series “Police Judiciaire.”