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Past gets pumped on tube

French TV 2011

Once focusing largely on Maupassant, costume drama makeovers and tried-and-tested procedurals, French nets are widening their scope, taking a page from U.S. pay-TV playbooks to produce shows ranging in genre and style.

At the annual Rendez-Vous TV mart organized by TV France Intl. in Biarritz, Gallic sales companies will unload a raft of period series and minis from 100% Distribution’s Greek tale “The Odyssey,” to Newen Distribution’s 18th-century Indian saga “Rani” and Zodiac’s English-language costumer “Versailles.”

“We have a tradition for smallscreen adaptations of French literature classics because of our public-broadcaster (France Televisions) duty to dedicate a large percentage of its programing to shows mining national culture,” says Mathieu Bejot, managing director of TVFI.

“But there’s been a growing demand from French channels for elevated period pieces that renew the genre; partly because the tastes of audiences who have been exposed to U.S. series such as ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Rome’ have evolved,” he says.

Per Alexandre Piel, Zodiak Rights’ Paris-based head of acquisitions and co-productions, “Buyers’ tastes also have changed, and classic ‘Franco-French’ historical TV series have become much more difficult to sell outside of Eastern Europe in the past few years. Meanwhile, overseas networks are showing a large interest for high-end period dramas with emblematic characters and international casts, preferably shot in English.”

And for cash-strapped broadcasters, big epics are proving highly attractive because they can be financed with international partners, giving them access to top product.

The appetite of Gallic channels for these historical programs is also drawing TV producers best known for hard-boiled thrillers such as Capa Drama (“Braquo”) and Son et Lumiere (“Spiral”).

Capa Drama is developing “Versailles,” a 12-episode series penned by “Mad Men” husband and wife scribes Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, co-produced by Zodiac and commissioned by Canal Plus. Son et Lumiere has just wrapped “Rani,” a miniseries scripted by Jean Van Hamme, the comicbook artist behind “XIII: The Series” and the movie franchise “Largo Winch.”

“What’s attractive in this genre is that it gives auteurs and producers a creative way to talk about today’s society and draw parallels that question us,” says Claude Chelli, head of Capa Drama, citing “Mad Men” as a reference.

“Instead of focusing on the court of Louis XIV, Versailles will examine the French king’s quest for absolute power and complex relationship with his brother,” says Chelli, adding that he’s looking to shoot “Versailles” in a very modern and past-paced way, as if it were a crime show.

“Rani,” which is completed, centers on a strong-willed woman who frees herself from sexual slavery and becomes a leading figure of rebellion. “While the context of the show is a war between the French and the British in 18th century colonial India, it’s written as a contemporary actioner and it moves as fast as ‘Spiral,’ ” says Laetitia Recayte, managing director of Newen Distribution.

Today, French pay TV channel Canal Plus boasts the larger slate of period skeins: in addition to “Versailles,” the French net has just wrapped Tom Fontana’s Renaissance-set “Borgia,” about the infamous Spanish clan’s reign over the Vatican, set to bow in October, and is developing “The Lost Patrol,” a WWI-set fantasy war series created by British author Jed Mercurio.

Fabrice de la Patelliere, head of fiction drama at Canal Plus, says the paybox has “tried to set itself apart from what French free-to-air channels do by treating its historical series in a fresh new way.”

“We’ve chosen to work with American showrunners like Tom Fontana on ‘Borgia’ and the Jacquemettons on ‘Versailles’ because they bring an edge, a unique perspective to European and French historical subjects,” says de la Patelliere. “Even ‘The Lost Patrol’ isn’t a classic war show because we’ve injected some fantasy into it.”

Meanwhile, Franco-German network Arte is developing “The Odyssey.” Produced by Gaul’s GMT and MakingProd, the English-language show will center on Odysseus’ relationship with his son upon returning home to Ithaca, after 20 years apart. Rupert Everett and Niels Schneider (“Heartbeats”) are in negotiations to topline.

“We all know ‘The Odyssey,’ so we’re not looking to make a scholastic adaptation,” says 100% Distribution managing director Diana Bartha. “Since we have so few elements to reconstruct this period, we’re steering away from realism and using a lot of fiction and drama to tell the story from a different angle, making it more character-driven.

“The shows that get buyers excited today are the ones that emphasize the humanity of emblematic figures and shed some light on relationships which haven’t been explored in textbooks.”

Past gets pumped on tube | New generation gets paint job for classic toons | Sell scene: French show the pipeline

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