Series Mania: Founder Laurence Herszberg on Festival’s Growth and International TV Trends

Literary adaptations, international co-production, thrillers, social issue drama among international TV drivers, per Herszberg

Laurence Herszberg-Series Mania-2016
Cécilia Garroni Parisi

Festivals, like so many international films, are director-driven. The event topper is not responsible for the quality of each year’s titles. But a festival’s design, controlling intelligence, hallmark emphases and above all, perhaps, talent roster are very much the responsibility of the festival director. Though growing muscularly, as TV drama emerges as a eyeball and subs driver and churn crimper for trad networks, Europe’s pay TV giants, quad-play telcos and global OTT behemoth Netflix, Series Mania is also Laurence Herszberg’s baby, founded by her six years ago just as “Borgen” first hit small screens in Denmark, consolidating the credentials of European fiction as a nascent international export phenomenon. As Netflix goes global, consumers watch series from over much of the world, so has the desire of key TV players the world over to step up in quality, scale and originality. Variety talked to Herszberg, also Paris Forum des Images general director, as Series Mania rounded the final corner to its April 15 launch.

Variety: The seventh Series Mania is a bigger event. Could you drill down on its growth?

Laurence Herszberg: In 2016, we have venues other than the Forum des Images. We open at the Grand Rex which is very symbolic for French people, dating back to 1930.

Using the Grand Rex to show a TV series suggests we’re now big enough to open in such a place. Another expansive move is our partnership with the UGC exhibition circuit which gives us access to two screens, one at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles. This is the first time UGC, one of France’s biggest cinema theater chains, open its door to TV series. Last year we had more than 50 screenings in ten days. This year, with series playing twice, the number of screenings will increase to 100, starting in the morning, which is also totally new. And, in terms of expansion, we are inaugurating a new International Competition, with David Chase as the president, of TV dramas not yet released in the country, something totally new at a TV festival. David Chase was a dream come true. He’s the godfather of the new world of TV series and will judge TV series from all over the world though no American show.

Why is that? Is it coincidence?

We do have one U.S. world premiere, “Feed the Beast,” from Clyde Phillips, who came to Series Mania in 2010, when it was an unknown festival, and gave a brilliant master-class. We became friends. We managed to secure the show after we had closed the International Competition. It’s simply very difficult to get American shows out of the U.S. But it will be very interesting to see how David and his jury reacts to the non-American shows. We have shows from Belgium, France, Argentina, Israel, Sweden-France, Norway, the U.K. and Australia. It’s very interesting.

One reason why it could be interesting is that the U.S. series, given the U.S. deep global star pool, are differently conceived to dramas in international….

International dramas are maybe more focused on the concept. The questions asked of show-runners concentrate on the concept: What is behind the writing? What are they aiming for? They focus more on what’s on the screen, not who’s playing the main roles. Some U.S. shows may start from the cast, what stars are available. Also, when you produce in the U.S. you produce hoping that you’ll be seen worldwide. When you make an Israeli show, a French or Argentine one, at the beginning you just think locally and then try to expand abroad.

Do you think that is beginning to change, that the seventh edition is taking place when you have certain companies in France and beyond France as well which are already beginning to think of their series traveling internationally. For example, in competition you have “Midnight Sun,” which seems to me to be a clear case of Canal Plus teaming with SVT, one of the prestige Scandinavian broadcasters, to produce a series which is not only for Scandinavia nor France but is meant to be travel at least through Europe and hopefully beyond. 

Yes, it’s beginning, I have the impression the beginning of these [international] European shows started with “The Killing,” “Borgen” and the original Scandinavian “The Bridge.” We started to realizing that foreign-language shows can travel. Now, and especially in Europe, people are used to seeing shows that are not from America or from their own country, they’re used to travel with the show.

This also made international co-production more interesting for producers and the TV business, because you could attract co-production partners from the start of a project. One example, which Series Mania which will world premiere at Series Mania, is “Midnight Sun,” from France’s Canal Plus and Sweden’s SVT. Last year, France’s Arte backed “Occupied” a Norway-France-Sweden co-production.

Even in the U.S., you have international shows produced by major players, for example Netflix and its first French-language original series “Marseille” that will be made available on Netflix globally at the same time in May.

European shows can even travel to the U.S. We have execs from major companies – Fox, ABC, Time Warner etc.-  [attending Series Mania]. The TV series market will become more global. That is one idea informing our Co-Production Forum.

You’ve mentioned that the festival will be bigger in terms of the number of participants. Is that in terms of audience or industry execs, or both?

Series Mania take place during France’s Easter holidays. I hope this means there’s the chance of more people attending. Industry attendance splits too ways. A first level, where we will see an increase in numbers, is attendance at our round tables and registration for our video library. But I’d like to keep attendance at our Co-Production Forum at no more than 300. What people truly value is quality meetings. Three hundred people in three days allows you to meet everyone. We organize social events for them. We’re a contents event, not a market place, a place where people can talk about their projects, discuss ideas, a business place, that’s my dream, having commissioning executives, producers, in a place where product is viewed by the business sector.

The Series Mania’s Co-Production Forum attracted a large number of candidate projects, I believe.

International co-production is an industry trend. We received 191 projects from all over the world, including the U.S., though the Forum is mainly a European co-production forum. More and more people want to co-produce. The last selection phase, going from 30 to 15 projects, was really difficult. We could have chosen the 30. We’ll have to think about this for next year.

The International Competition illustrates the breadth of international procedurals, from “Midnight Sun,” a Swedish-French Arctic Circle-set thriller, to “Beau sejour,” a Belgian surreal procedural where a girl investigates her own murder. Then there’s an Argentine penitentiary thriller, “Marginal,” Australian suspense murder mystery “The Kettering Incident,” “Nobel,” an Afghan war drama/political thriller; an auteur crime thriller, Harlan Coben’s “The Five”…

And “Cannabis,” about the Moroccan drug trade and “Mama’s Angel,” a thriller that, sparked by a boy’s death, drives deep into Israeli society. We have eight shows, some completely off the international radar, which represent the creative diversity of the international TV industry, and its players, which range from big companies to far more boutique players.

Do they also suggest any key artistic trends? 

If you take the festival’s general selection, you see the big trends. There is a tendency to go back to literature: More and more TV series have literary bases. You still have a very big brand in thrillers. I’m used to saying that this reminds me of what all women know about dressing: We all need a black dress that we can put on when we don’t know what to wear.  That’s the thriller, the black dress of every TV channel. Dramas continue to look at key social issues: France’s “Cannabis” is one example, another Norway’s “Nobel,” both in International Competition, as well as Germany’s “NSU German History X,” in Series Mania’s Panorama section. Then there are more shows set in strange universes: For example, Australia’s “Cleverman,” a drama about the Hairypeople, who don’t share humans’ DNA, people inspired by Aboriginal stories, who have huge powers but are treated as social misfits.