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Series Mania: ‘Section Zero,’ ‘Frozen Dead,’ ’Contact’ Underscore France’s New TV Ambitions

New French TV dramas to be presented April 20 at TV Fest’s Co-Production Forum, in a six-drama showcase

Charles Berling in 'The Frozen Dead'
Copyright: Patrick Robert/M6

PARIS – Three high-profile Gallic series – “Section Zero,” “The Frozen Dead” and “Contact” – feature at Coming Next From France, a Series Mania/TVFI showcase which captures the French TV in evolution.

French broadcasters still have to think of their home markets. Of the six-scripted dramas, three are procedurals made in large part for France, where murder mysteries have a long tradition. All, however, show an ambition to also sell outside their country of origin, while others capture a burgeoning attempt at diversification of France’s scripted-TV offer.

Produced by the Luc Besson-owned EuropaCorp TV’s Bad Company, and a Canal Plus original series co-financed by Studiocanal, which sells world rights, and Belgium’s UMedia, tapping into Belgian tax breaks, “Section Zero” is budgeted at €2 million ($2.3 million) an episode, per Edouard de Vesinne.

That makes “Section Zero” one of the most expensive French TV shows ever made, doubling France’ average TV budget in 2014 of €958,000 ($1.1 million) for one hour of TV fiction, per estimates by France’s CNC film-TV board.

It tells. Directed by Olivier Marchal – whose Canal Plus original series “Braquo” was one of France’s best-selling TV dramas abroad – “Section Zero” melds dystopian classics such as “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max” with France’s “polar” crime-thriller tradition in a dark, violent post-Apocalypse noir set in a 2024 Europe where an upright cop battles attempts by ruling corporation Prométhée to replace the police with its own private militia.

“Section Zero” is a big French swing – from EuropaCorp, Canal Plus and Studiocanal. “Contact” marks a push towards modernization, this time from TF1, France’s biggest broadcast network. Living for years off a staple of top U.S. network shows and local warhorses such as “Navarro”/”Brigade Navarro,” aired from 1989 to 200,. TF1 is now seeking to renew its schedule, to some success after a string of primetime fiction hits. Exhibit A at Series Mania: “Contact.” A semi-serialized thriller-procedural turning on a psychic attempting to protect and aid his cop brother, its first two pilot episodes bowed Dec. 17, punching market shares/eyeballs of 23.8%/6.2 million and 24.6%/5.35 million. TF1 has now ordered a first full season. About Premium Content handles world original/format sales.

The banner French TV series from Gaumont Television, producer of one of Netflix’s global hit “Narcos,” “The Frozen Dead” reps another departure, a drama commission from RTL-owned M6, France’s second-biggest network, which has traditionally survived on a surfeit of domestic comedies and TV movies.

Echoing “Crimson Rivers,” one of Gaumont’s biggest movie hits, the six-part murder-mystery kicks off as the headless body of a horse is found at the top of a cable car 6,000-feet up up a Pyrenean mountain. Captain Servez (Charles Berling, “Summer Hours”) discovers DNA at the scene of Hirtmann (Pascal Greggory, “La Vie en Rose”), a serial killer who’s been locked up for years in a high-security prison.

Pre-sales on four flagship French fiction series – “Transporter: the Series,” “The Last Panthers,” “Versailles” and “Taxi Brooklyn” – to the U.S. or beyond helped power up Gallic TV exports to an all-time record last year of €210.3 million ($231.3 million), a muscular 17.1% up on 2013, per CNC/TVFI figures. As they come in, 2015 sales stats are tracking for another hike in French drama international sales, anticipated TVFI’s director Mathieu Bejot, who will present the Coming Next From France showcase.

Boosted by international co-production, as on France Televisions’ post WWII haute couture fashion-house-set “The Collection,” France Televisions’ first English-language venture, budgets on select high-end French shows are certainly climbing. Series Mania attendees just have to catch “Midnight Sun,” a Canal Plus/SVT link-up world premiering Wednesday, to be convinced of that.

Equally, however, France’s TV ad market has languished for years. For Bejot, “France’s broadcasters operate in a highly competitive market. Some producers are looking to cut costs, trying to be more efficient in terms of production.”

So French drama is also diversifying, attempt to secure viewership through originality. Paris-based Calt Production, a short-format humor specialist (“Camera Café,” “Kaamelott”), for example, will screen at Coming Next a 14-15 minute brand-new excerpt from “Far From Home.”

An Afghan war comedy half-hour created by Fred Scotlande, it turns on a French army unit sergeant. Blackmailed by an American soldier, pressured by higher command, his homecoming plans are suddenly nixed when a young soldier in his unit is kidnapped by the Taliban. “This is a story of human relations, of a clash of culture rather than of civilizations, of men muddling through the best they can,” said Scotlande.  As sitcoms go, this for France is more unusual, and a natural fit for France 4 as it sets out to experiment in primetime.

Another half-hour, made for OCS, which has a strong comedy component, “Grown Ups,” from Empreinte Digitale – producers of “Lazy Company,” which won the best half-hour prize at 2015’s La Rochelle Fest – is a junior high-school comedy about a bunch of losers. Suffering adolescent angst, they fight a desperate battle to establish a nascent sense of identity in a world which fails to recognize them as they are, or fails to recognize them at all.

Sold by Newen Distribution, airing on France 2, “Lebowitz vs. Lebowitz” is a law practice comedy whose individual episode cases are set against a battle to control the law firm waged by Paule, an in-her-50s attorney and Irene, 20 years her junior and her suddenly deceased ex-husband’s second wife.

Of France’s Series Mania completed series season presence, showcase complements three Gallic skeins which are candidates to be TV drama highlights of 2016: the world premiere of Arctic Circle event procedural “Midnight Sun’s,” co-produced by France’s Atlantique and Sweden’s Nice Drama; shown in excerpts, the Federation Ent. produced “Marseilles,” Netflix’s first French original series starring Gerard Depardieu as the mayor of Marseilles, challenged by a far younger contender; and Arte France-backed Moroccan drug-trade drama-thriller “Cannabis,” lead-produced by Tonie Marshall’s Tabo Tabo Films. Lagardere Studios Distribution has world sales rights.