Netflix’s ‘Marseille’ Bow Underwhelms in France

Streaming giant’s first European 100% Original Series savaged by French press; initial international reaction looks more upbeat

Gerard Depardieu (center), Benoit Magimel (right)
Courtesy: Emilio Mayorga

MARSEILLE – Unspooling in Marseille’s spectacular, hilltop Palais du Pharo, built by Emperor Napoleon III for his wife, the first two episodes of Gerard Depardieu-starrer “Marseille,” Netflix’s first 100% European original series, world premiered Wednesday night to 10 seconds or so of polite applause, but no more, from a packed largely local audience.

That may have been a reaction to a series which features a mayor of Marseille with a cocaine habit, a philandering deputy, and a city with a dazzling port and natural light, yes, but machinating mafia and  council estate young with a nice line in Kalashnikovs.

Some 100 minutes later after Wednesday’s bow, all eight episodes of “Marseille’s” first season were made available globally on Netflix, at midnight Wednesday French time, in the 190 countries where Netflix now operates.

Such is the power of Netflix, a global reach central to a business model which Netflix chairman Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, explained at length to a select group of journalists hours before the “Marseille” premiere, talking at the city’s Sofitel Hotel, which offered magnificent views of Marseille’s Old Port.

Netflix has 30 scripted series in production and 12 films and will raise its overall content budget from over $5 billion in 2015 to over $6 billion in 2016. “The piece of that dedicated to original production is growing, and in absolute terms,” said Hastings.

Whatever “Marseille’s” reception in France, that original production roll-out will not be stopped. If French critics or social media is anything to go by, that reception, has, however, been underwhelming.

Though “Marseille” had its fans on Twitter, reception, at least from the Marseille audience and some doyens of the French media looks far more underwhelming than at Paris’ mid-April Series Mania where Netflix and French movie director Florent Emilio-Siri (“My Way”), “Marseilles” director-showrunner, presented an extended promo.

“Marseille” stars Gerard Depardieu as an over-the-hill city mayor, Robert Taro, with elections looming, whose groomed heir-apparent (Benoit Magimel) suddenly declares political war.

“I have been looking forward to #MarseilleNetflix since it was announced last year. Sadly, it looks like it’s getting panned by critics,” ran one Tweet. “The skein #MarseilleNetflix offers an excellent Depardieu, a mediocre Magimel and a cliché of Marseille” said another.

French reviews were largely less kind. “It’s an artistic rout, an industrial failure, undoubtedly its first in-house dud,” wrote Pierre Langlais at Telerama. “In refined language, this would be called an industrial accident. More colloquially, this is cowshit,” opined Pierre Serisier at Le Monde.

Like Marseille newspaper’s French financial daily Les Echos was far more nuanced: “The Depardieu/Magimel duo works marvellously,” it reported, Abroad, U.K’s The Times praised “a gritty political thriller” plus

Local Marseille press and initial international reaction look more upbeat. The U.K.’s The Times praised a “gritty political thriller” and Depardieu’s performance as a flawed mayor; Sweden’s TV-Koll gave “Marseille” four stars. Social media reactions outside France were, as often, all over the place, but broadly split.

“This is French-bashing, delirious self-flagellation,” Pascal Breton at Federation Ent,, “Marseille’s” production house, hit back on the red carpet. The only people who didn’t like the series in Europe were Parisians, he explained.

“Marseille’s” critical savaging may have little impact on audiences or Netflix’s subscriber base in France. Even if they don’t watch it, clients will just want another French series fast. Or watch “Making a Murderer.”

Netflix of course does not reveal viewership or subscriber numbers in individual territories. Hastings said subscribers have been growing in France every single month since its launch there in September 2014. Attending a press conference in Marseille just before the screenings, Depardieu himself poured praise on the city, waxing lyrical about its light, caught by “Marseille” itself. The series offers stunning overhead cityscapes of Marseille. But it also portrays its gangs, corruption and crime, the local mafia opposing Tarot’s plans to go out in glory building a casino in the Port.

The real test for “Marseille” in France will come next Thursday when, in what Hastings called “an experiment,” its first two episodes air on TF1, France’s biggest free-to-air broadcast network.

“Marseille” is unlikely to dent Netflix’s modus operandi in international. Hastings recounted over lunch at the Sofitel how Erik Barmack, Netflix head of international original series, spent three months in France getting the lay of the land as producers pitched projects. Whether producing or acquiring, Netflix tends to associate with the top–tier companies in every country it enters. Founding Marathon in 1990, Breton has produced epoch-making French skeins such as “St. Tropez” and “Babar.” He is currently co-producing “The Collection,” about a French post-WWII high-fashion house, with BBC Worldwide and Amazon.

“Marseille” also plays off Netflix’s game-changing competitive advantage as a producer: its 80 million members worldwide.

“The great thing is, if you can expand the audience from the country of origin, you can produce at a larger scale and make better programs,” Sarandos said over lunch.

“Being able to find American lovers of ‘Marseille” in the U.S. enables us to spend more in France making “Marseille,” he added.

“No one’s ever built a global production model in this way,” Hastings commented when asked about Netflix’s challenge. “We’re producing simultaneously in 10-15 countries — feature films and TV series. I’m sure we’ll produce some shows which very few people will want to watch. We also continue to produce shows like ‘Narcos’ that we think will be big global stories. We’re learning how to do this,” he said, adding what has almost become a mantra: “Local produced, global distribution.”

However modest about Netflix being on a learning curve in international, Hastings was clear about Netflix’s large ambitions outside the U.S.: “We’d like to be as popular in the world as in the U.S., to be in one third of households seven years from now.”

Analysts vary wildly on just how many subscribers Netflix may have in France. When Netflix launched there, Hastings told French media that break-even for the French operation was just 10% of households, some 16 million in total in France. Netflix is estimated to have hit that threshold in the U.K. within a year of its Jan. 2012 bow.

Dominated for three decades by now Vivendi-owned Canal Plus, which is making a huge effort under Vincent Bolloré to drive in scripted series, owning equity in TV production companies in the U.K., Germany, Scandinavia and Spain plus Mediaset’s pay-TV operation in Italy, France may be a far stiffer challenge for Netflix.

But the 10% threshold certainly doesn’t look unachievable.  In countries where Netflix has been up-and-running longer than France – the U.K., Brazil and Mexico, for instance — it now has multiple original series in production, including “Ingobernable” from Mexico, starring Kate del Castillo, and “The Crown” about Queen Elizabeth II. Showrun by Peter Morgan, who wrote “The Queen,” “The Crown” will be the second 100% Netflix original series from Europe to see the light of day, set to air later this year. “Marseille,” in this sense, is just a beginning.