France’s Fabienne Servan-Schreiber On ‘Witnesses,’ Docs, TV Storytelling

Servan-Schreiber won France’s Procirep Best Fiction Producer of the Year award

Courtesy of Cineteve

Produced by Fabienne Servan-Schreiber, CEO of Paris-based Cineteve, mini series “Witnesses” won last month TV France International’s export prize for best drama.The same evening, Servan-Schreiber and Cineteve took Best Fiction TV Producer of the Year from Procirep, a French cinema and TV producers lobby, again for “Witnesses,” as well as “La vie devant elles,” another mini-series, and interactive fiction “Wei or Die.”

A procedural skein, “Witnesses” (“Les temoins”) is a six-seg one-hour mystery thriller skein sold worldwide by Newen Distribution, and commissioned by pubcaster channel France 2. It turns on an obsessive female cop investigating a wave of bizarre murders linked to a crime squad legend who is now retired but forced to return on duty.

Created by Herve Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, also behind Canal Plus crime saga skein  “Pigalle, la nuit,” the mini stars Thierry Lhermitte (Bertrand Tavernier’s “Quai d’Orsay”) and Marie Dompnier (Volker Schlondorff’s “Diplomatie”). Hadmar is also developing a three-hour miniseries “Beyond Walls” for Arte which is also distributed by Newen. “Witnesses” has been sold to the U.K., Germany, Benelux, Norway, Poland, Netflix for North America and France, Australia, Canada, Russia, New Zealand, Israel, Iceland and Latvia. Variety chatted to Servan-Schreiber after her win.

What are the key factors to sell a TV series worldwide?

A good script, a strong auteur’s point of view and high quality production values.

During the last decade, fiction production is seeing crucial changes in all aspects -distribution, consumer habits. TV series are, no doubt, establishing a  new order in the way audiences are consuming and living the fiction. Would you dare to offer some general thoughts on this?

TV series have become crucial for the audience. The U.S. has opened the door, dedicating money and its best talents, creating a strong expectation for this genre. The result is that TV now offers the best of creativity and attracts the best of audiences. Europe and France more recently are now competing with some success. We have to continue, change our broadcasters’ habits – which have been keen on long 90-minute episodes; and train European writers and directors.

Traditionally, Europe’ series have focused mainly on idiosyncratic local elements, especially in the case of those produced by public broadcasters.  However, there are more and more brilliant examples – like “Witnesses” a noir-ish crime-thriller. Maybe European series are showing a new maturity?

Yes, I agree. We are in a process of combining successfully the local and global. Local means to be able to set a story in a real grounded environment. Global means to remain open and to be comprehensible for everyone –to strive after universality. Individual and universal!

What are the trends you detect in TV fiction production, in France and Europe especially, whether production aspects or others related to storytelling and genres…

The art of storytelling has improved a lot in France. French authors and directors have been working hard on it. This will produce series that will be able to travel even if shot in French like “Witnesses.” These series may be produced with French financing and the support of a distributor, and the French system is very supportive for production of such works. Besides that, there are also big international co-productions that take longer to write and to fund, where distributors have a growing role. The danger here is a lack of coherence and strength.

You are also a prolific producer in the documentary field. What are commercial prospects for documentaries in Europe?

Documentary production is going well in France. There is a large network of producers of all sizes; viewers are keen on documentaries that are able to hit strong ratings. Part of French production is bought abroad, especially historical films about World War II. But for most documentaries, however, the sale prices abroad have plunged. Again, French production is strongly supported by public broadcasters and French institutions: We have to be careful and continue to support mainly those which carry a strong point of view rather than being just reportage.

You recently scored an interesting success with an interactive fiction –“WEI or Die”– produced also for French public TV group France Televisions. Could you explain this project briefly?

“WEI or Die” is an example of the innovative shows that we started to develop and produce some years ago, with a producer at Cineteve fully dedicated to new media. The interaction takes place in two ways: During the shoot, some actors work as cameramen with their iPhones or mini cameras and some of what they film is included in the final work. When the show airs, the viewer can choose which point of view he wants to follow and change when he wants. French rights are owned by France Televisions and we hope to sell this experience to foreign broadcasters.

Could you mention some projects?

In fiction, we’re developing second seasons of “Witnesses” and “La vie devant elles,” a France 3 production written by Dan Franck and Stephane Osmont, and directed by Gabriel Aghion. We also have three projects with TF1, [and] a series in development with Canal Plus which takes place in the European Parliament –“The Parliament,” written by Noe Debre, [the co-screenwriter of Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner, “Deephan”; an international series about the Bonaparte family in co-production with RED in the U.K., plus Gaunt TV and France 2 in France, with Sean Jablonsky; and a series linked to a web game entitled “Avide$,” written by Thomas Bidegain, [another “Deephan” co-writer] and Benjamin Charbit.

What about documentaries?

We are in production on a dozen films including “After Hitler,” (France 2, David Korn Brzoza), “1917: the 2 Revolutions” (France 3, Bernard George), and “Juan Carlos King of Spain,” (Miguel Courtois). We’re also prepping some current affairs type programs like “Rape as a War Weapon,” made for Arte, and written and directed by Delphine Deloget and Cecile Allegra, the winners of the 2015 Albert Londres Award) and “Women Against ISIS” (LCP – TV5), from Pascale Bourgaux.