Series Mania: Laurence Herszberg on the 2017 Festival, Its Growth and the Drama of Social Fear

Series Mania founder analyzes TV drama industry, artistic trends, Hollywood studio interest in international TV fiction

Laurence Herszberg
Photo by Lea Crespi

Two facts about Paris’ thriving Series Mania, one of Europe’s highest-profile TV festivals, highlight the current feeding frenzy for high-end TV drama in Europe and beyond – and of co-production as a strategy of choice to mitigate risk and to hike production values.

In 2016, Series Mania received 193 applications from producers to pitch projects at its Co-Production Forum. This year, the number is 312. Last weekend, the number of delegates attending this year’s 5th Forum was tracking at 890 and will probably pass 900 in the end, up from 423 last year and just 74 at the inaugural Forum in 2013.

The surge in attendance reflects more companies sending executives and also the lure of a new €50,000 ($53,250) prize for the producer of the winning project out of 16 selected entries pitched this year at the Forum on April 18. The money goes to development of the project.

In the run-up to the 8th Series Mania, which kicks off April 13 with the first two episodes of the third season of “The Leftovers,” Series Mania founder Laurence Herszberg talked to Variety about the festival’s growth, studio interest in international drama, and trends in the industry.

One sign of Series Mania expansion is its number of cinema theaters. But growth is pretty much across the board.

This edition’s reached a new dimension. Last year, we had 100 screenings, this year 150. We’ll screen 91 dramas on a big screen vs. 52. We will have 59 new series, among them 31 international or worldwide premieres. We also increased the competition, meaning among the 31 premieres, we have 10 in competition compared to eight in 2016. This year we have new British and American shows, which is always difficult to achieve. Seven years of work has helped us to convince the U.S. studios and platforms there is something to be gained launching or showing dramas at festivals like Series Mania.

You’ve also added an extra day to the Co-Production Forum.

I hope it doesn’t sound pompous, but we are really proud of having become a fixture on the international industry calendar. The industry needs the Co-production Forum. That’s why we expanded from three days to four, and the Co-Production Forum’s pitching sessions will take an entire day.

Last year, the Co-Production Forum attracted about 430 attendees. As of last weekend, I believe you are up to about 890. What do you put that down to?

In part it’s the result of really tough competition. Everyone is competing with other channels and digital platforms for the best dramas, and they’re being developed all over the world….Also, when we visited all the Hollywood studios in November, we received the impression that they wanted to renew their talent, stories, narratives, and will attend Series Mania to pick up on new trends in writing.

Another departure is the Torino SeriesLab that takes the festival into a new field: training.

We’re not a market where you have meetings for 10 minutes and just buy and sell. What we’ve noticed over the years is that storytelling, the sense of an author, is at the heart of drama. Everyone can have a good idea, but it’s difficult to sustain it for 10 or 12 hours. So we decided with the Torino Film Lab to launch a new initiative for scriptwriters, especially European ones. We received 109 projects and selected nine, which will be pitched at the Co-Production Forum.

You are also forging collaborations with other festivals and events, such as the Berlinale’s Drama Series Days, which allows two projects to be presented at both events – this year, one is “Freud,” a period procedural – and now a collaboration with Spain’s Conecta Fiction. 

Freud is a very well-known international brand. The series has a very original concept: a young Freud, already very interested in psychology, becoming part of a crime-solving team in a vivid, elegant, period Vienna.

We are asked by a lot of new TV initiatives for a form of collaboration, but Conecta Fiction and Spain and Latin America are very interesting. There are direct links in cinema, but TV is less explored. We are also in discussions to broaden its collaboration with Latin America’s biggest film market, Ventana Sur. And we have just launched the first Series Mania Melbourne for next July in partnership with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Belgian noir was one 2016 Series Mania highlight. Will any country break through like that in 2017? 

There are two answers. With regard to completed drama, we’ll have series from Russia for the first time. Of the 15 projects we finally selected from 312 applications from 39 countries for the Co-Production Forum, two are Dutch, which is very interesting.

Are there any trends that the 8th Series Mania underscores?

First, there’s the very existence of the Forum, with what it says about interest in international co-production. We could not have created it just a few years earlier. No one would have understood. Now it’s common to discuss international projects. At the beginning, we didn’t have any American studios coming to Series Mania. Now there are. Another is [increased] studio attendance: Digital platforms are more and more developing their business. The studios really want a way to fight back.

And artistic trends?

There are still a lot of thrillers; it’s a big tendency. But they’re multifaceted. You have noir, but also thrillers with fantasy or political elements. You now have more and more shows with artistic trends connected to the dark side of the development of our societies. Look at “Black Mirror” or the new French show “Transfer.” Dramas are more and more connected in a way to some very deep fears in society about our future.