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High-End TV Drama Festivals Are Inundating France

It was probably inevitable that the explosion of high-end TV drama would result in an explosion of high-end TV drama festivals. Nowhere is this more true than in France, which is host to a staggering number of them: Series Mania, Fipa, Série Series, MipTV, Mipcom, and La Rochelle, plus two new festivals to be launched next year, in Lille and Cannes. But can the country, and the industry, support so many?

The French government raised eyebrows recently when it decided to back the creation of a large-scale international drama fest in Northern France’s Lille, which it wants to become the TV counterpart of the iconic Cannes Film Festival. The announcement came as city officials in Cannes itself said they would create their own rival international drama festival to run alongside MipTV.

Meanwhile, Paris continues to host Series Mania, a thriving festival now in its eighth year. Last year’s edition drew 40,000 spectators and 1,300 industry professionals. This year’s event, which runs April 13-23, will screen Jim Carrey’s “I’m Dying Up Here,” among others.

Yet the future of Series Mania now looks uncertain. France’s National Film Board, which gave the festival about $800,000, is expected to switch that subsidy over to the new fest in Lille. Overall, the Lille event, which will feature both public screenings and a market, is expected to cost about $5.4 million to mount.

“Instead of strengthening an existing festival, we’re chopping off its legs and throwing two rival festivals, Cannes and Lille, into the mix,” said Caroline Benjo, co-founder of Haut et Court TV, the Paris-based outfit behind “The Young Pope” and “The Returned.”

The festival in Lille has the backing of local politicians who, during this presidential election year, wanted to make a splashy announcement about a new international cultural event. Lille is France’s second-largest city, but its gritty industrial character could hardly be more different from the glitz of Cannes on the French Riviera. Xavier Bertrand, the prefect of the Haut de France region, who played a pivotal role in getting Lille chosen as the host city for the new drama festival, said he welcomed the challenge of turning Lille into a host of glamorous red-carpet premieres.

“We want to build a festival that will be professional but also fun and popular, which will bring together the industry and the public, and reflect the friendliness of people in Northern France and will have the atmosphere of a small city festival as in La Rochelle,” said Bertrand. La Rochelle hosts another TV festival which takes place each fall.

Bertrand said the Lille event would try to balance its selections between European, American and other international series, and would host masterclasses with high-profile filmmakers and talent.

Benjo is skeptical. “It’s a French disease: letting political agendas overtake common sense,” she said.

Ben Donald, exec producer of international drama for BBC Worldwide, said that modeling a TV fest and market on the Cannes Film Festival didn’t make sense. “A film doesn’t have a commissioning broadcaster, so it needs pre-sales to get the first financing, while a TV series is commissioned and has a lead broadcaster or platform. So it’s happening anyway – whether there is a festival or not,” he said.

But for director Baltasar Kormakur (“Everest”), TV festivals serve a useful purpose. He screened his series “Trapped” at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival’s TV sidebar last year, which he said was hugely helpful beyond talent promotion, publicity and sales.

“Premiering a series at a festival gives us creators and filmmakers the opportunity to get immediate feedback and interact with audiences, which is sometimes lacking when you make a TV show. So it’s a must,” said Kormakur, who’s working on the second season of “Trapped.”

Still, the timing of France’s various festivals calls into question just how viable it is to have so many of them. Series Mania, MipTV, and the new Cannes TV fest are all scheduled for April; the Lille festival is likely to take place in June. Drawing key industry players to so many events in such a short period, especially when many shows are in production between April and October, could be problematic.

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