For decades, French television was dominated by American series imports while Paris-set cop shows were the only kind of French drama that traveled abroad. But that was then. The launch of Gaumont’s Los Angeles-based studio in 2011 marked a turning point for the local industry, kicking off a new era for a wide range of international drama and encouraging other big players to set foot in the U.S.
“Our first international outpost was the U.S., and right off the bat we decided to have an executive team of well-seasoned writers to make American series that appeal to global audiences, as well as directors, screenwriters, TV channels and streaming services,” says Christophe Riandee, vice CEO of Gaumont Intl.
“We’ve been investing heavily in development, and today we’re staffed with more than 30 people in the U.S. and we have partnerships with Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated creatives like Christopher McQuarrie and J.C. Chandor.”
The first series that McQuarrie will direct and exec produce is based on Olivier Marchal’s gritty French crime thriller “36 Quai des Orfevres.”
The U.S. unit’s boss, Gene Stein, who is the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, is a key component of the outfit’s success, Riandee says.
Gaumont will next launch a TV and film studio in Germany and in the U.K. following the same model as the company’s L.A. banner, tapping into local talent pools and executives to develop original projects.
“It’s very telling that Netflix’s most-watched original is actually ‘Narcos,’ a Spanish-language show,” Riandee says of the series whose fourth season is now in production. “People are eager to watch local shows no matter if they’re in a foreign language.”
Netflix recently announced its goal to triple the number of non-U.S. original series, and Riandee isn’t surprised because he says, “Europe is full of opportunities.Talents are becoming a scarce resource so it’s important to look outside the United States.”
This internationalization of French TV players has been highly beneficial to the country. Last year, French TV exports rose 32% to a record high of €336 million ($394.3 million), and sales of French series went up 21% to $58.8 million, driven by shows including “Call My Agent,” “Versailles” (with English dialogue) and “The Bureau,” according to data compiled by the National Film and TV board CNC and unveiled by TV France Intl. The biggest buyers were in Western Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific.
Global streaming services such as Netflix have shown a big appetite for French content. Sales to these platforms doubled to represent 20.4% of all French sales in 2016, and sales to international networks and platforms grew by 112.6% year on year to reach $35 million.
Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp and Pascal Breton’s Federation Entertainment are two of France’s major companies that have followed Gaumont’s footsteps and set up Los Angeles offices to build a strong presence in English-speaking content.
After bowing Federation in Paris in September 2014, Breton set up a U.S. office and tapped Ashley Stern, a former exec at Ensemble Ent, to run the unit. Then in January, Federation signed a first-look deal with Paramount to co-produce and co-distribute original content worldwide.
Breton says his company has about 10 series in development in the U.S., three of which are being developed with streaming services. With Paramount, Federation is working on three or four series and is looking for screenwriters and talent. Federation is aiming to turn its French series hit, Eric Rochant’s spy drama “The Bureau,” into an English-language remake.
Being established in the U.S. has been a big bonus for Federation, Breton says.
“Being there is crucial to get a deeper knowledge of business practice, as well as gain an easier access to talent and decision-makers, notably at streaming services,” says Breton, pointing out that he was in Los Angeles when he pitched “Marseille” to Netflix. The show, now in its second season, marked the service’s first French-language series.
A fully international company, Federation today has 120 projects in the pipeline with 40 producers worldwide, Breton says. And like Gaumont, Federation is looking to work on a straight-to-series model, which makes U.S. streaming services favored partners since traditional networks rarely commission a series without a pilot.
EuropaCorp, which has faced numerous challenges with its distribution business in the U.S. has had better luck with its English-language TV series. The company launched an American television division in 2014 and appointed Matthew Gross to run the operations. So far, EuropaCorp has been fairly successful with TV adaptations of its film franchises, including “Taxi Brooklyn” and “Taken,” both of which were picked up by NBC.
Meanwhile, Newen Distribution, the leading French TV production and distribution business of European media group TF1, has “Versailles,” penned by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, shooting season three.
Newen took another avenue to target English-language markets with the launch of a London office and the creation of a $55 million investment fund focused on acquiring U.K. drama a year ago.
Since expanding into the U.K., Newen signed a deal with Netflix to produce its second French-language drama, “Osmosis,” a science-fiction series that will be set in 2019 Paris.
Although the series will be shot in French rather than in English, the company has a London unit that fast-tracked the discussions with the streaming giant, says Christophe Nobileau, managing director of Newen. It was Julien Leroux, who runs the London office, who first sold the show’s format to Netflix and eventually got Netflix to order the series to Newen-owned Capa Drama.
Nobileau isn’t worried about any potential negative impact from the U.K.’s “soft Brexit.” “It shouldn’t affect the way we conduct business, and in any case it won’t kick off for another two years,” he says.