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Series Mania: 10 Takeaways From the 2018 Edition

From Netflix going native, the free-to-air revolution, crime still paying, grounding drama and predicting the present

LILLE, France — The 9th Series Mania hit the home straits Friday with a clutch of favorites emerging for Series Mania’s prize announcements tomorrow, among them a comedy, “On the Spectrum.” Cutting-edge international drama used to be deadly serious: Think Nordic Noir. But innovation has now spread to comedy. As Series Mania’s industry event, its three-day Forum, winds down, and Air France industrial action winds people up, here are 10 highlights and trends of a first Lille-located Series Mania, unquestioned as one of Europe’s premier drama series events.


No appearance at the Lille Transatlantic Dialogues was more awaited than Reed Hastings. His appearance on the same platform as Andrus Ansip, European Commission, vice president for the Digital Single Market, sparked speculation of a detente between the U.S. streaming giant and the E.U., whose parliament approved quotas for OTT platforms in Europe. And so it proved. Waving an olive branch at the Dialogues, Hastings said the quotas were “a little tough’ but “it was up to us in every country to participate, and follow regulations.” Where would Hastings like to see Netflix in 10 years? His reply: “The big pivot for us is becoming a great local producer… working well with local producers rather than being Hollywood to the world.”


“The only absolute in history is change,” wrote British historian Lord Acton. Mind you, things may have changed since he wrote that, of course. But he could have been talking about current drama series landscapes. One of the most dramatic changes, instanced at this week’s Series Mania, is in free-to-air scripted. One instance: Not so long ago, TF1, France’s biggest broadcast network, swept primetime with U.S. procedurals and an occasional local murder mystery, often featuring near-geriatric sleuths. No more: World premiered at Series Mania, one of TF1’s later 2018 fall bows is “Insoupçonnable,” a serial killer thriller where the psycho murderer is known from the get-go, and pictured on occasions from the POV of the dead victim. Like its inspiration, the U.K.’s “The Fall,” this is dark and unsettling drama, once the domain of pay TV.


Traditional procedurals may be out of vogue, at least in the high-end, international drama scene. But crime still pays. To that end, it makes sense that so many of the Series Mania Forum’s CoPro Pitching Sessions contained elements of cross-border criminality: “A Long Night in Paris” and “With One Eye Open” are both adaptations of popular espionage novels; “Immunity” focuses on a group of young people who push their diplomat status too far; “Crimeshare” is based on the real life experiences of writer Peder Fuglerud; “District Y” takes a look at the dark underbelly of the Tel Aviv port city of Jaffa; “CCLXX” and “Atrocity” are fictionalized stories based on international war crimes; and “Inheritance” and “We Got This!” see normal people looking to solve long-cold cases with the hope of a big payoff. Other participants like Berlinale CoPro Series Mania winner “Black Port,” “Pandemia” and “The Lobbyist” all hinted at possible unsavory elements as well.


“O.K. Here we go again. Let me break it down for you. 4,000 soldiers. The 250-man team of Colombia elite forces. Tens of thousands of rounds fired. Several dogs. Four f***ing helicopters. Pablo Escobar was surrounded in the middle of f***ing nowhere. There was no way he was getting out of this one [pause] right?” So runs DEA agent Steve Murphy’s commentary at one point in “Narcos.” In conversation at Series Mania, Chris Brancato recounted how, early on in his career, he tried to work out what the market wanted. A turning point was when he began to base his dramas on real-events. He would research and when he encountered an “Oh, My God!” detail, take note. “Narcos,” a milestone for modern drama series, is one result.


The first Series Mania in Lille, this year’s festival hosted the Lille Transatlantic Dialogues – featuring Hastings, Endemol Shine’s Sophie Laing Turner, TF1’s Gilles Pelisson, Orange’s Stephane Richard – “the first time such a high-profile international conference takes place,” said their architect, Series Mania president Rodolphe Belmer, 2018’s Series Mania also screened Netflix’s first Danish original, “The Rain,” and the first TNT Comedy original in Germany, “Arthur’s Law.” So many firsts is just one sign of a still in first-phase growth international drama industry.


Three of the main competition’s 10 entries – France’s “Ad Vitam,” Israel’s “Autonomies,” “The Rain” – are set in dystopian near futures. But they really talk, worryingly, about the present, such as the chasmic clash of radically opposing mindsets in modern-day Israel.


Made originally for Atresmedia, one of Spain’s big two commercial networks, “La Casa de Papel” – presented at Series Mania by Alex Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato, its creator and co-writer – has a female lead, the gun-totting Tokyo, who is also a sensitive, omniscient narrator. In Series Mania competition contender “Warrior,” made for Danish commercial channel TV2, from director Christopher Boe, a celebrated Danish filmmaker, every frame is just a little bit off and characters often shot with a very shallow-focus 1.3 aperture to give “a sense of  intimacy and obsession to our main characters.” Drama series are sometimes said to be nearer to nineteenth century literature than cinema. If so, some creators are now experimenting, in the vein of the modernist novel.


Another thematic trend among series, “dramas that question the couple, the woman’s place, if any, in the couple,” Series Mania founder Laurence Herszberg reflected, citing Danny Brocklehurst’s “Come Home,” where a mother ups and leaves her husband and children, and “An American Woman,” where a self-abnegating wife plucks up the courage to leave her sleaze-ball husband. As more women in fiction take their lives into their own hands, men don’t figure in those lives at all.


According to U.K. business information provider IHS, pay TV subscriptions dropped in 14 markets worldwide in 2017, potentially indicating that the cord-cutting phenomenon once relegated to the U.S. has gone international. The study also noted however, that only six of those markets experienced decreased revenue due to the loss of customers. In his keynote at the Lille Transatlantic dialogues, Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hasting pointed out that while Netflix has now reached 50% of American households, the whole idea of a cord-cutting phenomenon might be more fiction than fact. “Total cable and satellite is down like 3%,” he said, “so the whole thing about cord-cutting is very exciting to talk about, but in a practical basis, people are seeing Netflix as one pay-TV network and they watch from many.”


Is the drama series boom a bubble? A journalist at the Lille Transatlantic Dialogues asked that question to  a panel of four producers or commissioning execs, whose job is to make dramas. Slightly predictably, all of them answered “no.” Unlike the U.S, where the number of drama series produced rose dramatically this decade until of late, it is not even clear that, excepting digital platform production, the number of series being produced outside the U.S. is numerically rising. What is most certainly on the uptick, however, is their artistic ambition. International scripted production has never been so exciting.

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