As it prepares to launch a fully staffed Paris office and beefs up its roster of French series and movies originals, Netflix commissioners Sara May, Damien Couvreur, Dominique Bazay and Diego Buñuel discussed the particularities of their development process and deal-making with the French industry, as well as their diversity-friendly approach, at Series Mania.
Although France has presented many challenges for Netflix because of its strict window release schedule (which sets the SVOD window at 36 months) and protests from film bodies, the French market has now become one of the fastest-growing for the streaming service, which currently boasts more than 5 million subscribers locally.
Netflix has nearly 20 French originals in the pipeline. So far, it has delivered a couple films, including “Je ne suis pas un homme facile” and “Paris est à Nous,” and three series: political drama “Marseille,” with Gerard Depardieu; romantic comedy “Plan Coeur”; and the science-fiction series “Osmosis,” which competed at Series Mania in Lille, France, last week. Making those shows in France hasn’t exactly been easy for Netflix, which replaced the showrunner on “Osmosis” and producer on “Plan Coeur” after the first season.
Netflix’s tight development and production schedules mark a big departure from the lengthy process of French broadcasters, which can take years to greenlight a series.
The streaming service’s goal is to “have series go into production within 12 to 18 months after it’s been commissioned from a pitch,” said Couvreur, director of international originals for France. That’s about two to three times faster than the process of a TV channel in France. He added that Netflix can commission and greelight a show from a 10-page document.”
One of the challenges in France is to get writers to work collectively on series with a showrunner. Apart from a handful of series like “The Bureau” or “Un village Francais,” very few series have showrunners and writers rooms in France, where the director is still seen as the boss, rather than the writer.
Netflix’s fast-paced model is pushing the writers to be more involved. “It’s a transition. The writer’s job is no longer to just deliver a script; he [or] she becomes a creator who has creative control and input over all the process of the series,” said Couvreur.
Couvreur said he and Bazay, who is Netflix’s head of preschool kids and family originals for the EMEA region, said they’re open to projects pitched by writers or novelists as long as there is a “creative vision.” “Our job will be to find a path to make it into a series by teaming up with producers by introducing you to other people and building a team,” said the exec.
Bunuel poured cold water on the rumor that Netflix commissions content abroad based on algorithms, but he said data helped the company determine the budgets of its originals. “We submit a given project to people who will analyze the value of the IP on a global level and on a local level,” said Bunuel. “They will give us a report that will help us understand what’s the best budget for each series, depending on the value of the IP, depending on the story and depending on the kind of audience that it may hit.”
But Netflix can be flexible. “If a story requires additional budget for specific reasons, we’ll definitely go beyond what the data says because our hearts and minds tell us that this is something we’re passionate about we know that audiences will be passionate for,” Bazay said.
Unlike in the U.K., where it’s making shows with big-name talent, in France, Netflix has focused on tightly budgeted, culturally grounded series showcasing a lot of newcomers and minority cast which skew to younger demos. Of the three new documentaries Netflix announced at Series Mania, one centers on the French rapper Gims, and another looks at Nicolas Anelka, the controversial former soccer prodigy.
“Plan Coeur” boasts a multi-ethnic cast headlined by Zita Hanrot, Sabrina Ouazani and Syrus Shahidi. Netflix also has French-Haitian rapper Kery James’ upcoming feature debut, “Banlieusard” (co-directed by Leïla Sy).
“France is very diverse we want to reflect that aspect of the society. There is big chunk of our viewers in France that don’t necessarily, especially younger audiences, go to theaters that often or don’t watch TV that often and it feels important to make content also for them and answer that need in the market,” said May, who joined the company about a year ago and heads up content acquisitions in the EMEA region.
She added that “some content is difficult to finance within the traditional circuit, so if we can be an alternative to that, that’s awesome.”
Couvreur, meanwhile, refuted the idea that Netflix had an editorial line, and said “minority begins with a face that you don’t usually see on screen… Our commissions are driven by that curiosity of bringing new ideas that will be very relevant for our local members but will also speak to a global audience.”
Even on the movie side, Netflix’s very first French film pickup was Houda Benyamina’s feature debut, “Divines,” which featured minority female protagonists from underprivileged suburbs. Released in theaters by Diaphana in France, the film world premiered at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2016 before getting a global rollout on the streamer.
Under commissioner May, Netflix is also aiming to ramp up its French originals slate with movies. But unlike with series, Netflix will not be involved in developing movies, even if it boards feature projects at an early stage, and is positioning itself instead as a co-producer. Julien Leclercq’s action-packed “Of Earth and Blood” will get a global rollout on the service.
May said Netflix had a flexible approach to deal-making and was willing to work alongside traditional partners and TV networks to access locally-made content.
For instance, Netflix is joining forces for the first time with TF1 to co-finance “Le Bazar de la Charité,” a high-profile period series inspired by a real-life tragedy and set in 1897 Paris. The “unusual upstream agreement,” as Sarandos described in the statement announcing the pact, will allow TF1 to premiere “Le Bazar de la Charité” during the second half of 2019, while Netflix will start streaming the series on its service in France eight days after TF1 broadcasts the last episode. In the rest of the world, Netflix will stream the series the day after TF1 airs the last episode.
Another example is Netflix’s pre-buying of Antonin Baudry’s big-budget French submarine thriller “The Wolf’s Call” (“Le Chant du Loup”), which Pathe was able to release in French theaters and sell in several territories. Netflix got exclusive SVOD rights 36 months after the French theatrical release, and bought the film for North America, Latin America, Spain and Scandinavia. Such deals have been rather rare in France because local TV networks, which play a crucial role in financing homegrown films, have often blocked SVOD rights, a practice that is not allowed under the new window-release schedule, according to a French sales agent.
Prospects of an alliance between Netflix and the country’s public broadcaster France Televisions are less likely. In January, France Televisions signed a three-year pact with five local producers’ guilds to have exclusive rights to all the original drama, documentary and animation content that it co-finances. The deal was partly put in place to serve the interest of Salto, the joint streaming service that France Televisions, TF1 and M6 are hoping to launch soon.
The Netflix commissioners didn’t address the looming 30% European content quota which the European Commission is set to put in place at the end of the year. But Couvreur said the team was looking to order more originals before year’s end. Netflix will also be looking to have about five or six original films a year.
The executives said the company has come a long way in the French market. “We used to be based in L.A., working on a different time zone. People had to pitch in English,” Couvreur said. “Years later, we’re in Paris, taking meetings in person, speaking in French. And we have seven or eight people working on acquisitions in France.”