Fueled by the demands of the digital marketplace and linked to evolving local tastes, dramatic series have attained unprecedented influence in the French television industry, marking a notable departure from the country’s longtime approach.
For decades, international acquisitions dominated Gallic airwaves, while local production focused mainly on one-off telefilms, less-than-prestigious family shows and self-contained limited series.
The breadth of change has been remarkable. As late as 2011, U.S. imports accounted for 72% of the country’s top broadcast hits, while that number fell to just 4% by 2017. Domestic productions ascended in turn, rising from 3% in 2011 to 42% by 2017.
This shift in public appetite can partially be credited to a shift in the industry itself. “The main channels used to program a lot of French cinema, but [today] French cinema has more narrow appeal than before,” says Francois Godard of Enders Analysis. “So they had to look at other program genres, and they were forced to give more prominence to series.
“There’s a historical barrier between the worlds of TV production and film production, and this barrier — as in the U.S. — is a bit more porous now. It’s more accepted and common to have film actors and film directors doing series, and in France that helps.”
While festivals including Series Mania and Canneseries have helped burnish the prestige of homegrown productions in the public’s eye, they have also helped connect local producers and distributors with international buyers. The local industry’s maturation has grown in lockstep with the proliferation of international streaming platforms, flush with capital and hungry for content.
Indeed, French series have sold at a steady clip in recent vintages, with the sales figures growing exponentially since 2013. In 2017, domestic productions took in €63.7 million ($72 million) worldwide, up a sizeable 27.8% from the previous year, with territories in Western Europe and North America making up the bulk of the sales.
“There’s been a rush driven by the digital platforms, which have opened a market for more niche offerings, and consequently more local content,” says Sarah Hemar, executive director of TV France Intl. “These series have found audiences on digital [platforms, whereas] that might have been more difficult to back on linear models.”
To compete in new markets, French producers have revised old templates, now opting for longer seasons, with open-ended storytelling and an emphasis on production values. Local outlets have also been assisted by public antitrust statues, which prohibit the country’s major broadcasters from producing the bulk of their offerings in-house. Instead, such heavyweights as France Televisions and Canal Plus must partner with independent houses, which get to hold on to international and rerun rights.
As ever, the wild card is Netflix. The more vertically integrated streamer has made significant inroads in France, where they claim 5 million subscribers. The U.S. firm recently announced plans to open a Paris branch and has several high-profile series in the pipeline, including an adaptation of “Arsène Lupin” with box office megastar Omar Sy.
That they play by a different set of rules has not stopped Netflix from securing a firm beachhead in French households — a fact that has given many legacy outlets pause. Though traditionally film-affiliated groups including Gaumont and Canal Plus have had TV production divisions for several years, the realities of the current ecosystem make those pursuits all the more important.
For Canal Plus, that means upping its series offerings. The pay TV service has had success with prestige dramas like “Spiral,” “The Bureau” and “Hippocrate,” and found that 33% of its new subscribers sign up in order to access those shows.
“When we asked our subscribers what programs they prefer, our original content is almost always at the very top,” says Canal CEO Maxime Saada. “Now, it has become a key element of our value proposition, a motivating factor for people to subscribe, and an absolutely critical reason for people to stay loyal to Canal Plus.”
In 2019, Canal plans to invest between $90 million and $112 million in scripted content, while also developing series via its Studiocanal arm — a division traditionally devoted to film. Last year it launched Studiocanal Original in order to further develop series for both themselves and third parties.
And finally, it has just launched Canal Plus Series, an OTT platform with 90% original content, a price tag just below that of Netflix and a more spartanly curated library.
“We believe that the issue is time, not only money. People don’t have limitless time,” Saada says. “People don’t want to spend 15 minutes every night looking for what to watch next. In that case, volume might actually be an issue. We have decided to have a very simple value proposition: Only good shows.”