French drama is evolving rapidly, as subject matter and new business models perk the attention of international buyers. Marie-Agnès Bruneau talks to the key figures behind three recent projects to find out about this latest evolution
French drama is diversifying and new genres, topics and artistic styles are opening up the scope of interested international buyers.
Deals are changing and prices – for some projects – are rising, according to the French distributors which had shows selected at Unifrance Rendez-vous in Paris earlier this year.
The event underlined the increasing collaboration between those in the worlds of TV and film, with assembled talents working across both mediums, as scripted offers increasing creative possibilities.
Silver screen touch
“I actually wrote my first TV series in the late 1970s and experienced the joy of being able to tell longer stories,” recalls veteran film writer and director Danièle Thompson, who more recently penned and directed – together with her son, Christopher – the Brigitte Bardot miniseries for France Télévisions.
“I was some kind of pioneer, because working for TV at the time was very much looked down upon by movie people,” she says. Since then, series have experienced a revolution, first in the US “well before France,” she adds. “Now, it is possible to get the greatest talents.”
For Christopher, Bardot was his first taste of TV series having previously worked in theatrical films, but it won’t be his last. “I’m now developing a new series project,” he says, with the adaptation of French best-selling novel Fortune De France in the works with France 2.
Bardot also underlines how the industry is shifting, according to producer Pascal Breton, who had the idea for the show well before he set up Federation Entertainment. It was, he says, “perhaps my oldest project. Each year that I was casting talents for [20-year-old daytime series] St Tropez, I was also looking for Bardot without ever finding her,” he recalls.
While Breton’s Bardot did not show up, the project would not have been an easy sell at the time, either. “What’s changed is that broadcasters are on the hunt for major projects. Aside from Canal+, that was not really the case, even three years ago,” Breton tells TBI.
“And Brigitte Bardot is not someone easy, so [commissioners] were a bit afraid of her. She also had the image of a sex symbol that did not fit with the idea of a modern woman. They did not see her the way I was seeing her, the way Danièle Thompson saw her too – the first major, popular, female heroine, who claimed the right of abortion, to dress as she wanted and to sleep with whom she wanted, with her trademark lack of shoes and hair up.”
It is something of a tradition for Thompsons to work with other family members, with Danièle having started out with her father, the late French comedy director Gerard Oury, with whom with she collaborated on many films.
And being part of a cinema family, Danièle did meet with Bardot “but we don’t really know each other,” she says. Instead, the project “was like an investigation,” explains Christopher, using “tonnes of press articles and books,” as well as news archives to recreate the feel of the 1950s.
While the creative team went about building the show, Federation looked to leverage the increasing demand for drama to its advantage.
Rather than selling all rights to a streamer, Federation took the longer road of an international co-production. “It was important for us to keep the rights, because in 30 years time, a series like this will continue to sell,” Breton explains.
The result was a multifaceted deal: France 2 took the first French window; Netflix had the second window and took selected European country rights; and Mediaset in Italy joined as an early partner.
With a cinematographic touch, and perhaps as well because Bardot remains a brand of her own, the series is selling at a higher price, Breton says. “Poland offered us three times the price they would usually give to a French series,” he says.
While the Thompsons researched Bardot to ensure its authenticity, a similar feel was being sought by artistic director Alexandre de Seguins, who is behind French procedural series Astrid Et Raphaelle, which was co-created with Laurent Burtin.
Known as Bright Minds in English, the series features two female cops, one of whom is autistic, and has become a key hit for France 2, with ratings increasing season after season, reaching five million viewers for the latest third run.
“The idea of looking into autism originally came from Sherlock Holmes and the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle got inspiration from an autistic doctor – I’m a big fan,” Seguins explains.
“The character of Holmes has become an archetype, a brilliant guy who is not that comfortable socially. We read a lot about autism as we felt we needed some legitimacy on the subject, but then it became a bottomless source of inspiration.
“Our character sees the world differently and thanks to that, she finds solutions. But then, that being said, it’s absolutely not a realistic series. It’s a pure criminal tale, it’s entertainment,” he adds.
As with Bardot, the sales model for Astrid Et Raphaelle reflects changing habits. While buyers usually wait for more episodes on procedural series, this one started selling abroad quite quickly, reports France TV Distribution’s SVP of international sales, Julia Schulte.
It was picked up across Europe, with Walter Presents taking rights for the UK, the US, Australia and the Nordic countries. “The series was also an instant success in Japan on AXN Mystery channel, with NHK as a result buying it for its 22.00 strand, which is very unusual for a French series,” she says.
“It is light crime, so very accessible, and there is a demand internationally for diversity, which the series addresses without being too clichéd,” she adds. Several options for remakes have also been taken, although details remain under wraps.
Astrid Et Raphaelle also reflects new voices emerging across the French drama landscape. The show is the first that Seguins has created, having started out directing docs before moving to scripted development.
“I was attracted to scripted and realised what I really wanted to do was to tell stories. So I asked myself, would I prefer to write something and not direct it, or do I absolutely want to be a director? The answer was obvious and that proved a good choice because on a series, there are normally several directors.
“Then I had the chance to meet the right producer, in Jean-Sébastien Bouilloux – we got along very well, developed and redeveloped together and it’s really thanks to this good relationship that the project took off.
“There is more freedom today and a better understanding of the scripts, of their issues, their qualities – producers dare to go for more quality.”
Virginie Boireaux of Hago (Have A Good One) also believes there is a new generation of talented producers emerging. “That’s the reason why, together with Constantin Briest, we decided to set-up our own company, as we want to work with them,” she says.
Hago has enjoyed a good start with another kind of crime series, I Killed My Husband. The show was produced for NBCUniversal’s thriller and action channel 13ème Rue, which commissions a few shows per year, although it has less budget than the biggest channels.
Hago, which got involved as a co-producer, sold a second window to TF1 Group in France, and to Walter Presents for the UK, US and Canada.
The show itself tackles the issue of domestic violence in a unique way, with Erika Sainte (Crimson Rivers) and Antoine Gouy (Lupin) starring. “My input was to suggest a genre and entertainment approach, which fit perfectly with the 13ème Rue personality,” says director, Rémy ‘Silk’ Binisti.
“There have been many very realistic series on the subject, but this one is really a genre series – it uses elements from thrillers, horror films and Western narratives,” adds Gouy.
“The multiplication of platforms and outlets for scripted is really positive because it enlarges the scope for series,” adds Sainte. “In this case, there’s less budget than a mainstream series, but there’s more artistic freedom than one can only find usually in theatrical feature films.
“It is now possible to be bolder. The series is very audacious in many places, the choice of colours, shots and the use of large focal – the director of photography was brilliant.”
“I was attracted by this different approach,” Sainte adds. “It’s very interesting to be able to play the main character in a series on such a topic, which is more broadly about the abuse of power.
“In the past, I’ve played many wounded characters – I don’t know why, I’m often called to play characters with a heavy past, although I’m rather funny in real life! But with this show it was possible to play it in a more entertaining way.”
For Gouy, there is certainly more freedom available at present. “The thing with TV though, as opposed to feature films, is that there are perhaps a few too many decision makers who all want to have their word!”