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Série Series 2016: Cultural Identities and the International Market


- A discussion between producers

Série Series 2016: Cultural Identities and the International Market

(© Sylvain Bardin & Philippe Cabaret)

(Participants: Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet (director, Lagardère Studios Distribution), Vincent Leclercq (audiovisual director, CNC - National Film Centre), Bénédicte Lesage (producer, Mascaret Films), Luca Milano (deputy executive director, Rai Fiction), Pascal Rogard (general director of the SACD, Society of Drama Authors and Composers), Olivier Wotling (head of drama, Arte). Moderated by: Anne Rambach (screenwriter, president of the French Screenwriters Guild))

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Anne Rambach opens the "Cultural Identities and the International Market" discussion with an observation: after a long period spent lagging behind, France made a comeback, reaching the top 5 countries for television series exports.

My Tailor is Rich

In light of this observation, Anne Rambach puts her first question to the participants at the round table: does the exportation of French series represent an opportunity for French writers?

The response appears somewhat mixed. Normally, exportation should provide new opportunities. But for Pascal Rogard, the situation is far from idyllic. The issue of language persists when it comes to creating a series with a global reach. Some pieces, self-proclaimed as being designed for export, are written in English. This is the case with Versailles, a Franco-Canadian co-production of which the main character is Louis XIV himself. And yet, it was written by two reputable Anglo-Saxon authors and shot entirely in English. The series The Collection, co-produced by France 3, BBC Worldwide and Amazon Prime, was also shot in the English language. “These series actually exclude participation from French-speaking screenwriters,” Pascal Rogard points out. “All this talk of exportation does not necessarily lead to more work for French writers.” The situation is much easier for directors, however, who are more adaptable and can work in a language that is not their own.

Taking the series The Transporter as an example, Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet admits that the marketing of English-language productions is potentially more profitable. Series are shot in this language to increase their sales potential or encourage a distributor to spend more money on a project. Nonetheless, the market has changed in recent years, and the English language appears to be gradually losing its competitive advantage. Recently, for example, the United Kingdom has started buying French and European series such as The Returned and The Witnesses. Deutschland 83, a German language series, has encountered great success throughout Europe. The language barrier is much weaker than it may have been in the past.

Vincent Leclercq refers to the CNC’s strategy in this regard. The amount of support provided for works of fiction destined for export is now smaller than for original creations in French destined primarily for the domestic market. In this way, the CNC is pursuing a policy that promotes French-language creation, and “although this does not hinder English-language production, neither does it promote it.”

The current changes in the market can only be cause for celebration. Vincent Leclercq points out that French fiction production has been stagnating at 770 hours per year for the past several years. Exportation should breathe new life into this pursuit. Effectively, works of fiction are endowed with very few levers for growth. He points to channels, of course, but it is agreed that these will not have any extra financial resources in the future. The international market thus constitutes a new lever. When discussing exports, a distinction should be made between sales and co-productions: “Currently, French exports are massively represented by sales, while the number of co-productions can be counted on one hand.” Of the five co-productions supported by the CNC, two (Versailles and The Collection) chose to use the English language. The others opted for realism, including The Last Panthers and Midnight Sun, both of which were shot in different languages: languages that “make sense”.

Content Trumps Language

Olivier Wotling believes that the strength of a project resides primarily in its identity, not the language in which it is shot. To support this opinion, he uses the example of Occupied, a series created by Jo Nesbø and co-produced by Arte and the Norwegian channel NRK. The series was written and shot in Norwegian and fits Arte’s strategy for co-production and purchasing, which aims to showcase the best of European production. As such, the channel refuses to “Frenchify” the projects it is involved in (by imposing French protagonists on the series, for example). In the case of Occupied, this would not have made sense. “Arte fully accepts the culture and languages involved in each project.”

Yet, in its most recent creation, Eden (a series about migrants, co-produced alongside Germany and taking place in both Greece and Germany), Arte wanted a French writer to be allowed involvement in the script. The aim here was to diversify the perspectives expressed in the series. The view that French people have on migrants (Greece in particular) is very different from that of Germans. The series had to “bring out the various sensitivities so that national singularities could feed into the writing and become a strength”. This type of project, Olivier Wotling adds, also allows French scriptwriters to come up against different writing methods. For a writer, this experience is necessarily fruitful because it allows them to expand their creative palette.

Anne Rambach observes that a festival like Série Series in itself illustrates European writers’ need for exchange, if only of their practices and writing processes. On this topic, Pascal Rogard adds, festivals are important tools for distributing and circulating their work. This has long been the case for cinema, and now it is true of series as well. Pascal Rogard takes this opportunity to call upon the CNC to demonstrate benevolent neutrality towards a festival like Série Series, which was created by writers, as opposed to “other enormous machines” which already benefit from a large amount of public support…

Bénédicte Lesage insists upon the need to produce pieces of work that are both powerful and unique. From the producer’s point of view, the international market can be an economic opportunity. Of course, everyone in attendance wants French production to do well, and for French writers to make money from it. But the economics and profitability of a project are not ends in themselves. “The Europe of today needs meaning, exchanges, recognition of the diversities of which it is composed.” A series must reflect what a writer wants to say to the world. This vision may be founded on a variety of perspectives. It is on this level that co-production can offer new creative perspectives, making it possible to unite many voices around a common desire.

But once again, the content of the piece, and the originality of the viewpoint of its author or authors, must take precedence. An outstanding series will always find its audience. Bénédicte Lesage uses the example of En Immersion, a three-episode series in black and white (created by Philippe Haïm) that she produced for Arte. The series was bought by Netflix to be shown in the U.S.A. and the U.K. Series that are different, original, and that make no attempt to copy what is already on the market, have a greater capacity for circulation.

Time and Money

All participants in the discussion agree that international co-productions require more resources and particularly more time. Olivier Wotling notes that co-production is a drawn-out process. Arte has succeeded in forging links with Scandinavian broadcasters thanks to its purchasing and pre-purchasing policy, and regular meetings with creators and broadcasters. A co-production can only see the light of day if the various partners trust each other, and if their different working methods are considered compatible. After broadcasting a series like Borgen (discovered through the festival Scénaristes en série in Aix-les-Bains, the predecessor of Série Series), five years later the channel was able to participate in the development of the new series by the same writer, Adam Price.

Bénédicte Lesage shares this point of view. However, she adds that, because of their experiences, new generations of writers have a more international vocation than their predecessors. Young people have travelled more, and some have studied in other countries. They adapt more easily to the co-production model, which is based primarily on establishing a “common knowledge”. All participants in a co-production must understand and learn to adapt to each other’s practices.

Vincent Leclercq considers co-production on an international scale to be a complex process, for two reasons. The first is that the cultural differences can run very deep. It can be very difficult to agree upon a common goal, so it follows that co-production must take up more time and more resources. The second reason is that funding has become more complex and requires a longer learning curve. Still, certain domains lead the way in this regard, such as animation, for example. As Vincent Leclercq points out, France has become Europe’s biggest exporter of animation films, and furthermore, 30% of investments in this sector come from abroad.

Meeting the Audience’s Expectations

Many people continue to wonder whether too local a series is, by its very nature, too difficult to export. Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet doesn’t think so. Contrary to what some studies of market trends may lead us to believe, the genre or era in which a series is set (many co-productions are historical series) has only a very marginal impact on its scope for exportation. What matters most is that the needs of foreign broadcasters and the desires of their audiences are met.

Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet singles out two types of series in this regard: procedural dramas and soap operas. Joséphine Ange Gardien was able to sell in Italy and Spain because the broadcasters needed a popular family series (a “feel-good” show) that could be shown at noon. Other more dramatic shows such as Caïn travel well because they correspond to broadcasters’ needs for certain daytime slots or prime time.

Luca Milano, for his part, makes a distinction between Scandinavian countries and countries like France or Italy. It seems quite normal that a country like Norway, with its 5 million inhabitants, would create its products with a view to exporting. In Italy’s case, particularly for the Rai, circulating its series internationally is not a priority. Like in France, the Italian public and the audience shares that can be generated nationally fully justify creating for the domestic market. The export market does offer new opportunities, but a major national channel cannot afford to neglect the audience they are addressing. According to Luca Milano, “for a channel like Rai 1, the biggest generalist television channel in Italy, the main role of fiction is to draw in an intergenerational audience.” Therefore, not all fiction can be designed with an international perspective.

Besides, highly localised series can also achieve great success on a global scale. Fiction series are often representative of the identity of their country of origin, or even a specific region. For example, more than just an Italian series, Gomorra is a Neapolitan series, but it has still been sold to more than 100 countries throughout the world. In this case, the show’s firm rooting in the Neapolitan world has turned out to be one of its strengths.

The Impact of New Players

In any case, and while noting that “we do not necessarily produce the same things for the biggest channel in the country as we do for the viewers of a subscription-based channel,” Luca Milano points out that the multiplication of channels does provide a new sense of dynamism for the market.

Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet wholeheartedly agrees. She adds that players like Netflix have torn up the rulebook for the market. This American platform is now buying series that are struggling to find an audience locally. Netflix is on the lookout for original pieces and has opened up the market for series addressed primarily at niche markets. That said, although the arrival of these new players offers new opportunities and facilitates growth in the television series market, Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet reveals that she is less optimistic about the future. In fact, there is a risk that we may be witnessing the weakening of national broadcasters in favour of transnational platforms. Netflix is increasingly requiring sale of all broadcasting rights for the series it acquires, which poses the risk of generating less favourable conditions for producers and creators, in terms of both resources and exposure.

For his part, Pascal Rogard is convinced that new platforms like Netflix and Hulu will eventually lead to the weakening of national broadcasters and eventually reduce competition on the European market.

Vincent Leclercq confirms that these platforms have profoundly disrupted the model of televisual creation. Their goal is to acquire exclusive content (generally for reasonably long periods) for which they own all rights. This new model therefore casts new doubt upon the role of the independent producer. Producers’ attitudes, he notes, are currently somewhat ambiguous. Platforms like Netflix “offer new opportunities to produce and therefore to sell, opportunities that are very difficult to pass up under today’s conditions”. At the same time, these new operators cast serious doubt upon the established production model that has existed, in France for instance, for the past 25 years.

The Role of Brussels

Pascal Rogard points the finger at Brussels for this problem. The European Community has shown itself to be incapable of implementing a development project for fiction that creators can subscribe to. “Support for creativity is not seen in a positive light.” Pascal Rogard notes that a French film shot in France will never be in competition with an English or Danish film. The quality is compounded, and “if viewers are going to see more Danish films, it’s likely that they will also go to see more French films.” This principle applies to series, too.

Bénédicte Lesage returns to the issue of financing, which was discussed earlier. These days, when a co-production is launched, the producer is confronted with an incalculable number of parameters: CNC regulations, the regulations of the countries involved, tax credit mechanisms, etc. The combined force of these sometimes incoherent and farfetched regulations stifles creativity, as the producers are often more concerned with purely financial aspects than artistic ones. The compatibility of the innumerable rules in force on European territory remains an issue.

Vincent Leclercq cannot help but agree with this. An effort must be made to simplify the rules, particularly where tax credits are concerned. “On a European level, we have allowed an incredible and uncontrolled overlap to develop between the different tax credits.” In other words, we have allowed “the finances to overtake the art”.

Finally, only the issue of remuneration for writers remains. Pascal Rogard points out that there is no proportional remuneration mechanism in place either in Italy or in Germany. In these countries, writers do not enjoy the full proceeds of their creations’ success in export. The French system for authors’ rights is unique in Europe, in terms of both its protection mechanisms and its financial remuneration mechanisms. “It is more necessary now than ever that authors’ rights be standardised on a European scale.”

Unfortunately, it must be noted that there is no great public interest in this matter.

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