The 25th edition of La Rochelle’s Festival de la Fiction highlighted the expanding scope of French drama on all fronts, writes Marie-Agnès Bruneau.
La Rochelle’s Festival de la Fiction marked once more a renewal in French drama, which is getting more diversified not only in terms of genres and styles, but also in terms of outlets, talents and producers.
The event, which has now been running for a quarter of a century, brought all sectors of the industry together and threw up an array of discussion points as the industry fluxes. Here are six key takeaways.
Diverse dramas bring rewards
The breadth of France’s drama output was perhaps best illustrated by the shows that won awards at this year’s event, with prizes being handed out to non-traditional players.
Prime Video won the award for best one-off show with Olivier Abbou’s Drone Games, while, at a time when French drama is seeing its cost rising, the best one-hour-episodes series award went to a broadcaster without deep pockets, 13ème Rue, with its thriller Follow, which was also the most screened drama at Unifrance Rendez-Vous the week before.
Similarly, it was the third season of European multi-language comedy Parlement – a digital series produced for France.tv’s Slash – that won the award for best half-hour series.
Talents are also taking a different circuit to before. Prime Video premiered its new crazy comedy Killer Coaster, created by Nikola Lange and Thomas Mansuy, who made a name thanks to Slash’s YA series Derby Girl.
In parallel to the official competition, French broadcasters also highlighted some new shows with confirmed talents. France Télévisions’ Infiltré(e)s is the reunion of talents from classic show, Le Village Français, while Canal+ was showing a pilot of new legal series 66-5 (Conviction), from the same creator and producer as Spiral.
France Télévisions was also showing the first episode of Sambre, the new mini-series from Jean-Xavier Lestrade, which explores serial rape cases that took place over a long period of time, with the show looking to depict and denounce the culture of rape. “After Laetita I thought I should do a musical! But this story had to be told,” Lestrade said, “this is an issue dear to my heart on which I’ve been working a lot already.”
Addressing societal issues
Public broadcasters have increasingly been looking to tackle diversity and societal issues. France Télévisions had a TV movie about a woman who becomes blind and a thriller series dealing with gay issues, while many series explored themes around feminism. At its presentation, the pubcaster said it wants drama that resonates with the times.
Alongside societal issues and thrillers, there was also a bit more lightness and comedy, with Arte – which had been exploring author-driven serial killers – showing Under Control, an attempt at a political comedy series. “I will be contining the work of my predecessor,” said new Arte drama director, Agnès Olier, during her first presentation, adding that she would be “going where you won’t expect Arte to go, looking for bold projects and promoting talents’ vision.”
Netflix looking for returning series
On the series front, M6 – which is increasing its output – premiered pilot episodes for its new missing children series, Vigilante, something the broadcaster had not done in 15 years.
Returning series are also what Netflix is now primarily looking for, the streamer said at a presentation (not showing any drama this time). It stressed that having 10 million French members meant its demands for drama were similarly large.
In French series, Netflix is mostly looking at three genres: comedy, promoting a point of view, such as political black comedy En Place, from Jean-Pascal Zadi, which got a second season; action, such as upcoming female-judge-led series, Furie; and thrillers.
The streamer, which is launching the third season of Lupin next month, will still have a few limited mini-series, it said, such as its new show on late French business man Bernard Tapie. Asked about sci-fi fantasy, though, the platform’s execs said that it was a difficult genre to succeed in and to meet with such standards as Witcher and Stranger Things.
Renewal of French producers
Next to French drama’s renewal are the green shoots emerging on the production side. Follow, for instance, is produced Bonne Pioche Story (Victoire d’Aboville), the scripted arm of a factual producer now part of Federation Studio that is less than three years old and which has also been behind M6’s Vigilante.
Whereas many career goals tended to focus on becoming a channel commissioner, the trend now is for channel executives to depart and become producers themselves.
Head of TF1 drama Anne Viau joined Federation Studios last week to create Quelle Aventure!, and last spring, Olivier Wolting of Arte announced joining Asacha Media’s Mintee Studio. “For nine years I was heading drama at Arte,” he says, “and I was getting a bit frustrated not to be involved more, and for instance work on development with the writers.”
Some talents are also getting attracted by production, such as actor Audrey Fleurot (HIP, Women At War, Spiral, Le Village Français), president of the jury this year, revealed she has set-up her own production company together with group UGC, Bahia Blanca to develop scripted shows in which she will not necessarily have the first role.
Although consolidation can be felt, with many of the new ventures with groups, some also choose the indie way too.
Among TV movies selected was The Storyteller, the second production from 247 Max, set three years ago by former France Télévisions head of international coproductions Médéric Albouy, who for his part partnered with a movie producer, and already had its first show, an Arte comedy thriller Polar Park presented at Séries Mania.
Producers adjust streamer growth
Business wise, the mood on the various panels was rather joyful, although concerns emerged. French producers are less worried then elsewhere about streamers possibly reducing commissions because of local production obligations.
Writer-director organisations, together with the producers’ unions of drama, animation and documentaries, even managed to sign an agreement last week improving the deals with Netflix, which has to dedicate 20% of its French revenues to French film (4%) and TV production (16%).
Now 68% of content, up from 66% before, will have to be independent (i.e. with producers retaining some rights). The deal also has a number of improvements in docs and animation minimum investment, and in French language ratio. Furthermore, the unions managed to get rid of the possibility for Netflix to meet 5% of its obligation with unscripted reality and formats. (Of course, unscripted producers union did not sign the new deal!).
Nevertheless, producers union USPA said it was downsizing its estimation of the number of hours streamers commission will ultimately represent. Instead of former bracket of a potential 200-300 yearly hours, that will be no more than 200 hours, they said, more likely 150 hours or 10% of production volume. Traditional broadcasters will remain primary commissioners, they said.
An issue is the raising costs whereas traditional broadcasters’ funding does not increase, and pre-sales and international co-productions were down last year, a point of vigilance, said USPA. French drama sales export figures were at their highest last year, but in other panels it was said that it was driven by a few titles and that they may not remain as high this year, while there is increased competition from other countries such as Spain.
For their part, during the Grand Débat, the French broadcasters said their challenge right now is to stabilise declining linear viewing and succeed BVOD developments. “There is a strong usage evolution towards on demand but linear viewing is not going to disappear,” said TF1’s CEO, Rodolphe Belmer. “These are two worlds that can respond to each other,” continued M6 content director Guillaume Charles. Drama is usually a best viewed genre on broadcasters’ platforms.
On international co-productions, both pubcasters Arte and France Télévisions said during their respective presentations they remain as committed as ever. Arte continues its European tour, having work with 27 countries so far, also investing in pre-buys and acquisitions, and buying for its platform which carries 40 series. France télévisions has 20 development with the Alliance, also also active through EBU pre-sales system and part of European writers club initiative.
Windows opening or closing?
Contradictory signals were given regarding the co-ventures between platforms and traditional broadcasters, which multiplied last year.
While TF1’s new head of drama Anne Didier said that the channel had several projects in development with Netflix and others, France Télévisions programmes and channels boss Stéphane Sitbon-Gomez said that despite numerous projects that were meant as co-ventures with streamers, there had been no progress.
Netflix said it waas open to opportunities, on a project-per-project basis. “The thing is to find projects suitable for each,” said Didier.
Busy event for writers
Festival de la fiction de la Rochelle was as busy ever edition in terms of numbers. Next to producers, actors, directors, broadcasters, attending in big numbers were writers, now represented by two different unions, and who had several events and conferences for training or dedicated to them, including the EBU-backed European Writers initiative presentation.
“There is a rise of the writer’s role, or more exactly of the creator’s role, who is now really at the centre, which was not that much the case 20 years ago,” agreed the festival president Stéphane Strano, “and that goes with a rise of producers’ intimate ambitions and of an enhanced production value”.
“This event aims to bring the entire profession together with a philosophy to honour its diversity in its entirety, and have it talk together and meet with the general public,” he added. Audience association PFDM (Pour les Femmes Dans les Medias) research showed there was last year 43.4% of women employed in TV production, up from 40% ten years ago, their salary having improved too, representing 41.5% of total.
For its part, CNC counted that among the dramas benefiting its grant, there was 32.9% of women directors in 2022, the highest level ever, up by 4 points on 2021 and by 14 points on 2016, although budgets of the dramas they direct remains 20% less than the ones directed by men.