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This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
There is no shortage of European media moguls who want to make it in L.A., but Frenchman Christophe Riandee has pulled off what he calls a “Hollywood ending” with Gaumont International TV, the U.S.-based television arm of the venerable French mini-major. Founded in 1895, Gaumont is the oldest movie studio in the world, with half-year revenues in 2013 topping $170 million (up from $108 million in the first half of 2012). On the film side, Gaumont is behind such titles as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Gosling; French-language hit The Intouchables; and this year’s Cannes opener, Grace of Monaco with Nicole Kidman.
It was Riandee, who has been with Gaumont since 2003, who pushed the company to go west. Back in 2011, GIT — run by former NBC executive Katie O’Connell, who was hired by Riandee — entered the U.S. television market with a bang, scoring a straight-to-series order on NBC for Hannibal, starring Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, and following up with Eli Roth‘s Hemlock Grove on Netflix, both of which have been renewed.
GIT’s television model — producing their shows and bypassing the pilot process — turns the traditional system on its head. The financing for Gaumont shows is complicated, usually involving several broadcasters across Europe in addition to the U.S. network, but it seems to be working: GIT brought in $80 million for Gaumont in the first half of 2013 (the last period for which figures are available) and the French studio is just getting started.
New dramas in the pipeline include a small-screen version of the sci-fi classic Barbarella from Refn and Skyfall screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, which Amazon Studios and Canal Plus will produce; and biblical epic King David from Troy director Wolfgang Petersen. Gaumont also has a deal in place with Fox Broadcasting to jointly develop two dramas, at least one of which is guaranteed to receive a 13-episode order.
The 46-year-old father of two children — a 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter — spoke with THR ahead of Hannibal‘s second-season premiere Feb. 28 about bridging the gap between U.S. and European TV, how he plans to replicate his initial success and why Gaumont “won’t make crap.”
Hannibal was a critical hit but a mixed bag, ratings-wise. What was the biggest challenge for season two?
The challenge is not on the artistic side. We adore [showrunner] Bryan Fuller, and we know he can easily produce six or seven seasons of this show from what we’ve seen of his ideas. The biggest challenge is the new time slot — 10 p.m. on Friday night is a big move for NBC. By premiering season two of Hannibal just after the Olympics, this shows that NBC believes in the series. We believe the Friday 10 p.m. time slot right after Grimm is perfect for Hannibal.
Hannibal has also been a global success. It airs on BSkyB in the U.K., Sat.1 in Germany and Canal Plus in France — all major players in the big territories. This, despite being darker than the procedurals that traditionally work overseas.
It is a dark show and those usually are a tough sell, particularly in Europe. But I would say the success we’ve had with Hannibal was due to how we prepared the production. We worked very closely to make sure we had exactly the right partners in all our major territories before we started production. So our German partners, our French partners, our Italian partners and obviously our U.S. partners knew exactly what we were planning. And once we had the pieces in place, we could go right into production. The most stressful part was a month before we started shooting; no one knew if we could deliver this kind of series straight-to-order. Gaumont TV in L.A. meant nothing then. It means something now.
What made you decide to enter the U.S. television business?
Well, we were producing a bunch of English-language movies, like Last Night with Keira Knightley and the sci-fi movie Splice [starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley], and all the people we were working with — the writers, the actors — in the States, they were all talking about TV; about this being the new El Dorado, the new golden age of television. And others — agents mainly, but also producers — were saying: “There’s something wrong in the industry. Our shows get produced in the U.S. and sell internationally, and sometimes 50 percent to two-thirds of the revenue comes from international but nobody gets properly compensated. We would like someone like you, someone more international, to bring a new flavor to the market.” We had the feeling we could create a new model for making TV series.
On the surface it looks a lot riskier than the studio pilot model.
I actually think it’s less risky, because we don’t spend so much on development. We need very big ideas, very strong brands and very well-known names before we begin with a property. Because as soon as we develop, we know we are going into production. And it’s less risky because while the U.S. studio tends to have one partner — the U.S. broadcaster — we spread the risk across various partners around the world. We combine a low U.S. license fee with an international prebuy and international tax incentives. That’s why we have been so successful and have had our first two series renewed. Because the financial risk is spread over five to 10 companies. There’s not the same huge risk for a single channel to renew or not to renew.
Gaumont is the first French company — and arguably the first European company outside of the BBC — to break into the U.S. TV market. What are you doing differently?
I think the big difference is that we are global. We’re American and we are European. In Europe we have very long-term relationships with companies in the five big territories [France, U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain]. In the U.S. we are a young company, but we already have 15 employees, headed by Katie O’Connell, and we have access to the artistic community and to the broadcasters. That is unique.
What is the biggest difference between the European and U.S. approach to TV?
The big difference is the market. In the U.S. there is much more competition. Broadcasters, networks and other operators are fighting with each other for access to great content. In Europe there are only a few big players and much less competition. The second big difference is the U.S. has a lot of pay TV content, whereas Europe is much more free TV driven. The hardest thing is trying to combine the needs of our European and U.S. partners on the same project.
How big is the divide between what’s popular in the U.S. and what works internationally?
Cable and pay TV shows rarely work on European free TV. But I think they are coming together. Because the audience [in Europe] is watching a lot more TV from around the world. They are used to the way American TV is done now. They are used to complex characters and complex storylines. International broadcasters are starting to invest in these kinds of shows.
You’re working with a lot of film talent: Roth, Refn and Petersen. Was that a deliberate decision?
Deliberate in the sense that for the artistic community, Gaumont is a huge, very respected cinema brand. So people like Eli Roth or Nicolas Refn or [Tony and Dan] Gilroy, with whom we’re developing the series Monsieur de Paris, they see us as a safe home, where they will be respected, where they will be well-treated and where they’ll have creative freedom. We have a certain standard, a certain brand of quality. We won’t make crap.
How do you pitch Gaumont to prospective partners?
The pitch is the property. When I was on the set of Refn’s Only God Forgives, I mentioned to him, “We have this project, Barbarella. It’s an old French property, based on a French comic book that got made into the film with Jane Fonda. What do you think?” And he jumped at it. He practically begged me, saying, “Don’t let anyone else do it.” It’s always the property. Gaumont without the properties is nothing.
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