Why French-Made Series Are Invading American TV

Illustration by: Evan Hughes

High-end English-language programming with Gallic backers quietly has become de rigueur in Hollywood

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

On Oct. 18, TNT will premiere Transporter: The Series, a high-octane TV series based on Luc Besson's hit action-film franchise about a courier who will deliver anything, anywhere — no questions asked.

Transporter: The Series is notable not only for its bumpy road to TNT. (Its first season, seen worldwide in 2012, had been sold to Cinemax, which decided not to air it. But international ratings success, particularly in France and Canada, led Transporter's French producer Atlantique to greenlight a second season.) The show also represents a low-profile but steady trend in international TV: French-made series in English are invading American airwaves, reversing the typical model by which U.S. studios sell their shows around the world.

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TNT bought two seasons of Transporter: The Series in a straight acquisition deal, a first for the channel. In addition to Transporter, NBC's sleeper hit Hannibal is from Gaumont International Television, the small-screen arm of the venerable French film company. Gaumont's slate also includes the horror series Hemlock Grove, which Netflix has renewed for a third season, and the anticipated drug drama Narcos, also for Netflix.

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Besson's shingle, EuropaCorp, does not produce Transporter: The Series but has its own American success. Its TV division scored its first major U.S. sale when NBC picked up Taxi Brooklyn — a New York-set spinoff of the Besson-penned 1998 action comedy film Taxi — which was a moderate hit this summer. Elsewhere, Tandem Communications, a division of France's StudioCanal, produces the Europe-set procedural Crossing Lines, which premiered on NBC in 2013 before moving to Netflix. StudioCanal has greenlighted several English-language dramas straight to series, including the London-set crime drama Spotless and Sex, Lies and Handwriting, a Bones-style procedural set in the world of handwriting analysis. On the adaptation front, A&E is in production on The Returned, a U.S. version of the creepy French zombie series Les Revenants; Endemol Studios (Hell on Wheels) has picked up remake rights to the crime drama Engrenages; and HBO is developing an English-language version of the French prostitution drama Maison Close.

"There's kind of a French wave right now," says Pascal Breton, producer of Marseille, a political series billed as the French House of Cards that Netflix has commissioned. "French creators are thinking of ideas that will appeal outside of France. And in the U.S. now, there are 50 great channels or services — with Netflix, pay TV and all the cable and networks — that are looking for great series."

Indeed, U.S. networks, thirsty for potential breakouts in a competitive landscape, are more inclined than ever before to take a chance on an international project rather than develop in-house. One benefit of buying a French show from Atlantique, Gaumont or StudioCanal is the cost. Shows such as Hannibal, Transporter and Taxi Brooklyn have budgets comparable to those of network series, but the broadcast fee U.S. networks pay is a fraction of the $3 million to $4 million an episode they cost to produce.

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"You can't discount how inexpensive these shows are," says manager Erwin More, who represents Transporter star Chris Vance and used to rep Crossing Lines' William Fichtner. "It's a pretty sweet deal [for U.S. networks]: For the cost of producing their own newsmagazine show, they can program original, big-budget scripted drama."

French producers generate profits much as American studios do when selling overseas: French networks such as Canal Plus and TF1 bankroll shows with license fees and allow studios to presell them to global broadcasters at markets like MIPCOM, which runs Oct. 13 to 16.

"We sort of reverse the U.S. model, where a show is made in Hollywood then sold around the world," says Atlantique managing director Olivier Bibas. The goal, he adds, is "to create an alternative to that U.S. invasion and show the world that in France and Europe we can make content that can sell to the world, including the U.S."

"Actually, I don't even consider us a French company when it comes to our international television division," says Christophe Riandee, Gaumont's vice CEO. "We are just like any other American producer, competing with the same U.S. companies as everyone else."

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It's no surprise that the French model for high-end television resembles the American one. That's where it comes from. The new French wave in TV originated not as a means to create more national content, but as an attempt to deliver more of the U.S.-style shows the French channels love. Unlike in the U.K., where homemade series have pushed American shows off the main networks, French channels have always been pro-USA. Crime series such as The Mentalist and CSI are huge hits on free-to-air channel TF1 while subscribers of pay TV network Canal Plus are slavish fans of darker dramas such as House of Cards and Californication.

That French fan base created a market for entrepreneurial French companies to make U.S.-style shows, in English, for the French and U.S. markets.

"There’s not that many Mentalists available," explains French producer Breton. "TF1,  they don’t have enough, [French commercial network] M6 doesn’t have enough. Canal Plus is always looking for series that look like American shows in that they are more modern, with a faster pace. … They all want more American and co-produced series which will appeal to their audience. That’s where I’ll try to be."

Language is not a problem. French networks typically dub their shows into French. Canal Plus, the "HBO of France," shows dramas in their original language with subtitles.

U.S. players slowly are discovering the French model. Former NBC exec Katie O'Connell runs Gaumont's U.S. operations, and veteran producer Matthew Gross (Body of Proof, Dirty Sexy Money) recently was appointed president of EuropaCorp Television U.S. Showrunners such as Tom Fontana (Oz), Edward Allen Bernero (Criminal Minds) and Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) are crossing the pond to board Gallic series.

"I've long had a love affair with France and French culture," says Spotnitz, who is showrunner on the second season of Transporter and whose company Big Light Productions has a first-look distribution deal with StudioCanal's Tandem Communications. "France is never going to be a TV factory like the U.S., and that's fine, but for a certain percentage of shows -- and there are going be more of them -- the French know how to do them and can deliver the quality."

Twitter: @sroxborough