Séamas McSwiney reports from the 4th Série Series (1 – 3 July 2015) in Fontainebleau, an event devoted exclusively to European television series by and for those who make them.
As sure as Orange is the New Black, TV drama is the new cinema and aspiring authors can dream of a brilliant career in the shoes of the fabled Show Runner. Where art house and indie cinema celebrate directors, high-end TV drama empowers the writer. In this new era of quality TV the new MO is no longer conformity but transgression. Not unlike how the Nouvelle Vague was given creative wings with lighter cameras, technology also drives this new era in TV drama. The omniscience of digital allows every variation of ‘audience experience’ from tablet-snacking your favourite series on the daily commute to binge-watching over the entire weekend. As this plethora of streaming and file options grows it also transforms the business model in significant ways and impacts the writing possibilities – thus creative minds no longer need to navigate their plot lines and narrative twists around the once dominant punctuation of the commercial break.
But a word to the wise, the high end is the tip of the iceberg and most writers struggle for years, and even entire careers, with the low-end of TV mediocrity, where most show runners started out, before getting even a glimmer of the summits. The odds against making a breakthrough are even greater than for the movies – there are far fewer new series commissioned than movies made each year. And the most common refrain of those who try their best shot and actually get meetings, is one of disappointment at the enduring lack of imagination of TV execs whose priority is to play it safe, fearing failure more than thirsting for success.
Still, in this new era of audacity in TV drama, it’s only normal then that industry professionals should create new meeting places and festivals to celebrate, analyse and optimise these bold new possibilities. In Europe, we have a special need to do this to find our own ways to emulate and partner with the HBOs and Netflixes of this wave. Despite the surprising successes — though in reality modest in terms of absolute audience numbers and revenue— of these local, glocal and universal themes and stories crossing borders and finding audience favour across the EU, through Scandi Noir and such, the need to consolidate this unexpected enthusiasm through more predictable and larger scale success is immediately apparent to the TV industries. For them, the bottom line and audience share matter most and they quickly see that one of the keys to survival and success is cross-border collaboration. Thus, planned pan-European successes are emerging in concerted ways that the more parochial nature of cinema never really got to grips with.
Thus, a few years back, a group of French TV screenwriters, and also directors and producers began Série Series in historical Fontainebleau on the outskirts of Paris:
“The first event devoted exclusively to European television series by and for those who make them.
“Série Series is 100% devoted to European TV series. Over the 3 days, around 15 series, both unreleased and known to the public, are showcased and presented by their entire creative teams (screenwriters, directors, composers, actors, producers and broadcasters) who explain the development process in detail.
“Série Series is a real think tank, helping to create a TV series network of professionals across Europe. Professionals come from the four corners of Europe – Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy ….” [http://www.serieseries.fr/en/]
There are exposés of national drama policies in individual countries and outlines of the desiderata for specific channels. This year, for example, there is the session “Creating series in Spain (DAMA): Ramón Campos and Teresa Fernández-Valdés’ masterclass: Two Spanish showrunners involved in this country’s latest successes, who are overcoming the economic crisis by co-producing series with real international ambition. Their latest creation, Refugees, filmed in English, will be presented in Fontainebleau.”[http://www.serieseries.fr/en/]
On day two, as well as the onscreen drama, there is a densely packed programme of debates, mostly involving issues relating to policy in France, for example, a session entitled “Social Apartheid on TV: is television reflecting all French diversities? Do series, documentaries, fiction films… represent all the social, cultural, ethnic and religious diversities in France?”
[http://www.serieseries.fr/en/] For a country with the highest Jewish, Arab and African populations in Europe and now facing even greater challenges, this is a timely interrogation. This day is also an exemplar of the importance of industry lobbying in France and why the creative industries hold more sway than elsewhere.
On a more European level regarding policy and best practice, there is the European Broadcasters Union (EBU, they also organise the Eurovision!) broadcasters’ conclaves, where around 20 public broadcasters, through their heads of drama, meet to informally discuss key issues in their sector with a view to having a mutually beneficial approach, regarding, for example, optimising co-production opportunities and confronting the challenges and opportunities associated with new players such as Netflix.
Apart from the full episode screenings/case studies, one particularly stimulating section that illustrates emerging trends is the Ca tourne/In the Pipeline presentations. Each session involves a brief presentation of works in progress that amounts to a screening of a montage of extracts followed by a discussion with the creative team.
Last year’s sessions included a presentation of Charlie by RTÉ’s Jane Gogan as well as the pan European WWII epic, The Heavy Water War – pitch: “Hitler could have won the war, if he had had a nuclear weapon. For this, he needed heavy water, which was then only produced in Norway. Set during the Second World War, the protagonists engage in a frantic race to acquire it.” One year later the series has been completed under its new title The Saboteurs and has already played with great success across Europe. For series trivia geeks, we make the acquaintance of the real Heisenberg, whose moniker was borrowed by Walter White in Breaking Bad. He was in fact the real life Nobel Prize-winning German physicist and the Nazi atom bomb is his story.
One of this year’s highlights from In the Pipeline is The Last Panthers, a Franco-British six-parter made for Sky and Canal+: “A jewellery heist in Marseille puts the Pink Panthers, the infamous gang of thieves from the Balkans, back on the map. An expert working for a British insurer, an ex-soldier from the Balkans and a French-Algerian police officer, all on the hunt for the stolen diamonds, embark on a merciless war, bringing to light the dark heart of Europe’s criminal underworld. Between London and Belgrade, the gangsters and the banksters join forces, heads roll and violence ensues.” It stars Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, John Hurt and Goran Bogdan. “The Last Panthers originated as an idea from celebrated French journalist Jerome Pierrat and the screenplay is from award winning writer and co-creator Jack Thorne. The series has been directed by Johan Renck and filmed in London, Marseille, Belgrade and Montenegro.”[http://www.sky.com/tv/show/the-last-panthers/article/announcement]
Between talk sessions, teasers and episodes, if this all sounds like a too crammed menu, it’s because it is. There isn’t enough time to attend all of the events though opinions can be shared of events missed while candlelight wining, dining and networking in the Chateau in the evening. The hallowed halls of the Chateau are also a classy compensation for the attendance price tag.
And for those who couldn’t make it, there is an extensive video library, often in English, of previous events at http://serieseries.fr/galeries-videos.php?p=1
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris.