Taking Quebec’s French-language TV to the world

From Playback magazine: For decades the French-Canadian industry has punched above its weight. Now it wants to play on the global stage.
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Quebec’s French-language TV output offers a potential IP bonanza for international producers and broadcasters, and exploiting it more effectively is becoming a matter of survival for local content makers.

Quebec continues to produce series that click with local viewers. Recently, the Radio-Canada prison drama Unité 9 and daily police procedural District 31 (both by Aetios Productions) have garnered nearly 1.5 million viewers (2+ AMA, source: Numeris) in a province of 6.9 million Francophones. And while Unité 9 also airs on global broadcaster TV5Monde, audiences for Quebec shows have been limited mostly to la belle province.

Previously there wasn’t a huge effort or need to sell them abroad. But French producers are facing rising production costs and shrinking budgets as local broadcasters’ revenues decline. Producing scripted content is becoming increasingly unfeasible without foreign sales and partners.

There are no longer margins in making shows for only local audiences, says Jocelyn Deschênes, founding president of Sphère Média Plus, the Montreal prodco that adapted its shows 19-2 and Nouvelle Adresse into English series for Bell Media and CBC, respectively, re-titling the latter as This Life.

Licence fees and CMF money can cover costs, he explains, but leave little else unless a prodco sells the show abroad, remakes it for the larger English market or sells the format rights. He began this push more than a decade ago with comedy-dramas Rumeurs and Les hauts et les bas de Sophie Paquin, adapting both for CBC. Sphère is currently working with Bell Media on adapting its TVA drama L’imposteur, about an ex-con who assumes a new identity.

English versions increase global sales potential not only because of language – there are an estimated five times more English speakers worldwide than French – but also because of budgets. One-hour of Quebec drama is typically made for $500,000 to $650,000, compared to $2 million to $2.5 million in English Canada.

Deschênes fears low-budget local dramas will ultimately lose out to the likes of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld, which have per-episode budgets reported at US$15 million and US$9 million, respectively.

“We are seeing high quality everywhere. Young people here speak English and get all these platforms. Eventually they just won’t watch small shows,” he says. So, he hopes to partner with Netflix on big shows. He has a dialogue going with the streamer and believes they can collaborate on a French project, just as Netflix commissioned the Portuguese-language thriller 3% from Brazilian prodco Boutique Filmes.

Last September Netflix announced a five-year, $500-million investment in Canada, but was criticized for committing $25 million to market development activities over five years in Quebec. While Netflix may have gained favour by picking up Robin Aubert’s zombie feature Les affamés (Ravenous) and offering a half-dozen Radio-Canada series, producers are more interested in building projects with the platform from the ground up.

Netflix sent a delegation to Quebec’s AQPM conference in April and met with local producers. The streamer also recently partnered with Montreal’s L’institut national de l’image et du son to develop a new production apprenticeship program. While Netflix did not respond to an interview request, Dominique Bazay, its Quebec-born director of kids’ content acquisition, raved to La Presse about local series such as human-trafficking drama Fugueuse (TVA/Encore Télévision) and time-travel drama Plan B (Séries+/KOTV).

“There is so much excellent content produced in Quebec,” she said. “We must see ourselves as a new door, an incredible opportunity in an already strong industry that takes risks. It’s going to take a bit of time and we have relationships to build, but we’re serious and we want stories [from here] to have a platform outside of Canada.”

Traditional broadcasters are making their own global bid as well. Radio-Canada, for example, has forged alliances with Cineflix Rights, Keshet International, Nordic World and France TV Distribution.

“We want partners that bring a different angle,” says Olivier Trudeau, CBC/Radio-Canada’s senior director of distribution and partnerships. “These are international players that own networks and have access to different buyers and broadcasters, so we’ll be able to do pre-sales, coproduction and other models.”

He sees Quebec’s ability to punch above its weight as its secret weapon. “We’re already able to do miracles with little, so what would happen if we had more?” he asks.

Unscripted content is another strong suit. “Quebec has a lot of home-grown formats. Many quiz and daytime shows were developed here and we believe there’s huge potential,” he says.

He points to Radio-Canada’s 1res fois (KOTV), a talk show in which a local celebrity discusses the first time a certain thing happened to them. “It’s an easy format that could be adapted anywhere,” he notes.

Keshet is looking to distribute Radio-Canada’s subtitled catalogue shows in Europe as well as its formats, but it is especially keen on coproducing drama and non-scripted entertainment projects. It has offices around the world but its roots are in Israel, where it operates the Keshet 12 channel and produced political thriller Hatufim, which was adapted as Homeland for Showtime.

“We come from a non-English country and are competing well in the international market,” says Anke Stoll, Keshet’s London-based director of acquisitions and coproductions. “When I tell broadcasters Israel still produces on budgets under US$200,000 per hour, nobody believes it because the quality is so good. But it’s about storytelling.”

Keshet was impressed by Radio-Canada’s current and projected titles and by one program in particular, which Stoll declines to name.

“It’s about a topic that hasn’t yet been explored and has a different angle,” she says. “There are so many drama series that it’s rare to find something very intriguing. But here we saw the potential from French Canada.” Keshet expects to move forward with the pubcaster on a couple of new projects this summer.

Radio-Canada seeks a stake in its programs’ international sales and so has a vested interest in this global endeavour. But Trudeau says the benefits of forming new production and distribution channels will be industry-wide and comes in response to Canadian Heritage’s Creative Canada policy, which mandates the pubcaster strengthen its role “as a key platform for supporting and promoting Canadian culture and content at home and abroad.”

Heritage has committed $125 million over five years toward a Creative Export Strategy to help creators identify export programs and market opportunities. While the industry awaits specifics, producers and distributors accompanied Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly on an April trade mission to China.

Xiaojuan Zhou, president of Attraction Distribution, met some new companies with eyes on boosting Chinese business. Attraction handles sales for sister Attraction Images, as well as English-Canadian and international producers. Having worked in Asia, Zhou understands the market and believes certain Quebec programs can sell there.

“If you have a great [DIY] or animation series, or a documentary series on science, nature or wildlife, you can probably sell to every corner of Asia,” she says. But Western fiction is a harder sell, she adds, especially if not in English.

“Asian productions are youth-driven for 15- to 25-year olds, whereas ours seem to skew more 35 to 55,” she says. “The subjects are quite different. Whereas here it is more about raising kids and mid-life crises, in Asia, it’s about finding Mr. or Ms. Right, good jobs, money, and the three Cs: cars, cell phones and condos.”

Some broadcasters from smaller Asian countries covet animation imports because local producers can’t afford to make cartoons. But Zhou says a program must be “really outstanding” to sell, as it is competing with a large volume out of China, South Korea, Vietnam and India.

Attraction Distribution’s animation sales include the feature The Rooster of St-Victor from Quebec’s 10th Ave Productions. It was picked up by China’s CCTV-6 and by Universal Pictures for other territories in Asia and beyond.

Because making copros for the global market requires international talent, Cineflix Media last year launched a two-year, $750,000 development fund with support from SODEC and the Quebecor Fund. The money is open to production companies looking to adapt Quebec scripted series and formats and can be used to land a heavy-hitting writer.

“Development is cost-heavy,” says Connect3 Productions president and fund director Pablo Salzman. “If you’re optioning a format to a U.S. production company, it has to put in a decent amount of money for a really good showrunner. Money has often been the block. We’d have a great idea and find the right partner, but does that partner go for a top-level talent to make it pop and sell?”

As an English producer working beside the French industry, Connect3 is well-positioned to bring Quebec content to the world. It’s focusing on copros that, if suitable, could be distributed by Cineflix Rights, which, like itself, is a subsidiary of Cineflix Media.

It’s currently adapting TVA comedy Les beaux malaises (Encore Télévision/Matte TV), which centres on the daily tribulations of comic Martin Matte, playing a fictionalized version of himself. The format was picked up in France, and Connect3 is looking to do an English version with Irish prodco Deadpan Pictures (Moone Boy).

“The genius is in the format and the scripts. This comedy really travels,” Salzman says. “It’s an idea that started in Quebec and we’re exploring the U.K. and Ireland with an end goal to get it financed and primarily made there and have a product that will make audiences laugh all over the world.”

Image: TVA’s Les beaux malaises. Photo by Eric Myre.

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Playback magazine. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Netflix committed $25 million to  marketing and promoting French-language content. Playback regrets the error.