Dennis Broe reports from Series Mania, at Lille
If not the largest, it is certainly, as Hagai Levi, the showrunner of HBO’s lead fall series Scenes From a Marriage and festival jury president, termed it, “the most important” television festival in the world.”
This year’s edition of Series Mania at Lille in Northern France previewed 70 series from 22 countries, with 44 new entries as well as three days of talk about the business of global streaming. The most dominant trend in new series is that the best of them, Germinal (France), The Unusual Suspects (Australia), and The Last Socialist Artifact (Croatia), feature plots pitting rich against poor and acknowledging this inequality.
This comes in the wake of The White Lotus’ critique of the rich and the Covid more unequal distribution of wealth with tech billionaires growing by leaps and bounds while millions are about to be thrown out of their homes. On the other hand in the U.S. series The Bite and On The Verge, there was an utter ignoring of these disparities, a continuing to pretend they don’t exist, or a Hollywoodization of the differences (Hacks) or a deflecting of group anti-corporate sentiments into individualized domestic problems (the French series The Code).
HBO’s Scenes From A Marriage
The mood in the three days of consideration of the streaming and on-the-air television business was relentlessly positive and why not? The American streamers are flush with money, though much of it borrowed, as the Disney + rep began his talk by displaying the figure of 116 million subscribers as of August of this year and with the U.S. cable channel Starz, CBS Viacom, and HBO Max all about to expand into Europe, a territory they can’t wait to pillage. The European mood was, despite the edict, much more cautious on how to take advantage of, counter and contend with this onslaught.
There was little talk about Asia, (have the streamers conceded this territory to China?) though a report by the French State Film and Television Association, the CNC, revealed that over the last year China was the leading commissioner of series, beating the U.S. by 653 to 611, with France, Britain and Turkey far behind. Yet another area of digital competition in which the Chinese are the new world leaders.
One presenter conceded that the three most important makers of television series are, in order, the U.S., Asia, and European publicly financed television. Though the Chinese outproduce the U.S., it has the lead because of the dominance of English, with 903 series in that language and Mandarin a distant second with 656. Netflix has not only capitalized on this difference in terms of global subscribers, but also has taken the lead in terms of dubbing, not only global series into English but also now dubbing in 34 languages and subtitling in 37 of the 190 countries in which it now has subscribers.
The U.S. streamers’ global capacity has forced changes in the European media ecosystem, prompting a new wave of consolidation like the coming merger of France’s two leading independent TV channels TF1 and M6 and much more cooperation between public and private national entities and between nations. Germinal, with a budget of $2 million euros for each of its Euro standard 6 episodes, voted the most popular series of the festival, is a combination of the French production company Banijay, France public television, Italian public television RAI and the new French streaming service Salto.
These combinations are now necessary to produce competitive series since the American streamers, led by HBO now folded into HBO Max, with series such as Game of Thrones and Westworld, have pushed budgets to $5 million per episode, (what used to be the outlay for a studio or Amer-indi film) as a way of drowning their rivals in high-priced production values. Cross-country financing is now also de rigueur with, as one speaker put it, even the days of BBC, ITV and Channel 4 combined financing barely being enough to compete with the new budget requirements.
Vampires of the Midland
The expansion plans of the U.S. streamers for Europe often betray the one-sidedness of the transaction. Netflix is beginning production in Russia with its contemporary version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna K, and the Netflix rep expressed surprise that the country “has the technicians, the studios and the landscapes” to produce the series – amazed at “discovering” that Russia, the land of Eisenstein, Sokurov and Konchalovsky, actually has a long and celebrated moving-image history.
Russian television also is alive and well and one of the surprise hits of the festival was Vampires of the Midland, about a vampire family with a feisty grandpa who harkened back fondly to the Stalinist ’50s and his young bumbling tech savvy charge in a smart update on Anne Rice’s Interview with The Vampire which collapsed Russian history, including the defeat of Napoleon, into bite-sized (pun intended) chunks.
The series though has a warmth and comradeship to it, sometimes expressed in cynical Russian humor, with the vampire family committed to not killing humans, that was missing from Rice’s simply decadent storytelling. As the Russians move into straight genre productions, here and in the action flick Major Grom: Plague Doctor, they produce them with a liveliness and good-natured humour missing from the more intense pursuit of novelty in American genre production.
In terms of producing, as they enter the European market, Disney + had the most to offer, citing series which stressed marginal populations like the Turkish women who take over the patriarch’s restaurant in Berlin in Sultan City and Ossekine, a series about the actual murder of an Algerian boy by a French cop. The executive Jan Koeppen’s situating of Disney as having a long history of Euro productions in its animations of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, of Hans Christian Andersen’s Cinderella and the Italian author Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio failed to mention that in each case the Disney version had mutilated the class consciousness or societal horror of the originals and turned them into toothless family fare.
SpongeBob SquarePants, this series needed to be “curated”?
Much more openly exploitative was Pluto, the Euro channel for CBS/Viacom now rebranded Paramount +, which will feature little European content, though it is obliged by law to produce 30 percent native content. Instead, the streamer emphasized how it was helping the consumer, always the rationale used to justify the more honest lingo used by Viaplay in its coming expansion into the U.S. as “innovative, disruptive and ambitious.” Pluto features content on multiple channels available on the streamer “curated” for individual and national tastes, a new twist as the terminology moves out of museums as Monet and Modigliani give way to Survivor and SpongeBob SquarePants.
The grubbiest and most nakedly exploitative view of plucking the European market, now that the U.S. market has nearly reached saturation point for streamers, was HBO Max which is diluting the HBO standard of quality with a “variety” of “more expansive and popular” fare. The streamer, whose stock is still majority owned by the conservative Texas company AT&T, did acknowledge it would be producing three to four shows a year in Spain, the Nordic countries and Central Europe, but also allowed that part of its variety would consist of “unscripted,” meaning cheaper reality TV series as well as game shows.
Anthony Root, the HBO Max programming director for foreign markets, in describing this expansion and how it would change the company, compared it to “moving the oil tanker 45 degrees to the right,” that is, casting the behemoth streamer as a bloated carrier of polluting materials stuck in a narrow canal, perhaps a too apt description of the whole enterprise. As HBO grew in the 1990s its motto was “It’s not TV, It’s HBO.” That has now yielded to “It’s not HBO, it’s HBO Max, which is far worse than TV.”
Earlier, an HBO Max executive, in countering the charge that WarnerMedia is an old company, explained instead that what it represented was “100 years of storytelling excellence,” a description which neatly elides the sometimes tortured, as when Jack Warner capitulated to the blacklist in the 1950s, sometimes trailblazing, in its early 30s representation of the hardships of the Depression in its Gangster and Fallen Woman films, actual history of the company.
The Lionsgate executive, a representative of the studio which has now merged with Starzplay, since all streamers need some back catalogue as a way of drawing audiences, explained that, with the signing of the Abraham Accords, the formerly strange bedfellows of Israel and Saudi Arabia are now engaged in talks to partner to provide content for the new Saudi steaming service. Good news for the region as its two most conservative countries team up to financially swamp other competitors in the region, most notably Egypt, with series ever more hellbent on concealing and whitewashing the warlike and aggressive tendencies of both countries who together have reigned unending death and destruction on their neighbors.
Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner charged with promoting the interior market, couched his talk in much more cautious terms, speaking of a “rebalancing” between American and European film and television, of “responsibility” of the U.S. companies, of European “regulation” and of European Commission funding this year of $2.4 billion to support cross European film and audiovisual development.
The French Minister of Culture Roselyn Bachelot-Narquin spoke about a new decree issued by the Macron government with the intention of “bringing back our audiences” and called attention to the need for French companies not to sell off their back catalogue, part of the nation’s patrimony, as Netflix recently bought the Francois Truffaut films.
Finally, the Portuguese Minister of Culture, representing a left coalition government of Communists, Socialists and the independent left, reminded the audience of producers, writers and company officials, of the need to address “the green position in the sector,” to make it sustainable and reminded this European audience that “we are stronger if acting together.”
The unremittingly positive mood, with European producers in the audience after the Disney presentation more elated at the opportunity of selling to Disney than of being overwhelmed by the entity, countered the global economic prognostication which had even the Davos elite last week counseling against “toxic positivity” as the COVID Delta strain slows down recovery and inflation gallops forward.
This week the Russian Central Bank also warned that a possible outcome is a return to the global crisis of 2008-9 by the end of the year. It is hoped that European series production, both on the continent and in Britain, will not fall prey to the same outcome with the American corporate streamers plundering at will and the rest of the continent’s producers left clawing for scraps.
Next week, I’ll be talking about the best and worst of the 70 series at the festival, all of which will be making their way to home screens and computers this fall.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.