Series Mania 2020: Highlights, Trends, Market Challenges

MADRID — Never has a TV Festival re-launched in such extraordinary circumstances, or using such novel means.

France’s Series Mania, one of Europe’s two or three most reputed TV events, confirmed on March 11 that it was canceling 2020’s March 20-28 edition, amid inescapable fears of COVID-19 contagion.

Six days later, it announced it was launching a Digital Forum, to feature a Buyers Showcase with, two days out from its lift-off,  a sizable number of the series scheduled to world premiere in cinemas at Lille, and video presentations, which would before have been made onstage, of its major industry showcases, led by the Co-Pro Pitching Sessions of series projects.

Following, 10 points about this year’s unique event.

Industry in Contingency Mode

Drama series shoots have been shut down all over Europe. So Series Mania’s digital reincarnation catches Europe’s TV industry at an equally extraordinary time, at it seeks to renegotiate bank credit lines – TV drama series productions are often deficit financed by bank loans, however strong the backing – and ring the options on production restarts. That is one of the TV industry’s biggest challenges. “We’re in constant talks with our bank, our licensors and our talent agents, and running different scenarios, like: What would happen if we start production again at the end of May, or in July, or in September, October? Is there a clear cut-off date for a certain talent”? said Nils Dünker, at Germany’s Lailaps Pictures, producer of the Beta Film-sold “Wild Republic,” backed by Telekom’s Magenta, ARD and Arte. Most producers assume that a re-start would raise any budget by at least 20% to 30%, he adds.

Series Mania’s Role in a COVID-19 Landscape 

So producers could be forgiven for having more urgent priorities than Series Mania’s new Digital Forum. Yet, response to it looks strong from rights holders. Titles of series whose first episode(s) at least are made available on it will only be finally firmed up on March 25, when the Digital Forum launches. It looks set, however, to feature some Series Mania competition titles and a large part of its International Panorama and the Co-pro Pitching Sessions. Doing so, it advances the two parts of the value chain which can go ahead under COVID-19 self-isolation: Development and sales. It also synchs with a more general growth of a European virtual marketplace. Export org TV France Intl., for example, will extend its three-year-old digital platform Screenopsis to all its members, not just the 43 member companies which were to use its MipTV booth, and allow them to screen up to 10 shows on it, as opposed to four in the past, says Sarah Hemar, executive director of TV France Intl.

It Looks Great, Is It Finished?

Positive response to Series Mania’s Digital Forum is hardly surprising. “Talk of self-isolation, cancelled events and the arrival of Disney Plus has sparked speculation of a mass move to SVOD viewing. However, it is unlikely that audiences will be happy to replace sports and unscripted with equivalent quantities of (largely) scripted content,” says an Enders Analysis report, TV Supply Challenge: How COVID-19 Affects Programming and Scheduling, published March 20. Enders goes on to note that U.K. SVOD viewing only rose 10 minutes over March 14-15, Britain’s first weekend of major cancellations. That said, “with live event entertainment being disrupted brutally, buyers are really looking for programs right now, our members tell us,” says Hemar. One question could be how much money they can pay, with free-to-air and pay TV operators taking big hits from loss of TV advertising and sporting events. But Series Mania’s Digital Forum comes at a propitious moment.

A Potentially Standout, 2020 Co-Pro Edition

Webbed online at Series Mania’s Digital Forum, the now video presentations of its Co-Pro Pitching Sessions may most often be rudimentary, made in self isolation. That said, Series Mania’s 2020 Co-Pro Pitching Sessions’ lineup looks like one of the strongest in years, featuring creatives or companies behind “The Wire” (Agnieszka Holland), “Homeland” (Ran Tellem) and “The Bureau” (Federation Ent.), “The Returned” (Haut et Court), “The New Pope” (Haut et Court, The Mediapro Studio), “The Great Beauty” (Indigo Film), “Leviathan” (Alexander Rodnyansky at Non-Stop) “Jailers” (Globo), “The Break” (Hélicotronc), “The Syrian Bride” (Eran Riklis) and episodes of “The Eddy” (Laila Marrakchi). “The quality of European content is growing, and Series Mania is really quite well established,” says Series Mania Forum head Francesco Capurro.

Buzz Titles

There is good word of mouth on several Co-Pro projects: Haut et Court’s alternative reality-set “My First Family,” first fruit of its first-look deal with Israel’s Quiddity; “Life and Fate,” depicting a Russian family at the Siege of Stalingrad, with Agnieszka Holland attached to direct; “Submarine,” a nuclear sub thriller with large political resonance, from Globo and The Mediapro Studio; ‘90s mobster drama “Turbo,” from Belgrade Sense Productions. Among buzzy competition and International Panorama titles, if they finally make the Buyers Showcase, are Channel 4’s “Adult Material” (see below), “Cry Wolf,” a studied critique of Denmark’s social system from Maja Jul Larsen, a writer on “Borgen,” and “Follow the Money”; Arte-Netflix’s “Inhuman Resources,” with Eric Cantona tapping “Money Heist” vibes as a unemployed worker who settles the scores with a smarmy multinational via a bloodbath; “La Jauría (“The Pack”), from Fremantle and Fabula; and “Patria,” HBO Europe’s most ambitious series to date, which enthused Spanish journalists as a recent sneak-peek in Madrid.

Political Eye-Openers

So what would Series Mania’s world premieres have said about the state and tends of quality international scripted?

Increasingly, ambitious series frame intimate character arcs in highly specific scenarios around the world, whether the Basque Country’s pained struggle for reconciliation (“Patria”), the farcical racketeering of Latin America’s soccer politics (Fabula and Gaumont’s Amazon title “El Presidente”), or Kurdish women soldiers battling ISIS in the Syrian desert (the highly anticipated Fremantle-sold “No Man’s Land”). “Quality journalism describes very well what’s happening in the world, but preaches to the converted, Series can reach much more people,” argues Series Mania director Laurence Herszberg. And their emotional force, so impact on audiences, is much larger.

The Nazis Are Coming Back” 

Another trend for Herszberg: Series which sound an increasing alarm about contemporary politics. “The Nazis are coming back in series,” she says: “Many series express concern about the political situation and the triumph of populism,” she continues, citing, among Series Mania’s original 2020 selection, David Simon’s “The Plot Against America ” and “World on Fire.”

A Shout Out for Channel 4 

Last year, Shane Meadows Channel 4 series “The Virtues” swept Series Mania’s main international competition on the back of critical and audience acclaim. This year, the boldest title in the selfsame section may come again from Channel 4: Lucy Kirkwood’s “Adult Material,” which lifts the lid on the adult entertainment industry, through the travails and undoing of a caring mother and veteran porn star. Never explicit nor ogling, but still sure to shock some in its more outré sex exposition, “Adult Material” still tackles highly serious themes – female pleasure, and the red lines in sexual consent, with one Harvey Weinstein moment which underscores the toxic mix of entertainment industry power and assumed sexual prerogative. “Channel 4 does things which other broadcasters just don’t dare to do,” says Hefszberg. Little wonder that Channel 4’s chief executive Alex Mahon is the 2020 recipient of Variety’s International Achievement in Television Award.

“Post-#MeToo” Series

Digital Forum Co-Pro projects surprisingly take the side (“Play of Mirrors”) or POV (“Frozen Land”) of women. In “Commandos,” selected for International Panorama and sold by Lagardère Studios Distribution, former U.N. peacekeeper John de Koning is forced to lead a security detail in the Netherlands for Nigerian minister Obadiya Zuberi, who is connected to mass graves of a huge number of women discovered in Northern Nigeria. “It’s what we called the ‘post-#MeToo’ trend in series, says Herszberg, talking of another two titles chosen for International Panorama: Eriko Shinozaki’s “Behind the Door,” aired on Japan’s Wowow, in which a female juror increasingly sympathizes with a stay-at-home mom being tried for drowning her eight-month-old baby; and above all, Lucía Puenzo’s “La Jauría” (“The Pack”), an edge-of-the-seat thriller about a female anti-gender abuse police squad frantically searching for a young feminist student abducted from a posh private school in Santiago de Chile.

France Gets Its Drama Series Mojo

Eric Rochant, France’s biggest true-blue showrunner, was due to discuss at Series Mania Canal Plus’ “The Bureau,” which could put in a good claim to be the best recent espionage series in Europe, outside Israel at least. Traditionally, however, despite Series Mania taking place in France, the country traditionally scored far fewer main competition and International Panorama berths than TV’s main creative powerhouses, the U.K., Scandinavia and Israel. This year, things were far more equal, with two French series in competition: Arte-Netflix’s “Inhuman Resources,”; and “No Man’s Land,” produced out of France by Haut et Court. “Netflix has a habit of making some edgier series, and French cinema talent is now piling into series,” says Herszberg, pointing out that the last two episodes of “The Bureau” Season 5 were directed by Palme d’Or winner Jacques Audiard. Some French TV companies are also pursuing international co-production with the zeal they have shown for decades in cinema. “No Man’s Land” is co-created out of Israel, for instance, by Maria Feldman, co-creator of “False Flag” and a producer on “Fauda.”

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