Cannes residents were treated to a familiar site this month: Hours before a glitzy opening festival night gala was due to kick off, security guards set up their stations, while local workers were busy fitting the last bits of fresh carpeting along the narrow seaside avenue known as the Croisette, and up the steps of giant theatrical venue known as the Palais des Festivals.
However, though the activities were familiar, the timeline was somewhat off. A spring chill hung in the air, the calendar read early April, and far from a lush and glamorous red, this carpet was hot pink. This was no film festival — this was Canneseries.
Now in the midst of its second year, the Canneseries project was launched and spearheaded by the municipal authorities, but don’t mistake it for some kind of side project by local technicians biding their time until film gathering in May. If anything, this TV festival — where Starz’s “Killing Eve” launched in 2018 — is fundamentally reactive, reflecting the growing clout of scripted series in the international business.
While the “Peak TV” phenomenon has stemmed from the rise of premium broadcasters and the collapse of mid-budget filmmaking, streaming services have taken that fever and exported it across the globe. With their deep pockets and bottomless appetite for content, the streamers have radically expanded the marketplace, allowing international producers to find new homes for their series regardless of language or country of origin.
While this kind of global spotlight has forced local producers to up their game, those producers have been greatly assisted by their own national film funds, which have looked to up their investment in prestige TV after the wipeout of home video narrowed the film distribution landscape. The effect has been an explosion of well-funded, top-level productions, made with one eye on viewers at home and the other on those abroad. Multiply the amount of polished series with the number countries producing them, and you’ll get a digit that risks overwhelming any and all. Enter Canneseries.
“There’s such a volume of series that it’s difficult for the average viewer to know what to watch. There’s an overwhelming amount of choice,” said Canneseries artistic director Albin Lewi in an interview at the festival. “It’s the goal of a festival to be prescriptive, and to advise. We want to give a boost to certain series.”
Name and location aside, Canneseries has no institutional overlap with the Cannes Film Festival, but it does follow a similar model. Like the film festival, Canneseries curates its selection on the basis of artistic merit, while also benefiting from a simultaneous but separate content market to keep it relevant from a business perspective. So while one of the festival’s 10 competition slots certainly offers a bit of critical street cred, it can also help with sales.
“It wasn’t as busy a market eight years ago as it is today,” said Limor Gott Ronen, SVP at Keshet International, a leading global production and distribution house that is part of Israel’s Keshet Media. “In such a cluttered market, with so many buyers, you just want to go out with a show and give it the best possible platform. …The carefully curated festivals are great [for that], because they give your show additional backup and pedigree, many times before you even take the show to market.”
Keshet had particular success with “When Heroes Fly,” an army-vet drama that took home top honors at Canneseries’ inaugural competition last year. Because Canneseries sought a world premiere, Keshet was then able to play up the festival acclaim when marketing the show back home.
“When you win first place, it becomes a key component of the campaign,” said Ronen. “We don’t have box office concerns, but we definitely need to cater to a very big audience. And in order to do so, it’s helpful to have those accolades.”
However, while any prize can be helpful, it doesn’t immediately guarantee a sale. Netflix did eventually purchase worldwide rights for “When Heroes Fly,” but the company waited until the show picked up blockbuster ratings back home.
“Nothing happens immediately,” said Ronen. “These days, there’s so much great content, so buyers look carefully at everything. …It’s not that the festival does all the work; it just offers a very good stepping-stone.”
And the Canneseries’ organizers know that in order to ensure their festival’s lasting success, they’ll need to reinforce that very stone. Because they don’t want to lose out on promising shows that might have already screened in their home territories, they’ve instituted a two-tiered system.
“We’ve locked some series and we’ve lost other ones because of release dates,” said Lewi. “So our guidelines are either world premiere for French/UK/U.S. content, or international premiere for series that have been recently released in their own territories. …By definition, a festival takes place at a certain time, so that limits the content. But our position on that is that we accept shows that are recent releases in their own market.”
Release dates pose one set of challenges, and the festival’s competition poses another. Just days before Canneseries was set to kick-off, another French festival, the Lille-set Series Mania, came to a close. Both festivals offer industry watchers and the general public very similar propositions, both have strongly curated selections, and both benefit from industry and government support. Indeed, the two festivals seek to fill the same gap, to offer series television the same prestige festival platform that the Cannes Film Festival offers art-house cinema and the Annecy Festival offers animation. In North America, meanwhile, festivals such as Denver’s Series Fest continue to develop their own niche.
For the time being, the overstuffed marketplace means there’s no shortage of series to go around. At Canneseries this year, the acrid Belgian drama “Studio Tarara” struck critics with its MeToo-influenced reframing of 1990s showbiz, while Canal Plus’ literary adaptation “Vernon Subutex,” which marks the television debut of local film star Romain Duris, gave the festival a very well-publicized opener.
Duris, who’s probably best known stateside for Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” brought out the celebrity press for the festival’s initial red (or in this case, pink) carpet, and offered a sharp reminder to all industry watchers: In order to succeed, a festival needs more than a strong selection – it also need stars.
On that front, Canneseries scored a real coup by landing “Killing Eve” for its inaugural edition last year, marching Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sandra Oh up down the Croisette just as their stars were about to go nova, and giving “The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair” star Patrick Dempsey free reign to melt hearts all over town. Funnily enough, the new festival landed that former in part by serendipity – “Killing Eve” was already due to air in early April, and a Cannes photo-up never hurt any prestige property – but all the same, it had a hot title on which to stake its reputation.
“Smaller countries are going to play the game, because we already have a label to offer them. As for the larger actors, we had to buy some credibility,” said Lewi. He credited the success of “Killing Eve” with helping the festival lock down series from AMC and Starz, as well as “Doctor Who” writer Russell T. Davies on hand to present his HBO family drama “Years and Years” as the closing night selection.
Hosting Davies, or recent film-world émigrés Gurinder Chadha and Gregg Araki, might not attract paparazzi and luxury sponsorships — but it speaks to the festival’s aim of building a strong reputation within the industry and then letting the local glamour do the rest.
“Even the Cannes Film Festival didn’t exist [in the public’s imagination] for five, 10 years,” said Benoît Louvet, the Canneseries’ managing director. “It takes time, and we know that. Cannes means glamour, and our message is: Cannes is a place for series. We want bring the series format the level of international respect it deserves.”
Lewi added: “And we want to bring those series to Cannes.”
The 2019 edition of Canneseries runs through April 11.