High-end TV drama comes to Cannes with Canneseries

Famous for its glamorous film festival, the French city of Cannes is now seeking to establish itself as a leading destination for fans of high-end television drama. At this month’s inaugural Canneseries event, which took place amid unseasonal howling winds and driving rain, the television was served up on giant screens, with a side-order of pink carpets and palm tree-shaped neon trophies, and featured two competitions: one for TV drama and the other for shorter web-based series.

The main competition — consisting of either the pilots or the first two episodes of 10 completed series — was notable for its broad international focus and overall impressive quality. The festival’s French artistic director Albin Lewi had his pick of 130 entrants from all over the world, and said: “We wanted to strike a balance between series that are artistically accomplished but also accessible. We were also thinking about each show: will it look good on a big screen?”

The sole British entry (though some might dispute this, as it was produced by BBC America) was Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s off-the-wall spy thriller Killing Eve, starring the Canadian actress Sandra Oh as an MI5 agent tracking a psychotic hit-woman. The eight-part show, which premiered in the US this month and will air in the UK this year, was one of several in competition to have been developed, written or directed by women.

Others included a German series The Typist, written and directed by Nina Grosse, which stars Iris Berben as a bereaved typist working for the homicide division of the Berlin police force; a 1960s-set Norwegian series State of Happiness, for which writer Mette Marit Bolstad scooped Best Screenplay, about a sleepy coastal town that is transformed when a US oil company strikes it rich; a moving South Korean child abuse drama, Mother, written by Jeong Seo-Kyeong (The Handmaiden); and Miguel, an intricately plotted Israeli drama about a young gay man adopting a five-year-old boy in Guatemala, written by Daphna Levin and Tom Salama.

“We tend to see a lot more women creators and executives involved in making quality television series than we do in certain branches of the film industry,” said Canneseries’s honorary president Fleur Pellerin, a former French minister of culture. “Obviously we’re happy that our competition reflects this trend: we certainly weren’t looking to fulfil any kind of quotas.” We want to strike a balance between series that are artistically accomplished but also accessible

Indeed, the organisers of Canneseries decided to award acting prizes according to talent rather than gender: one for best interpretation by a single performer (it went to Francesco Montanari for playing a Mafia-hunting public prosecutor in The Hunter) and another special award for either a single performer or an ensemble cast (awarded to the cast of Miguel). A six-strong jury, with the American thriller writer Harlan Coben presiding, delivered their verdict on the winners, who each took away a trophy designed by US street artist Steven Harrington.

Two of the best performances were given by children. In Miguel, the pint-sized Miguelito Sojuel is outstanding as an orphan who stubbornly refuses to embrace the new life his adoptive father has planned out for him. Clutching a football as if his life depended on it, he dominates the screen with his defiant eyes: proud of who he is and steadfastly unmoved by gift-wrapped blandishments. In Mother — adapted from an already successful Japanese series of the same name — Heo Yool’s portrayal of stoicism in the face of terrible abuse is heartbreaking. There is no more affecting moment during the entire festival than when she is left abandoned in a dustbin liner by her feckless mother.

The Best Series award went to Israel’s When Heroes Fly, written and directed by Omri Givon; Best Digital Series was the Canada-set five-parter Dominos. But one of the most handsomely mounted series on view was French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s first foray into scripted television: a 10-part English-language adaptation of Swiss writer Joël Dicker’s mystery bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, starring Patrick Dempsey as a disgraced professor. Annaud presented a 35-minute sneak-peak of his series, shot mostly in and around bucolic Maine, which showed that the director of The Name of the Rose has lost none of his flair for the twists and turns of elaborate plotting.

With Canneseries running at the same time as the city’s annual MIPTV Media Market, the shows both in and out of competition certainly didn’t lack for potential buyers. “If Cannes, which for many of us is like the temple of cinema, shows that TV drama is important, it gives television and everything around it an extra push,” said Miguel’s Israeli producer, Mirit Toovi.


MIPdrama Buyer Summit

Running alongside the Canneseries programme, aimed at the public and industry, MIPTV ran its third MIPdrama summit on the eve of market’s official opening. The increasingly popular event saw some 450 buyers register this year. Avril Blondelot, head of content insight at Paris-based research company Eurodata TV Worldwide, gave a brief overview of global drama viewing and production trends ahead of the preview screenings.

“We’ve detected 3,200 upcoming series and the vast majority of them are scripted series,” she said.

She highlighted key trends including more compact series out of the US in the 13-episode range; increased exports and ratings for UK shows; growing interest in Scandinavian series out of the US; a move into high-end drama in France by A-list talent previously associated with cinema, the embrace of binge-watching in Russia, and the sustained and growing popularity of costume drama worldwide. There was not, however, a hoop skirt in sight in the MIPdrama line-up. Instead, Nordic thrillers, strong female protagonists, and terror plot dramas the dominated selection.