Netflix’s ‘Lupin’ marks rise of international TV content
Rebalance of power
Published: Jan 24, 2021 04:43 PM

Illustration of a cell phone with the Netflix application showing the Lupin show, a French television show created by George Kay and Francois Uzan and streamed on Netflix Photo: AFP

The success of the French crime series Lupin on Netflix, riding on the heels of hit Spanish show Money Heist, may hint at a waning of US dominance on the small screen as ambitious European, Latin American and South Korean players kick down the doors on streaming platforms. 

"Ten years ago, 90 percent of creativity was in the United States," said Pascal Breton, founder and head of the Federation Entertainment production company. 

"There were some good little local creatives, but it didn't travel."

New competition

However, the increase in internet speed, the rise of on-demand television and the example given by US pay channels, led by HBO, have pushed their counterparts abroad to bet on TV shows, having mainly relied on cinema and sport in the past. 

Spiral, (originally Engrenages), Carlos, or Braquo, all produced for Canal+, highlighted a growing global appetite for non-anglophone TV productions and series.

They were followed by shows from public channels such as the 2010-13 Danish political phenomenon Borgen and, from 2010, the British Sherlock which, despite being made in English had a particularly non-US flavor. 

Luca Barra, of the University of Bologna and co-author of a study on European television shows, said improved standards had been driven by pay TV stations trying to differentiate themselves from public broadcasters by coming up with the kind of premium content you used to only see on the big screen. 

Channels, he said, noticed that their premium output "was not just a distinctive feature of every national market, but something that had an appeal also in other markets." 

The "change in mentality" has also favored the development of transnational production companies such as Federation Entertainment - particularly in Europe - to cope with significantly increasing budgets, he said.

At the same time, the explosion in the number of channels and platforms has generated an appetite for content never seen before, while redefining the notion of success. 

"Something that 10 years ago was considered a failure now can easily be a success," said Barra.

The emergence of international platforms, mainly Netflix but also more recently Amazon and Disney+, has played a leading role in driving this appetite for content. 

Bolstering its international appeal, Netflix has also set up subtitling for all its productions and dubbing for many of them, allowing a non-English series like Lupin to top global viewing rankings.

Accelerating trend

To gain a foothold overseas, US platforms produced local content in several countries, through production houses based there. In South Korea, and now in Europe, video-on-demand services on the internet are also required to contribute financially to the audiovisual sector in the country where they are established.

In the new landscape of television production, Americans "remain very powerful," acknowledged Breton, but "there is a real rebalancing," which he expected to accelerate.

Cheyenne Federation, part of the Federation group which was behind The Bureau (originally Le Bureau des Legendes) and Marseille, is currently working on a series around the Notre-Dame fire, expected in 2022, with a budget equivalent to that of Lupin, said the producer. 

For Jonathan Gray, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, non-US production companies have also integrated narrative structures that can be exported abroad, all the way to the US. 

"I think the American palate, which is sort of a notoriously conservative or boring when it comes to television" has been incorporated by overseas producers who have been "stretching it a bit better, but still within pretty recognizable form," said Gray.

Following the footsteps of English-language productions, shows are more and more often devoted to "subjects and narrative forms which are much more international," said Breton. 

"Be it Versailles or Saint-Tropez, these are global subjects," he said, and reach an international audience, like [the] Mafia and Italy in Gomorrah or Colombia and the drug traffic in Narcos. 

In Lupin, the Louvre museum acts as a hook, but for Breton, the success of the show can also be explained by its staging. 

It "looks a bit like the films of Luc Besson [The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional], the only one in French cinema who understood the international market," he said. 

In fact, several former collaborators of the director were behind the camera for Lupin.