|Replicating hit U.S. show in France illustrates localization strategy; control over 'ca-ching'|
THE MAKERS OF NBC'S "Law & Order" TV shows go to great lengths to make the police-station sets look realistic. But producers working on a French spinoff hit a road block: Should the Paris set look gritty like the American one—or sleek, like modernized French precincts?
After a trans-Atlantic debate, they reached a cultural compromise: modern, but messy. "We agonized over the set details for months," says Leslie Jones, NBC Universale head of international format sales. The French set designer says he cluttered desks with papers and trash, but built curving walls meant to evoke the feet of the Eiffel Tower.
This production—a French replica of the NBC drama "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"—is the first phase of a localization strategy that the media giant hopes to roll out around the world. Foreign TV companies have already paid more than $500 million for dubbed reruns of NBC's three "Law & Order" shows. But NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co., thinks the emerging business of creating foreign clones of current hits could be a significant new market.
"Paris Enquetes Criminelles," as the French version will be called, highlights a major shake-up brewing in the TV industry's $8 billion export business. Foreign broadcasters, once happy to buy dubbed versions of old U.S. comedies and dramas, are discovering that their viewers—particularly the younger ones advertisers pay a premium to reach— would rather watch original shows. As a result, demand is softening for dubbed shows and soaring for new scripts to film. That is prompting U.S. studios to offer localized versions of their tried-and-true hits to foreign customers, touting them as an option that is faster than starting entirely from scratch.
Even though Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order," has experience overseeing two spinoffs of the series in the U.S., translating it into French hasn't been easy. He has insisted on elaborate control, right down to the sound of the signature "ca-ching" heard on each episode. Delays have caused the project to be two years in the making, as producers on both sides of the Atlantic endured casting disputes, cultural tensions and the occasional debate over gun-toting techniques.
When Television Francaise 1 SA, France's largest broadcaster, premieres the series later this year, Mr. Wolf will have much at stake. He has had to cope with a ratings downturn at the original "Law & Order" in recent years. Successful localization of a monster hit—especially in a place as protective of its culture as France—would "prime the pump for a lot of other deals," he says.
From "All in the Family" to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," some of the biggest TV hits in U.S. history have been replicas of foreign shows. But rarely are contemporary American shows copied in other countries, partly because few have the infrastructure to pull off a remake to the standards of U.S. studios.
Now production facilities in locales far removed from Hollywood have become more sophisticated, thanks to the proliferation of digital technology. Russia and Brazil are emerging as two of the biggest buyers of so-called formats for scripted shows. The reality-TV boom is also playing a role. U.S. studios have profited hugely over the past decade by setting up local productions of reality shows such as "Survivor" around the world.
NBC Universal, which produces three U.S. versions of "Law & Order" in partnership with Mr.Wolf, is just one of a pack of mediabe-hemoths pursuing foreign customers. Sony Pictures Television, which first experimented with localizing in the 1990s, has made a blitz of deals in the last two years, including one to remake the 1993 sitcom "The Nanny" in Indonesia. Walt Disney Co.'s ABC Television Studio recently sold a clone of "Desperate Housewives" to a channel in Ecuador.
Mr. Wolf, 60 years old, has always vigilantly controlled his shows and he knew that
a flop in Paris could hurt the "Law & Order" brand in Europe. So he insisted on keeping an extra-tight rein on the project, even creating a step-by-step instruction manual for his French partners to follow.
The resulting 1,000-page "bible" covers everything from character outlines (the lead detective is "an American Sherlock Holmes but should be culturally adapted") to set-dressing tips ("remember—cops are very busy and have lots of paperwork so the squad room should be active and a bit unkempt.") There is also a section on concocting realistic-looking blood for murder victims ("flour is key.")
The contract with TF1, which took nearly six months to complete, was equally detailed. Lawyers devoted an entire page, for instance, to proper usage of the famous "ca-ching" noise that viewers hear periodically during any "Law & Order" episode. (The sound should never be used more than two times per act, and should be used to signal a shift in the storytelling, not just a change in location.) "Ca-ching," according to the contract, is the official spelling of the noise, which is a blend of many different sounds, including the slamming of prison cell doors.
"We didn't expect this level of detailed involvement from Dick," says Maxime Lombar-dini, president of Alma Productions, the company producing the series for TF1. "Absolutely nothing has been left to interpretation."
One issue: Mr. Wolf expected to receive a credit as creator and another as executive producer —the same titles he receives on the versions of "Law & Order" on NBC. But the French government limits foreign involvement in its prime-time shows. For "Paris Enquetes Criminelles" to qualify as a prime-time series, Mr. Wolf had to give up his executive-producer title, settling instead for "artistic consultant." It was, Ms. Jones says, "the negotiation of the century."
Preproduction started in October 2005 when a team of French producers arrived in New York for what Mr. Wolf deemed a week-long "boot camp." They shadowed "Law& Order: Criminal Intent" writers to master the show's five-act structure, tried their hand at casting guest roles and scouted off-site locations for filming.
Writers on the U.S. version say they were startled by how little their French counterparts seemed to know about making episodic television. 'They seemed nervous and overwhelmed, a little like they had just been hit by a freight train," says Executive Producer Fred Berner. "It was a little disconcerting."
American dramas—typically 52 minutes long-have lately become popular with younger French audiences. But the bulk of French writers have been trained to make shows and TV movies in two-hour installments, says Takis Candlis, president of France's TF1.
"We're great at movie-style storytelling, but it's true that most writers and directors don't know how to work in the shorter format I needed," he says. "Those who do, couldn't do it fast enough." He says he realized that developing a series on his own could take years— and there was no guarantee it would be a hit.
TF1 pays NBC Universal about $130,000 an episode, in return for scripts and the right to use the concept and structure of the "Law & Order" show. They also get the consulting from Ms. Jones and Mr. Wolf.
In all, "Paris Enquetes Criminelles" costs about $1 million an episode, about 25% more than an average hour of TF1 programming. Still, that is a fraction of the cost of creating a series out of whole cloth: NBC pays about $3 million for a single episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," according to people familiar with the matter.
An early timeline called for French producers to complete most of the casting by January 2006, with finished episodes to air the following October. But casting became a quagmire. TF1 wanted to cast a much older actor as the lead detective; Mr. Wolf and his team had serious reservations about the age. TF1 wanted a hunk to play a cheating husband; Mr. Wolf insisted the character's ugliness was key to the plot.
For the lead role of Detective Goren, TF1 ultimately hired Vincent Perez, a well-known French movie star. Mr. Wolf and his team were happy to approve that decision: Ms. Jones says Mr. Perez will bring crucial buzz to the series because French movie stars rarely work in series television.
As casting dragged on, writers translated scripts from the first season of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." While trying to keep the stories and dramatic peaks and valleys identical, writers tweaked plotlines to reflect French language, culture and the Napoleonic legal code. "We took out any reference to the mob," says writer Franck Ollivier. "We don't really have that here."
NBC's Ms. Jones, 36, says they had to make changes in how the show addresses romantic affairs, since having a mistress is less shocking to French audiences.
Filming began last fall and Mr. Wolf and Ms. Jones quickly had their turn at culture shock. Mr. Wolf, a former writer for "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice," has spent three decades on TV sets, and Ms. Jones has worked in television since 1994, when she joined NBC Sports. But they weren't prepared for their first visit to "Paris Enquetes Criminelles."
The pair arrived on the set just before noon to find the cast and crew breaking for lunch. Mr. Wolf was startled to discover lunch was typically a three-course meal served by waiters, as opposed to the self-serve buffets on most U.S. sets. As the cast and crew languidly drank a dozen bottles of red wine and played with a dog allowed to roam the set, Ms. Jones nervously checked her Black Berry and applied liquid hand sanitizer, says Emmanuelle Lepers, a show consultant. "We move at a different pace over here," she says.
While a U.S. crew often churns out 22 episodes in nine months, French production companies usually complete a quarter of that in a year. French law limits the work week to 35 hours—paying overtime isn't an option—and local customs such as lengthy lunches and regular smoking breaks eat up a lot of time. In the U.S., it isn't unusual for crews to start work at 7 a.m. and keep going until 3 a.m. the following day.
Based on the sale of "Law & Order: Criminal Intenf' to TF1, NBC Universal has setup two local versions in Russia—a task that required Ms. Jones to meet with Kremlin officials wary of a U.S. propaganda effort. Ms. Jones says she has also had talks with customers in Italy, Germany, the U.K. and China. "A lot of potential customers are waiting to see how the French manage, which is one reason this production is so important to us," she says.
TF1 plans to start airing "Paris Enquetes Criminelles" sometime between May and July and Ms. Jones continues to trouble-shoot. Despite the production bible, for instance, the French have "had a difficult time making good blood," she says. Lately there have been lengthy discussions about the the punctuation of the title: Should there be a comma after Paris? A colon? Or nothing?
And while watching snippets of footage, she recently spotted a subtle problem: The lead actors were trying to move like real cops— but occasionally drawing their weapons in unrealistic ways, in one instance pointing a gun at a partner's head. Ms. Jones arranged for Mr. Perez and co-star Sandrine Rigaud to travel to New York and ride along with police officers in their squad cars, something that is fairly easy to set up in the U.S. but nearly impossible in France.
If everything goes smoothly, the French actors could be back in the U.S. in the fall-starring in a crossover episode on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" that introduces them to the 10 million viewers who regularly watch the series. "If that happens, the extra ride-along training will be valuable," Ms. Jones says. "We can't have 100 cops watch the show and then call in to say the French people didn't know how to hold a gun."