"Je m'appelle Beck. Je suis un teen-ager" may be the traditional Hollywood view of the way a French company would pitch a network series about an adolescent called Beck.
But when Gaumont Television came to town, its approach was more Hollywood than Hollywood. "Beck is 'The Wonder Years' meets 'My So-Called Life' meets 'Blossom.' Imagine Tim Burton at puberty inside the most normal, average American family," executive producer Marla Ginsburg explained.
And it worked.
That pitch sold CBS on "Beck"--the first U.S. network pilot from French film and television house Gaumont. The pilot, to start production in New York in March, is quite a coup for Gaumont. It is the first network pilot for a non-English-speaking company and a rare accomplishment for any foreign company.
Canadian producer Alliance has "Due South"--the first non-American series to break into network prime time--premiering for CBS this season, but other foreign producers have found it hard to break out of cable and PBS, except in children's programming and as production partners on network movies and miniseries.
More important, Gaumont cracked the U.S. networks at a time when there is substantial tension between the French and Hollywood production communities. This week, French film and television producers are lobbying for tougher European Union quotas on U.S. programming, and there is still resentment on both sides of the Atlantic from the very public scrap over the audiovisual clause in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks last year.
Part of Europe's argument against the flood of American product in Europe is that the United States will not give European programming a chance. Ginsburg, Gaumont's American-born producer, agrees and says the Gaumont strategy was to take on the United States at its own game: producing American programs.
"While there was all this brouhaha about the GATT treaty, at Gaumont we were doing it. We were exporting to the U.S. We have three pilots in script development with the networks, and that is something any American company would be thrilled about."
Gaumont's pilot scripts in development include "Raising Mom and Dad," a sitcom with Fox; "Club Paradise," a one-hour series with NBC, and "Home to Rent," an animated series for CBS' Saturday morning lineup.
"It is proof that when you have the right network executive in America and the right European executives and a willingness to cooperate, there is really no issue about the nationality," Ginsburg said.
There was nothing particularly French about Gaumont's pitch, nor will the pilot look as if it is a French production. Ginsburg's experience as a producer at Columbia and New World gave Gaumont an edge over other foreign companies and allowed her to use her U.S. contacts in the networks.
"Because our strategy is not to be just a French production company and not to be just in the co-production business, but to work as a studio, it gives us the flexibility to produce whatever we can sell," Ginsburg said.
Gaumont landed in the U.S. television market three years ago with the production of the syndicated series "Highlander"--also a first for a European company. Although it had worked as a co-production partner on network late-night movie series such as "Crime Time After Prime Time" on CBS and "Counter Strike" on the USA Network, Gaumont Television President Christian Charret said "Highlander" was a benchmark, giving Gaumont U.S. prime-time exposure for the first time.
"Highlander" has been sold throughout the world and has spawned an animated series on USA.
Whether any of Gaumont's pilots become series this year, the company will be back pitching the networks next season.
Gaumont's small breakthrough, however, will not open the floodgates for non-American producers to enter the U.S. networks or send U.S. development executives scuttling to Europe looking for the next "Roseanne" or "ER." European producers must find their own way into the system, Ginsburg said.
"Beck" is "not non-U.S. programming," she said. "It wasn't a case of the networks looking outside the U.S. for programs; I came inside."