Studiocanal Ramps Up Its Feel-Good Lineup With Canal Plus Original Series ‘UFOs’

As COVID-19 looks set to roil far into 2021, Studiocanal, one of Europe’s biggest film-TV powerhouses, is ramping up what it sees as its own antidote to troubled times: A sales slate arsenal of feel-good, light series answering a market need for escapist fare.

Drawing ever more from its network of Studiocanal-owned companies around Europe, in December Studiocanal confirmed sales rights to romantic drama “Two Lives,” from Spain’s RTVE and Bambu Producciones. In January, ITV premieres “Finding Alice,” a second chance in life dramedy starring “Bodyguard’s” Keeley Hawes, from the U.K.’s Red Production Company.

Next week, on Jan. 11, French pay TV giant Canal Plus premieres one of its most anticipated Creations Originales of the year, retro French mystery dramedy “UFOs,” produced by François Ivernel at Paris-based Montebello Productions.

“There’s a clear demand for escapism in drama due to the current circumstances,” said Beatriz Campos, Studiocanal senior VP, global sales and production financing, TV series.

“Within this trend there is also a big demand for original and unique content and ‘UFOs’ ticks all of these boxes,” she added.

Produced by Working Title, feel-good romantic comedy “What’s Love Got to do With It?,” a feature film, proved one of Studiocanal’s best-selling movies at November’s American Film Market – indeed its biggest sales hits overall.

Light-hearted dramas such as “UFOs,” Canneseries opener “La Flamme,” “Finding Alice” and “Pros and Cons” are “traveling extremely well internationally,” with deals to be announced very soon, Campos promised.

Directed by Antony Cordier (“Gaspard at the Wedding”), “UFOs” was of course conceived years before COVID-19. It may well, however, anticipate many of the show appeals that some companies are talking up – and likely to talk up all the more as pandemic fatigue sets in – when bringing their latest shows to the market.

One is escapism – immersion in another fully-constructed world of its own. Set to the immortal strains of Petula Clark’s “La nuit n’en finit plus,” “UFOs” begins with a turquoise blue car pulling up, out of which steps a salesman in a bright green suit with a long collared shirt, flared trousers, kipper tie, sideburns and bouffant hair. This is 1978 France, a world of aviator glasses, patterned shirts and near fridge-sized computers.

There’s also a lightness of tone. High drama is played to comic effect, and the audience is ensured from “UFOs’” first three sequences, that there will be little on-screen tragedy of real consequence. The presence of a possible UFO in the series’ second scene manifests itself via a shower of flamingos. Cut to Didier Mathure, a brilliant space engineer, whose career would appear to literally go up in smoke as the French Space Agency rocket he’s spent 10 years building explodes on take off. The fall out is, however, comically mild.

Didier is transferred to GEPAN, a real-life French government UFO department populated by a bevy of odd-balls with hearts of gold. The move proves his salvation.

Variety talked about “UFOs” to Campos and Ivernel, well known while CEO of Pathé U.K. for producing “The Queen,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Bright Star,” “127 Hours,” “The “Iron Lady” and “Philomena.”

Creating “UFOs,” which must have been way before COVID-19, were you still responding to any sense of market demand, or opportunity to reinvent the comedy half hour in France, or maybe neither of these?

Ivernel: Neither, actually. I was attracted to the core of the story, to its tone and creators [Clémence Dargent, Martin Douaire]. I can’t say I saw it as plain comedy. I was really excited about a series on UFO investigators inspired by French Space Agency unit GEPAN, whose job was to investigate unidentified aerospace phenomena. GEPAN really existed and still exists today.

What about the setting: France in 1978?

Ivernel: I was attracted to the era, to its charm, a period where the benefits of technological progress were still regarded as high. We thought the world would get better.

The series revels in bygone cutting-edge high-tech, which now seems so comically archaic such as GEPAN’s computer….

Ivernel: It was a strange world indeed. You were only allowed to use the computer on special occasions and the main frame was very mysterious, handled by a chief technician and requiring huge power. Our story is a kind of dramedy, or a story told with tongue in cheek humor…

It’s also sci-fi. We’re you attracted to this mix because it could be quite original?

Campos: Yes. “UFOs” deftly touches sci-fi space, which is definitely a trend we see growing, but which is unique in a comedy drama series.

GEPAN asks if we are alone in the universe. The series appears to take this in a metaphorical sense, in a story about a buttoned, ultra-rationalist, Didier, who awakes to the possibility of alien life, maybe, but especially to the lives of others, and people he doesn’t understand, his ex-wife and children…

Ivernel: Absolutely. That is why there is an “s” in “UFOs.” It’s about how we’re all extraterrestrial to each other, we are all foreign to each other. Didier’s trapped inside himself, but starts investigating other dimensions of the universe, most especially his own life and understanding of his ex-wife and his children.

In this sense, it looks like something of a second-chance-in-life narrative turning on an Alpha Male scientist who’s really a man child and has to grow up….

Ivernel: Yes, very much. Didier’s life has exploded with his rocket. He’s taken divorce hard. It’s a lot about a second chance in life which harks back to ‘40s screwball comedy: They were in love. Now, they aren’t. But they’ll fall in love again and re-marry.

Campos: “UFOs” makes the audience feel good: Second chances in life are important and laughter is still a much-needed remedy on our screens.

There’s an extraordinary early scene in the Arctic, where a young Inuit girl discovers the salesman’s suit pin. The sets studiously – and often comically – recreate period detail. There a sense that this is pretty high-end half hour entertainment. 

Campos: The amazing production values and skilful execution are not that common in this genre. “UFOs” sets a very high bar. Canal Plus backing allows series to scale up, realizing their artistic ambitions because of bigger budgets.

Ivernel: We shot in France, at the Col du Mont Cenis on the France-Italy border in the Alps at 2,000 meters [6,800 feet], a big complex shoot last February. It was very cold, but not cold enough. We found a man who built a village of igloos but they melted the first time round.

The real scene-stealer, however, is the flamingo.

Ivernel: It was one of the challenges. At first I thought we’d have to use animatronics or 3D. But we found a bird specialist who borrowed two pink flamingos from friends at a zoo. When born in captivity, these animals can become very close to people. So the flamingo just walked around the set like a cat.

Emiliano Granada contributed to this article. 

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