PARIS - To create a French version of "Law & Order: Criminal
Intent," writers had to do much more than simply translate scripts
from the hit TV show. They adapted scenes to reflect the Napoleonic
legal code. They agonized over the set, trying to make it gritty
like the American one, but also sleek, like modern Paris police
stations. The French set designer cluttered desks with papers and
trash, but built curving walls meant to evoke the feet of the Eiffel
"We took out any reference to the mob," says writer Franck Ollivier.
"We don't really have that here." He jokingly adds: "Unlike
Americans, we are all nice people."
This production - a French replica of the hit NBC drama - 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 in some markets and soaring for new
scripts to film. That's prompting U.S. studios to offer localized
versions of their tried and true hits to foreign customers, touting
them as an option that's faster than starting entirely from scratch.
Even though Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order," has experience
overseeing 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 nearly two years in
the making, as producers on both sides of the Atlantic endured
casting disputes, cultural tensions and the occasional debate over
When Television Francaise 1 SA, France's largest broadcaster,
premieres the series later this year, Mr. Wolf will have much at stake.
Though two spinoffs of the series are thriving, 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.
NBC Universal, which produces three U.S. versions of "Law & Order"
in partnership with Mr. Wolf's company, is just one of a pack of
media behemoths pursuing foreign customers. Sony Pictures
Television, which first experimented with localizing in the 1990s,
has made a blitz of deals in the past 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's also a section on
concocting realistic-looking blood for murder victims ("flour is a
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 Lombardini, president of Alma Productions, the company
producing the series for TF1. "Absolutely nothing has been left to
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 for TF1, Mr. Wolf had
to give up his executive producer title, settling instead for
"artistic consultant." It was, says Leslie Jones, NBC Universal's
head of international format sales, "the negotiation of the
Preproduction started in October 2005 when a team of French
producers arrived in New York for what Mr. Wolf deemed a weeklong
"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 50 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 90-minute
installments, says Takis Candilis, 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 $150,000 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 Mr. Wolf and Ms.
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
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.
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 green light 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 and culture. NBC's Ms. Jones
says they had to make changes in how the show addresses romantic
affairs, since having a mistress is less shocking to French
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
The pair arrived on the set around 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 BlackBerry 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 workweek 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.
Following the sale of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" to TF1, NBC
Universal has set up 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 United Kingdom 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
TF1 plans to start airing "Paris Enquetes Criminelles" sometime
between May and July and Ms. Jones continues to troubleshoot.
Despite the production bible, for instance, the French have had a
hard time "making good blood," she says. Lately there have been
lengthy discussions about 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 Rigaux 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
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."