The statistics boggle the mind. Over the course of the past 20 years, the show titled Love Bugs (Un gars, une fille in its French original version) has been exported to 30 countries and remains to this day one of the titles that has been the most adapted on the planet. To this day, some 5,000 episodes have been produced in Greek, Italian, Turkish, Swedish, German, Arabic, Spanish and Russian among several other languages. By comparison, the original Quebec version broadcast by Radio-Canada starting in 1997 counts only 130 episodes. Creator Guy A. Lepage and the Executive Director of Groupe Avanti, Monic Lamoureux, got together to make sense of this adventure that is as fascinating as it was unpredictable.
When did you realize that your show had international potential?
G: I scripted a local show and I initially thought that it would be difficult to sell outside of Montreal because it catered to the people of the “Plateau” [Mont-Royal]. To my great surprise, the 35-year-old couple—who didn’t know if they wanted to have kids, to lease or to own, to be self-employed or employees, to get married or not…—, well, the same couple can be found in Barcelona, Moscow and Stockholm asking the same questions. One day, after we had aired only five episodes, Arabelle Pouliot-Di Crescenzo asked us if she could sell our format internationally. We were convinced that it would never work, but she was soon back with seven or eight letters of interest from different countries.
What are your sales arguments?
M: Our production costs are very low. Shooting is a breeze. All you need are two actors, a reduced camera team and three location spots per episode. Everything is done in sequence shots, which was somewhat of a precursor in the 1990s. And our narratives have aged well. Today, episodes that we wrote 22 years ago are being shot in French-speaking Africa.
“When I supervise the beginnings of a new version on site, I am able to tell whether or not it works without even understanding the language.”
Who were the main stakeholders in the foreign sales process?
G: Arabelle and Monic handle all of the agreements. They defend the project more pugnaciously and with more ferocity than I do. They are the ones who say “No, that does not pass with us!” In each version, the graphic elements, the montage, the sequence shots, the interplay and the rhythm must be recognizable. When I supervise the beginnings of a new version on site, I am able to tell whether or not it works without even understanding the language. Seeing as I know what an actor needs to say, I can tell when he’s wrong or when he’s overplaying.
What are the steps involved in the canvassing process?
M: I send the first five episodes, along with the music, to set the tone. Once the interested parties have signed an option, they receive the basic kit and can reach out to a broadcaster in their market. Next, we sign the licence fees with a right of review and we also handle the exploitation rights regarding derivative products. For example, they cannot distribute the show on YouTube or elsewhere as they see fit. We control all of those aspects.
In what languages are the episodes included in the basic kit subtitled?
G: In English and in French. We had a version in international French produced to enable a local adaptor to fully understand the story. For example, where we had a gag on politician Jean Charest, the translator replaced the name by a blank and entered the following note: “Use a politician who is presently controversial in your country because of improper behaviour.” You place a name and the joke works out.
Why do you insist on having a right of review?
G: Our very first experience abroad was with the Flemish version—a version in which we were not at all involved. When we watched it, we didn’t find it to be very good. It was not funny. The guy and the girl were so much alike that they looked like they were brother and sister. When they kissed, the only thing we wanted to do in reaction was to change the channel. We were freaking out! Luckily, almost no one talked about it. From that moment on, we understood that we needed to be on site to supervise the production. At the beginning, I’d go every time and Arabelle would come with me. Today, she goes alone. She spends seven to ten days on site to attend the first rehearsals, the three days of shooting, the montage and the mixing. We stay on site until they have successfully produced an episode on their own.
To what extent do you get involved?
G: We trust the producer with respect to choosing the director and the team. However, the choice of the couple must be approved by us. And if we don’t like the result, we can refuse that it be broadcast. We can also decide not to renew for another season. At the beginning, I used to intervene all of the time on the set whenever a problem arose. But later on, I realized that they were expecting me to come up with the solution. It’s a really bad idea. You have to let actors, producers and directors of photography go all the way through with their ideas. They are competent people who need to correct their own mistakes. I can’t start getting on their backs and on everyone’s nerves.
“We produced 130 episodes for the Quebec market, whereas they are up to 435 in Turkey.”
What proportion of the original texts can be adapted by the local producers?
M: During the first year, they must use 65% of our texts. Obviously, when the Quebec version mentions hockey, they can replace hockey with football (soccer). A joke that we told in the bedroom can be told in the living room. Once they’ve reached the end of our texts, they gain the right to create their own. We produced 130 episodes for the Quebec market, whereas they are up to 435 in Turkey. In Greece, it’s such a resounding success that they chose to use the same actors at an older age, so viewers have seen them age before their eyes.
Why did the French version, which first aired in October 1999, open the door to international success?
G: In North America, television produces shows of a duration of 30 or 60 minutes interrupted by commercials. In France, the commercials are regrouped and air between two shows each hour. For Love Bugs, we would separate the show into three blocks: for example, the first in bed, the second at the pharmacy and the third at the mother-in-law’s place. In France, they broadcast one segment per day before the 8:00 PM news bulletin. It was an ingenious idea there! And it inspired several European countries that evolve in a similar context to do the same thing.
How much does the licence for Love Bugs cost?
M: The cost varies from one country to the next, depending on population numbers and the broadcaster’s popularity. It represents anywhere between 8% and 10% of the production budget. We aim high because we are top!
To what extent is the project profitable for a foreign producer?
G: A general format is a bargain, except if the project is very costly to produce seeing as the cost of the applicable 10% fee goes up. That being said, Love Bugs does not cost very much to shoot. It takes a team of 10 people, two actors and three very simple locations per episode.
M: It’s a steal! Everyone recognizes it. What we sell is a turnkey formula.
Would you be able to reproduce a similar success once again?
M: The formats that sell best abroad are surprises. You can’t write for an international audience. If you try, your work will not bode well with your local audience. Moreover, when we began selling internationally, Guy continued writing the Quebec version of the scripts and didn’t change a word even though he felt that foreign countries were interested in his work.
G: Several people have suggested that I should develop international formats, but you can’t develop an international format. You need to produce a project that will work locally. Then, people elsewhere will decide if it can work for them. If you are intent on generating volume throughout the world, you’re better to focus on cartoons, reality TV or gaming shows.
“The formats that sell best abroad are surprises. You can’t write for an international audience.”
What advice would you give to a team seeking to sell a format?
G: You absolutely need to supervise what you are selling. It’s a bit like a horse: you need to keep it under close rein and train it. If the horse listens well and has imagination, then you can give it a bit of slack. People buy your expertise, your trials and errors. I’m the one who made the most mistakes with Love Bugs. I do not sell my show and my ideas for people to make the same mistakes as I did. Their first show should be better than mine was. If that’s not the case, well there is a problem.
M: The mistake that we did not make was to sell it on a first-come, first-served basis just to make money. The further you go, the harder it gets. We no longer get to make mistakes. In the future, we’d like to enter the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Asian countries and even the United States. The adventure is far from over!