District 31: The Perfect Crime

Emergency measures, violence, fraud, and crimes of all kinds: The work of police investigators is steeped in trying and even overwhelming situations sometimes far removed from the daily lives of most. This harsh police reality is presented to us in every episode of District 31. How can a production reach and retain an audience by diving into challenging and far removed themes? Co-producer Michel Trudeau shares the secrets of District 31’s magnetism.

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Motives: The beginnings

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Producer Michel Trudeau — Photo : Lawrence Arcouette

The District 31 adventure began in 2016 when Fabienne Larouche and Michel Trudeau, of  AETIOS productions, were pondering a new project. “Fabienne had worked as a producer and screenwriter on the daily series Virginie until 2010, and then on 30 vies until 2016. Screenwriter Luc Dionne, who was working as a director on 30 vies, suggested the idea of a story about a local police station.” This idea aligned with Radio-Canada’s wish to continue broadcasting a daily program.

Dionne imagined an environment resembling a New York City police station where police officers and investigators work alongside one another. “Montreal’s local police department is centralized with several local stations, not divided into districts as is the case in the series. That is where it started,” Michel Trudeau explains.

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Filming outside — Photo : Karljessy

Evidence: The elements of success

Averaging roughly 1.8 million viewers per episode, District 31 is currently the most popular Canadian scripted series on Canadian television — an amazing success that only adds to AETIOS’ already impressive portfolio.

Is there a secret recipe that the team masters? Are there elements that guarantee the success of their productions? For Michel Trudeau, it is more about ingredients than a recipe. “Success resides foremost in having an audience. We must be able to reach as many people as possible. If you want to pique everyone’s interest, you must be interested in everyone. If the topics are too segmented, and the target audience too specific, it will be difficult to reach a large audience.”

Perhaps Michel Trudeau’s interest in universal themes comes from his former career — he was a psychologist prior to becoming a producer. “When an author writes about the human condition, he can talk about anything, because we can all relate to the human condition. Not everyone is a police officer, but everyone experiences drama in their lifetime, so it is easy to identify with [the stories told in the series].ˮ

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Actors Vincent-Guillaume Otis, Gildor Roy and Geneviève Brouillette — Photo : Karljessy

In addition to a story that should reach as many people as possible, several other ingredients are just as essential to television success, always according to Trudeau. “The other main element of success is creative talent. This includes writers, screenwriters, directors, and cast. Distribution is a bit like arranging colours on a painting. When you manage to cast actors who do the character’s nuances justice, it creates an exceptional mosaic. Ultimately, success also depends on the broadcaster. Obviously, Radio-Canada is an excellent partner since it reaches a large audience."

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Director Danièle Méthot with a group of actors — Photo : Karljessy

The officers: Teamwork

If talent is one of the keys to a series’ success, what exactly are we talking about? This know-how comes in different forms, as the producer explains: “What makes the difference with District 31 is mainly Luc Dionne’s talent as the author of the series. It was the same for the Unité 9 series written by Danielle Trottier, or for the ones written by Fabienne Larouche. Moreover, the word ‘aetios’ means author in Greek. The company’s mission is to put authors and screenwriters at the forefront. We work as a team at every step. To create a daily show, you need a particular skill set, but above all, you need individuals who work on it, at each stage. Each position in the production chain is an important expertise. It requires rigour, accuracy, and consistency. It is not something that you start overnight because the daily program is a type of series that has its own constraints and challenges.”

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Director Danièle Méthot gives instructions to actor Vincent-Guillaume Otis — Photo: Karljessy

Local station: Do more with less

Producing a daily scripted TV drama is a lot of work, and one has to be quick and efficient about it. Michel Trudeau emphasizes that “it is a very heavy workload with 5,000 script pages to write each year. The timeline is short, and we have budgetary parameters to stick to. An episode of a daily series such as District 31 is the cheapest to produce in television drama. There are constraints regarding the studio, the music, the number of characters, etc. The means are very limited, but it does not show. When comparing District 31 to another seasonal series, the difference in production is not visible, as if it were a big series costing over $500,000 per half hour.” Moreover, the producer notes that, despite all these financial and technical constraints, a daily series provides work for many people. “The daily program is the largest employer of technicians and actors in the field. It is somewhat of a paradox: it is the cheapest on the market when it comes to production budgets, but when it works, it pays the most.ˮ

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District 31’s Investigations — Photo : Karljessy

Bomb threat: An explosive success

Ever since it started airing in 2016 District 31 has become a favourite of Quebec viewers. This represents a great source of pride for Michel Trudeau and his team: “The series has won several awards at the Prix Gémeaux and other awards ceremonies, but for us the greatest pride is always the love of the general public. There is no creator without an audience. You cannot create only for yourself. The first source of pride is knowing that night after night, people are interested in watching what you do and that people are moved, they react, they express themselves. It becomes their show.” This success continues to grow as the series now broadcasts in its original version in France and Belgium.

Peacekeeper: The message

Although it reflects a certain reality, District 31 remains a fictional series. Can we learn anything from watching this type of entertainment? Michel Trudeau thinks so. “We currently live in a world that is very divided between the good guys — ‘those who think like me’ — and the bad guys — ‘those who don’t agree with me.’ Social networks contribute to this divide. Luc Dionne’s talent resides in depicting the solidarity that unites the 31’s officers and in illustrating all the nuances of crime. A ‘bad guy’ is sometimes a ‘good guy’ who has not had any luck. Sometimes the good guys can be a little bad, the bad guys can be good at certain times in their lives. Everything is subject to nuance. This is what the series shows: the difference between an honest citizen and a criminally charged individual, can sometimes be a detail, a moment when everything changes. An honest citizen can end up with a criminal record in an instant because he lost control.”

Perhaps this message of openness and understanding — which we really need right now — is another reason for the huge popularity of this daily program. At the very least, it is safe to say that District 31 has managed to be both memorable and outstanding. And in the world of detective series, one could call this the perfect crime.

District 31's fifth season airs Monday to Thursday at 7 p.m. (EST) on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. Previous seasons are available on ICI Tou.tv. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and its official website.

Myriam Kessiby
Depuis les 15 dernières années, Myriam a travaillé dans une panoplie de domaines liés aux médias: production cinématographique, télévision, radio, marketing, Internet, journalisme et plus. Elle est présente autant devant que derrière les caméras. Sa passion pour la création et son talent pour les entrevues l’ont emmené à contribuer au blogue de #VueSurLeCanada afin de raconter les histoires de succès des productions financées par le FMC. www.myriamkessiby.com
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