Production in France – French connection docs get new prominence in primetime: French broadcasters are realizing the non-fiction genre can attract big numbers, and are giving up more – and higher profile – space on their schedules…

French doc industry weighs in at over 1 billion francs...
July 1, 1998

French doc industry weighs in at over 1 billion francs

It could be said that the almost moribund French doc industry survived the `80s thanks in part to the creation of public broadcaster La Sept. Establishing a firm beachhead in the early `90s with the arrival of France 3 and La Sept-ARTE, the industry grew even more with the 1995 launch of La Cinquième, driving what became an explosion in the French market during 1995 and 1996.

The Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), a body which collects, administrates and distributes government subsidies allocated to radio and television production (representing 16% of French documentary financing), publishes annual statistics which provide an overview of the structure of the French radio and television market. The CNC’s data reveals that French documentary production is still being done mainly by the public service television channels. Orders from France 3, La Cinquième and arte represent 60% of the hourly volume produced domestically.

In 1997, France produced 1,153 hours of documentary programming (down 3.5% from 1996), for an estimated total of 1.2 billion francs (down 4.9%). Thus, after two years of strong growth in `95 and `96, the French doc market now appears to be stabilizing. In 1997, the total investment by French broadcasters in docs dropped slightly (by 6.5%) to just over 500 million francs, or 42.8% of the total expenditures.

Although the financial investments in docs may have leveled off, documentaries have, in fact, come to play a more important role for broadcasters. Documentary genres, writing, formatting and production are evolving at a high speed. Previously neglected or relegated to late-night slots, docs are now perceived as a strategic programming element. French broadcasters are becoming more convinced that documentaries can bring in big audiences.

France 3: feature-length docs in prime time

Until recently, only ARTE regularly aired docs in primetime in France, with three weekly slots devoted to factual programming. Audience numbers for the Franco-German cultural channel, considered by some to be the true bastion of documentary programming in France, remain closely guarded.

Given the limited opportunity for feature-length docs, the launch early this year of a monthly primetime doc slot on France 3 became an event of premier importance. Last summer, Patrick de Carolis, a well-known journalist from current affairs shows like Zone Interdite (which he created for m6), took over the direction of documentaries for France 3. Carolis’ first task at France 3 was to put in place the monthly Tuesday night doc slot, entitled Hors-Série.

‘For years, documentaries lacked a true place to express themselves. Dedicating a primetime slot was the first thing that had to be done,’ says Carolis.

Along with Hors-Série, which he says will be given time to establish itself in the time slot, Carolis intends to feature projects from auteur filmmakers and showcase more than just current affairs docs.

To produce the slotted ten or more feature-length docs per year, France 3 has increased its documentary coproduction budget to 110 million francs from 100 million. The five films aired to date have yielded audiences of between three and five million viewers, or an approximate 16% share, which is in line with the channel’s typical prime-time share numbers (between 16% and 17%). Five more films, which will be broadcast starting this September, have already been ordered by France 3.

France 2: another big night of docs?

Besides the gamble France 3 is taking with primetime feature-length docs, France Télévision’s other channel, France 2, is looking at creating a Thursday night slot centered on education and knowledge.

For the last several years, France 2 has aired Envoyé Spécial, a Thursday night primetime news magazine, in what is now one of the major `appointment’ slots in the schedule that night. In the proposed new Thursday night block, the broadcaster would group together two other weekly documentary slots after Envoyé Spécial: Ligne de vie, a social issues strand (which is currently suffering on Sunday nights against tf1′s feature film), and La 25ième Heure (a slot devoted to `hard-to-classify’ purchased docs which are difficult to broadcast in more traditional slots).

With these three slots broadcast one after the other, France 2 would give docs a level of visibility currently lacking on the channel. This would also represent a further step for France 2 towards realizing its mandate with regard to documentary programming, with a 30% increase over last year’s doc budget (from 72 million to 100 million francs). The budget increase, however, primarily reflects the cost of re-stocking the broadcaster’s Sunday afternoon animal programming slot with French product.

TF1: coproductions in association with Odyssée

The veteran of the French specialty channels, Planète – which has four million subscribers in France, Poland, Italy and Germany – has long been a dependable coproduction partner for French doc producers, with investments averaging 250,000 francs per hour. Odyssée, however, has become Planète’s chief competitor in the cable and satellite arena. Odyssée is part of the tps satellite package launched in January 1997, which also houses TF1, France Télévision and M6. Odyssée is currently broadcasting to 450,000 tps (satellite) subscribers, plus approximately 400,000 Lyonnnaise Câble subscribers. The broadcaster is currently negotiating with France Télécom for the resumption of its programming on France Télécom’s cable networks to an additional 350,000 subscribers.

Headed by Gérard Carreyrou, a journalist who was previously the editorial director of TF1, Odyssée broadcasts approximately 500 hours of doc programming per year, bought on the French and international markets for between 10,000 francs and 20,000 francs per hour.

To increase its supply of original programming, which is an essential part of the Odyssée brand image, the specialty channel has just entered the coproduction arena. With an annual budget of 36 million francs, however, Odyssée can only invest 50,000 francs or less per hour. Due to this financial restriction, TF1 has decided to put together a group strategy to support Odyssée. The commercial general interest channel, which currently does not air any docs, will begin investing between 300,000 francs and 600,000 francs per hour in general interest docs with themes in line with the editorial content of both TF1 and Odyssée. TF1 will hold video rights to the programs and have the liberty of creating a monthly broadcast slot for them once they have aired on Odyssée. With the help of TF1, Odyssée could be coproducing around 30 hours this year, and expect to reach a plateau of around 509 hours of coproduced projects by the year 2000.

Canal+ testing docu-soaps

For the past several years, docs on the Canal+ summer schedule have been few and far between. This year, however, the scrambled channel is devoting a weekly primetime slot to mainly foreign-bought documentary films. In 1997, Canal+ significantly reduced its investment in docs, from 56 million francs to 42 million francs, forcing them to look for ways to stretch their dollars further.

Canal+ has decided to follow the lead of many of their European counterparts by switching the focus of their factual commitment to docu-soaps. These documentary serials, long the rage in the u.k., are now the new darlings of the French market, to the extent that arte decided last spring to put out a call for proposals which could be turned into serials for their schedule.

This summer, Canal+ is offering viewers a chance to explore the genre with five examples of the much talked-about docu-soaps: En croisière sur le Galaxy (The Cruise, at 12×26′), À l’auto-école (Driving School, at 5×26′) and À l’école véterinaire (Vets’ School, at 5×26′), all three of which are produced by the bbc. In addition to those titles, the broadcaster will also carry Au zoo de Melbourne (8×26′), an animal serial produced by Docstar and ABC Australia, and À la fête forraine de Blackpool (5×26′), produced by u.k.-based Double Exposure.

‘If these programs are a huge success, then we’ll start to ask ourselves [if it might be worthwhile to think] about producing our own,’ says Catherine Lamour, director of documentaries for Canal+.

Production: France takes on the international market

French producers are well established in their home market, although they tend to be widely dispersed, and to some degree, structurally fragile because of the license fee schedules of domestic broadcasters and funders. ‘ We’re bankrolling the broadcasters,’ explains Jean Labib of Paris-based La Compagnie des Phares et Balises. ‘The payment schedule of the broadcasters and the cnc, which generates significant financing, weigh heavily on our books.’

There are 327 documentary producers in France, with the top 36 accounting for 50% of orders. In 1997, foreign investment in French productions, coproductions and pre-sales increased by 18% to over 93 million francs, or 8% of total costs.

France is considered mainly a documentary producer rather than an importer. Notable exceptions to this rule are Canal+ and La Cinquième, which acquire at 60,000 francs per hour, and pre-buy for between 150,000 and 200,000 francs, depending on the number of broadcasts (generally three or four multiple broadcasts over four years). The other exceptions are the specialty cable and satellite channels.

The best way to access the French market remains coproduction, an approach towards which French broadcasters and producers remain very open. Unlike the standard in other European countries, like the u.k. or Germany where broadcasters have been known to finance 100% of program costs, French producers have always had to source between 30% and 50% of their financing abroad. The source for that money has always been either pre-sales or coproductions.

‘The French system encourages us to outdo ourselves,’ explains Yves Janneau, a producer with Paris-based Les Films d’Ici. ‘The German system, for example, finances films to 110%. The downside of this very comfortable situation for producers is that German product doesn’t circulate much and has a tendency to stagnate due to being impenetrable to outside influence.’

‘French broadcasters haven’t understood how the market has evolved,’ says Gédéon’s Stéphane Millière. ‘They’re still in slot mode, not in film mode, so they only finance 25% to 30% of the product which contributes so strongly to their brand image, as for example France 2 did with Alexandrie.’

Traditionally, French production companies have had a strong presence in the area of social issues, history and culture themes in general. For example, Les Films d’Ici is currently producing a feature-length documentary entitled La Chaconne d’Auschwitz (The Auschwitz Chaconne) for France 2, which will be shown on Hors-Série. The film, produced by Michel Dearon, follows the story of an orchestra of deported women after the Second World War. To help offset a budget of 3.5 million francs, Chaconne is being coproduced with Belgium and Holland, and has been pre-sold to hbo for us$50,000.

Another example of making the most of coproduction is the BBC/La Compagnie des Phares et Balises project, Journey to the Far Right (2×52′), which looks at Populism in Europe. The budget for Journey to the Far Right is 4 million francs. The producers are Nick Fraser and Christina Povéda.

Other trends in the French market include increasing thematic diversification, as well as a new tendency towards series versus one-off programming. French producers are also investing in new genres like wildlife, popular science, youth documentaries and exploration. Jean-Louis Burgat of Léo Productions, for example, is adapting bbc’s landmark Animal Zone for France 2. Agnès Vicariot of Télé Image Création has just completed a 2.4 million franc coproduction with nhk entitled Real Life, Artificial Life. Gédéon is producing Les nouveaux mondes (10×90′), a doc magazine coproduced with Canada’s TVOntario and Discovery Europe, with a seven million franc investment from France 2 to help offset a total budget of 14 million francs.

Distribution: docs represent 19% of sales

A study was conducted this year (based on 1996 activity) by the cnc/tvfi (an association of French distributors and the Institut National de l’audiovisuel), which found that the largest market for French docs is Western Europe, which accounts for 49% of exports, followed by North America (19%), Asia-Oceania (12%), and Latin America (10%). In 1996, documentary product made up 19% of the total 464 million francs French programs earned through international sales.

Within Europe, the German-speaking territories of Germany and Austria were the biggest consumers of French product. Combined, the two countries account for 24% of European sales. The next largest market is found in Italy (15%), followed by Scandinavia (14%) and Spain (11%).

As is the case in many territories, it is French natural history programming which enjoys the highest demand from foreign markets, especially when it is packaged in a series of 6 to 13 episodes. That formula spells success for a company like Marathon International, a Paris-based producer/distributor which produces such programming to supply its own catalogue. ‘In 1997, we derived 42% of our distribution revenues from documentaries,’ claims managing director, Olivier Brémond.

Martine Couralet, who handles international sales for Télé Images, recently scored a hit with the Untamed Africa series, a 12 x 60-minute series which was sold in 140 countries, and gave rise to two other series: Untamed Amazonia and Untamed Australia.

Similarly, Europe Images has been successful with Léo Productions’ wildlife series (which are now coproduced with Discovery) and Gédéon’s discovery programs. Gédéon’s film on the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria yielded 700,000 francs in combined sales to the u.k., the u.s. and Scandinavia.

With a catalogue of over 2,000 hours of doc programming, Europe Images netted foreign revenues of 35 million francs in 1997. ‘But there is also a market for one-off programs and more in-depth or narrowly-targeted programs,’ says Peter Worsley, director of sales operations. ‘The market is evolving and there are more and more arts and culture slots, especially on cable and satellite.’

Doc & Co., a distribution company that represents the catalogues of seven independent production companies who are also share-holders, mines a catalogue of 300 hours of historical, social issue, and arts & culture programming. Headed by Silvère Moreau, Doc & Co. signed a cdn$210,000, two-year output deal with broadcaster tfo (the French face of Canada’s TVOntario) at the last mip-tv. This year, Doc & Co. scored sales of 800,000 francs on Paris-based Archipel 33′s Corpus Christi (12 x60-minute) series exploring the Gospels.

La Cinquième and La Sept awaiting the merger

In a decision inherited from France’s previous government, the merger of La Cinquième and La Sept, the knowledge and education arm of the French-German cultural channel arte, is now awaiting submission into law by France’s Minister of Culture, Catherine Trautmann.

‘The situation is clear,’ says Jean Mino, assistant general manager of channels and programs for La Cinquième. ‘The merger has been established in principal, but it must be put into practice by the legislation – which has yet to be written – and for which the Parliamentary discussion and vote keep being pushed back each month. The law probably won’t be voted on until Spring 1999.’

A single entity, but two distinct channels

The merger of La Cinquième and La Sept into a single legal entity will not dramatically affect the activities of the two channels. Specifically, the merger will provide economies of scale in some administrative areas, but not in the programming area. For example, the groups responsible for the sale of programming rights have been combined and were working as one unit at the last mip-tv.

‘We will have a single entity which will produce and broadcast two brands,’ says Mino. ‘Programming for the two channels will remain distinct,’ adds Jean Rozat, head of projects for La Sept. ‘Each of the channels must maintain its specificity, and its programming and broadcast rationale. In other words, both channels will remain autonomous in terms of buying, pre-buying and coproductions, with separate, dedicated staff.’

At La Cinq, Michelle Vallon is head of production, while Ann Julienne is responsible for acquisitions and international coproductions.

For La Sept, Thierry Garrel heads up the documentary unit, with Marthe Vertueux responsible for buying documentary product.

Controversial legislation

It’s important to point out that the proposed legislation, which affects the entire French broadcasting landscape, represents a head-on blow to the interests of several very powerful groups. Specifically, with the proposed law Trautmann had hoped to limit the influence in the communications and broadcast sectors of such industrial groups as Bougyes, la Générale des Eaux (now Vivenci), and La Lyonnaise des Eaux, utilities whose operations depend to some extent on contracts from government and local authorities.

However, with little support from a government unwilling to confront these powerful lobbies, Trautmann has been forced again and again to postpone the presentation of her proposed law before the Assembly.

Somewhat removed from these political wranglings, La Cinquième and La Sept are conducting business as usual while awaiting a resolution to the Kafka-esque dilemma. ‘For the moment, we still have two distinct entities, led by one person, Jérôme Clément,’ explains Jean Mino. ‘However, we have already begun to prepare for the merger, with certain administrative functions now being handled by a single individual.’

Collaborating on an ad hoc basis

Notwithstanding their autonomy, the two channels may continue to coproduce programming as they have done in the past, but always in keeping with the editorial mandate of each channel.

However, such collaborative programs must be attractive to two separate audiences, since La Cinquième broadcasts only during the day, while arte is on at night. Yet, with ad hoc events, the two channels can find common ground. Recently, during the World Cup, arte broadcast the Carnavalcade parade which took place in Saint-Denis – the city on the outskirts of Paris where the Stade de France was built – while La Cinq aired several documentaries exploring public interest in the World Cup and the work of troubled youths who helped organize it.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.