Marathon’s Race to the Top

Zero to US$6 million in seven years is a mad dash when you're talking about the annual sales revenues for an upstart distribution company - especially when about 60% of those revenues come from documentaries....
September 1, 1998

Zero to US$6 million in seven years is a mad dash when you’re talking about the annual sales revenues for an upstart distribution company – especially when about 60% of those revenues come from documentaries.

Though Paris-based Marathon International has had a great start, with growth of 50% a year over the last four years, it also has a strategy for a long, grueling race.

Founded in 1990 by Olivier Brémond, some consider Marathon already a grandfather in the unsteady French distribution scene, but Brémond says Marathon has just stepped off the starting blocks. The key to continued success, he says, lies in a marketing strategy focused on carefully selecting programming for niches with many international slots and few competitors. This strategy has led Marathon to put most of its effort into building a strong wildlife roster, with a secondary emphasis on docs for children. Marathon’s catalog is rounded out by history, science, discovery and current affairs docs.

‘That’s the analysis we’ve done,’ says Brémond. ‘I think distribution works best with niche programs, outside of the deals of the major companies. We thought that for those kinds of documentaries there were slots available, and not so many programs on offer, so there was no reason for the broadcasters not to buy them.’

Buy them they did. Over the last eight years, Marathon has built up a catalog of over 500 hours of programming (including fiction) and has sold docs to more than 150 broadcasters and home video distributors around the world, including The Learning Channel (U.S.), The Discovery Channel (U.S.), ARD and VOX (Germany), SVT (Sweden), KBS (Korea), NHK (Japan), RTVE (Spain), NOS (Netherlands) and France’s Canal+, France 2 and TF1.

Marathon International didn’t make these sales alone: Brémond and partner Pascal Breton started Marathon Productions at the same time as the distribution company, and many of the broadcasters to which Marathon sells were coproducers with Marathon Productions. Thus the growth of the distribution company is inexorably linked to the growth of the production company. In the beginning, Marathon Productions had yet to produce, so Marathon distributed docs by local prodcos, such as Paris-based XL Productions (now owned by TeleImage). These days, Marathon mostly distributes its own programs.

The close link between the two companies blurs the line between production and distribution, as Marathon is only interested in producing docs that fit its distribution catalog. It also tends to arrange coproductions with an eye to their effect on eventual distribution. While this link sets Marathon apart from others in the field, a strong emphasis on marketing and advertising further distinguishes the company.

‘To be strong in marketing is very important. I would say marketing is as important as the programming is,’ says Brémond. ‘Especially for documentaries, because the impact of the programs is not so important for the stations. For the general broadcasters, documentaries are not number one, so they choose mostly on the marketing perspective – more than they look at every pilot or every minute of the programs.’

Brémond backs this up with a marketing budget for Marathon International of $150,000 to $200,000 per year, versus an annual production budget at Marathon Productions of $3 to 4 million. As he says, the marketing budget is only about 5% of production ‘but some people spend nothing on marketing.’

Brémond sees advertising as an investment that takes five or six years to pay off, so Marathon is just starting to see some return on its advertising dollars now. ‘We didn’t just go to festivals or expect people to come to us because we get great programs,’ Brémond explains, ‘They come to us because we advertise, we make promos, and we’ve tried to build a brand, an identity.’

For Brémond, building that brand recognition is so important, he’s willing to lose money doing it. A few years ago, Brémond took a leap of faith – something he says he doesn’t do very often – and tackled the children’s market. ‘At the beginning, we spent quite a lot of money marketing those children’s documentaries,’ he says, ‘but they were not well known, they didn’t exist on the market and we didn’t know at all if they would sell.

‘So we spent quite a lot of money and they didn’t sell in the beginning. It took a year before it started. Now we have 35 or 40 broadcasters who regularly buy those programs from us.’ Brémond says the children’s docs which lost money were just part of the process. ‘Sometimes on one specific title, you’re going to lose money altogether – including on the marketing – but you’re going to build a brand, and I think it’s very important, especially for documentaries, to have a strong identity.’

Marathon’s focus on marketing does more than sell docs though – it makes its producers happy too. Catherine Viau of Montreal, Canada’s Via le Monde has been involved in coproductions with Marathon since its birth, and she’s impressed by its international presence, given its relatively small size.

‘I’ve been to MIP Asia and I’ve done almost all the big markets in the last ten years, and I’ve noticed the tangible presence of Marathon everywhere,’ says Viau. ‘I felt that the image of Marathon was positive in the all the different markets I’ve been to.’

Viau is working with Marathon on two children’s docs: Ma Maison! (My Beautiful House), 7 x 30-minutes, with a budget of about $380,000; and Ecoute Ma Musique (Listen to My Music), again 7 x 30-minutes, with approximately the same budget.

She started working with Brémond back when he was with Paris-based Gamma TV, initially drawn to him and others in the company because of their solid journalism background.

‘Historically, we liked them as journalists first,’ says Viau, ‘and then we grew to like them as business people.’ She says Marathon appeals to her as a distribution company because her company’s productions don’t get lost in a mammoth catalog and because Marathon’s consistent marketing efforts ensure her products are regularly resold, even years after production.

However, Viau wouldn’t run to Marathon with every project that comes her way. ‘I wouldn’t think of them to do a very strong political analysis of globalization, but I would think of them if I wanted to do a series about castles around the world – something more of a docutainment,’ she explains. Part of this decision is based on Viau’s knowledge of Marathon’s strengths and weaknesses, and part of it is based on Marathon’s reputation for demanding maximum control over its coproductions. Viau says when it comes to documentaries that are close to her heart, ‘I like to keep them to myself because I prefer to have full editorial control.’

In general though, Viau says Via le Monde is a ‘satisfied customer.’ She adds that ‘if you were to ask me about some other companies, I wouldn’t be able to say that.’

Viau sees Marathon as a trustworthy, careful company in a field where there are a lot of ‘fly-by-nighters,’ but Marathon has been growing awfully quickly of late. ‘I would say you have to be cautious of growth that’s too quick,’ she says, ‘but if Olivier keeps his roots secure, they will be sufficient for him to keep on working with less ambitious and more day-to-day productions in the future.’

See also:

Intro. – Feathering their Niches pg. 22

Close to Home: Vision Films pg. 25

Nose for Cash: Temple International pg. 26

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.