Factual in France: Growth continues, sales add up

After a slight dip in 1997, the documentary production industry in France experienced considerable growth in 1998. Statistics recently released from Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC) point to a 27% increase in the on-air volume of documentaries in 1998 compared...
June 1, 1999

After a slight dip in 1997, the documentary production industry in France experienced considerable growth in 1998. Statistics recently released from Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC) point to a 27% increase in the on-air volume of documentaries in 1998 compared to 1997, and a 22% increase when compared to 1996. The data is sourced from charting program subsidies coming from CNC’s general funding accounts, which redistributes money that’s raised on taxes against network revenues. The cumulative production financing total for docs in France went from Fr 1,189 billion in 1997 to 1,524 billion in 1998, a landmark 28% growth.

Over 90% of this activity is financed domestically, while foreign investments (including coproduction and pre-sales) make up as little as 8% (Fr 119 million) of the total. The share undertaken by French producers is in the order of 22% (Fr 331 million), whereas public support and other sources of financing – sponsorships and, to a lesser degree, distributors’ minimum guarantees – account for 16% (Fr 242 million) and 11% (Fr 167 million), respectively. It’s important to note that investment in documentaries by French broadcasters has risen significantly, with combined license fees worth Fr 663 million (or 43% of all budgets), effectively a 32% increase over 1997 and 23% more than in 1996.

The primary reason for this rise is an increase in orders from terrestrial networks and from the growing number of cable and satellite thematic services. The latter are no longer limited to second window status but now are seen by French producers as credible coproduction partners.


In France, public broadcasters have traditionally financed a substantial portion of documentary production. In 1998, the two French networks, France 2 and France 3, as well as ARTE and La Cinquième, accounted for more than 70% of all broadcaster investment (Fr 47 million). While the expenditures of Canal+ remained stable (at Fr 44 million) in the period, doc funding at TF1 and M6 increased considerably. In the case of TF1, investment rose from Fr 11 million in 1997 to 38 million last year. M6′s funding went from Fr 9 million to 19.5 million in the same period.

While M6′s commissions primarily concentrate on French social issues for primetime current affairs magazines, last year TF1 initiated a production partnership with the Odyssée specialty channel (both of which are linked via cable provider TPS), although this did not result in any regular slots for documentaries on TF1.

Nicolas Hulot’s Ushua-a, a prestigious primetime discovery program with substantial investment from TF1, is typically aired as a special events broadcast. Two editions of the programs were aired last season, resulting in good audience ratings. Initiated only last year, the airing of documentaries in network primetime is a particularly noteworthy trend.

Canal+, for example, has almost entirely rearranged its doc programming to primetime. ‘Over the past eight years, besides wildlife and discovery, which took up the entire early Sunday afternoon slot, our commissions have been essentially directed to the summer schedule,’ says Catherine Lamour, director of documentaries for Canal+. ‘In view of the increased competition in the market, this year we’re dropping this summer programming to concentrate on special event programs – films that are likely to underline the unique character of Canal+, and which we intend to program in primetime about once a month.’

This policy has led the pay-tv network to commission fewer hours of programming, although it hasn’t meant a decrease in its overall investment. The network is actively seeking to associate its branding efforts with more expensive documentary production (Fr 1.8 million compared to an average budget for French docs in the order of 1 million). The network’s average share of production budgets jumped to 54% in 1998, as opposed to 39% in 1997.

France’s educational network, France 3 (still the top commissioning client for French documentary producers, ahead of arte and La Cinquième), recently introduced a monthly primetime program slot called Hors-Série. Ratings for Hors-Série have averaged a 15% share of the market against an overall 17% share for the network. Patrick de Carolis, France 3′s director of documentaries and magazines, hopes to ‘gradually bring more ambitious documentaries to the airwaves, quite distinct from the general social issues content we initially explored.’

In 1998, doc commissions from France 2 increased more than 30%, primarily to stock its Sunday wildlife showcase slot (see wildlife Sidebar pg. 38). The network has been experimenting with early primetime scheduling for its Odyssée Bleue series (produced by Télé Image Nature), and with the primetime scheduling of an 80-minute film on the pyramids of Egypt (produced by Point du Jour). The audiences (a 14% and 24% share, respectively) essentially reflected the network average for these slots.

‘We did not want to program a regular primetime stream,’ says Nicolas Petitjean, France 2′s director of documentaries. ‘But we did want to give priority to lively programming that still offered us the chance to [air docs] when the films permitted.’ This summer, France 2 has decided to air a revamped version of a magazine produced by Gédéon, Les nouveaux mondes. Nine 70-minute broadcasts will be aired once a week in primetime. Also for primetime, both France 3 and ARTE have endeavored to introduce a more sophisticated style of the traditional U.K. docu-soap, which is largely new to the French market. Quickly turned out, the first two series were not a great success from the point of view of ratings, but in light of the fact it is a new genre which French producers have yet to master, both networks seem likely to persevere, even if France 3 drops the show’s serial format next season.

Beyond primetime, the French networks are attempting to enhance the editorial scope of programs. ‘We are going to review the programming of our wildlife films, which are threatened by strong competition during early Sunday afternoons,’ says Patrick de Carolis. ‘We also want to give new scope to our historical films, aired Friday night, by adapting a less encyclopedic sort of approach. As of next September, they [the historical films] will be presented under the title Ma vie est un roman, exploring great events through the biographies of extraordinary personalities.’

If the France 2 Sunday night social issue slot continues to be focused on French subjects, Nicolas Petitjean says he hopes to expand into the generally overlooked area of geopolitics.

Beyond the growing popularity of its Saturday primetime series Aventures Humaines, (see Sidebar pg. 35), pan-European cultural network ARTE recently aired the science magazine Pi = 3.14, its first regular coproduction with sister channel La Cinquième.

In the new season, ARTE has also included an early primetime slot called Voyage, Voyage, airing Thursday at 7 p.m.

‘The danger with this new slot is simply making touristic films,’ says Thierry Garrel, head of documentaries for La Sept/ARTE. ‘Even with limited budgets, because our supporting investments cannot exceed Fr 350,000 per film, we have at least succeeded in launching a collection which reflects the inspiration of established travel writers. In association with six producers, we have basically invented a documentary genre that has helped us to avoid the risks of unfocused programming. Of course, we can’t forget the constraints of early primetime. The content of these films is divided up into seven or eight subjects in such a way that viewers can tune in at any time. However, the director’s style and point of view ensures a certain continuity. The films have helped to reinforce the network’s visibility, which has increased, on average, from a 1.5% share to a 3% share of the market,’ says Garrel.

SPECIALTY AND THEMATIC CHANNELS: still the growing market but budgets are small

The dramatically heightened role of specialty channels on cable and satellite in the area of coproduction is one of the most promising new developments in the French documentary market.

In 1998, the specialty services almost doubled their investment in documentaries to Fr 49 million from 28 million in 1997. These investments translated into 235 hours of programming hours (compared to 103 the previous year), with the hourly average funding from specialty channels at just under Fr 210,000.

The average indicates the disparity between the specialties and France’s major terrestrial channels. La Cinquième’s average investment is in the Fr 320, 000/hour range, arte’s is 550,000, while the investment by France 2 and France 3 is approximately 600,000, and that of Canal + just under 1 million.

In 1998, two of the three leading specialty channels in documentary investment terms were Planète and Seasons, both of which are programmed by Multithématique. Created ten years ago, Planète, a ‘generalist documentary’ service, is the doyenne of France’s cable networks. In 1998, it coproduced some 40 hours of programming.

‘Our editorial line is based on what we do not do,’ says Jean-François Dion, associate director of Multithématiques. ‘We do not coproduce anything that is readily available in the market, for instance, wildlife, history or geography. We look for films which will help brand the service, original subjects with objective treatments.’ Currently, Planète is aired in France and also in Poland, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland. It has over five million subscribers, 2.7 million of whom are in France.

‘Production costs have decreased sharply,’ says Jean-François Dion. ‘With certain subjects, but not all, obviously, we can make very good films at a minimal cost.’ As such, Planète, which has historically tended to concentrate on coproductions, will now allocate funding according to three distinct formulas.

For pre-sales, the broadcaster will make an investment of Fr 100,000 per film in exchange for two broadcasts over three years. The investment reflects a shared financing formula and a limited first window for the service.

For coproductions, the investment is Fr 260,000 per film, 50% in the form of a license fee which buys the service an unlimited five-year broadcast cycle, including a two-year exclusivity clause in all its broadcast territories.

For exceptional coproduction investments of up to Fr 1 million per hour, reserved for big-budget international series, Planète takes all rights over ten years. The service has coproduced two series of this kind to date: Les chevaliers, with Raphaël Films; and a 6 x 52-minute series currently in production, Des bateaux et des hommes, produced by Point du Jour.

Over the years, Planète has opted to develop ‘traditional’ relations with the independent production sector, unlike Seasons, which has largely built its activities on very low-cost programs typically from producers based in the regions, rather than Paris. The service is aired in France on an optional basis by CanalSatellite, but also in Germany, Italy and Spain.

Seasons’ program schedule is oriented to nature, hunting and fishing. It was launched three years ago, and almost immediately started producing programs to stock its own schedule. ‘There are a lot of nature and fishing films on the market,’ says Jean-Pierre Fleury, Seasons’ program director. ‘Hunting productions are more rare. There are also a lot of exotic subjects but few that deal with things happening in our own back yard. Coproduction has become a necessity to build a lively program slate and it is also in keeping with our editorial policy, which emphasizes respect for nature.’

Seasons coproduced 34 hours of programs in 1998, with average investments of just over Fr 130,000 an hour. The maximum budgets for these films is capped at Fr 500,000 an hour. In addition to its cnc funded programs, Seasons also pursues sponsorships, for example, with tour operators, companies in the hunting sector, or mass-market sports retailers with some interest in video distribution.

Though it is still a relatively small market, cable and satellite is no longer simply a secondary sales market. The steady growth in the number of subscribers and revenues make cable and satellite the true market of the future.


Every year, TVFI (TV France International), the umbrella group for the country’s program distributors and producers, publishes a program export study. Although the export study gives an idea of distributors’ activities and their volume of business, it is important to keep in mind the data used to compile the study is sourced on a voluntary basis. (Because the fiscal year for French companies ends in April, the current figures are from the 1997 report.)

According to the 1997 study, total exports for French programs rose to Fr 551 million, with documentaries making up 21% of sales, or approximately Fr 116 million. Wildlife is the best-selling genre or program subject, while series are the best-sellers in terms of format.

Western Europe is the leading buyer of French documentary programming, buying 58% of all doc exports, followed by Latin America and Asia (both at 11%), just ahead of North America (10%).

In a breakdown for Western Europe, Italy is the leading acquirer of French docs (21%), followed by Germany and Austria (19%), and the pan-European networks broadcast on cable and satellite (13%).

The study also indicates the level of foreign investment in French documentaries. The u.s. has now surpassed Canada and Germany as the leading partner for French producers, with investments of Fr 25.3 million in 1997, including 22.4 million in 13 coproductions and 2.9 million in nine program pre-sales. Canada follows with Fr 15.8 million, consisting of 9.5 million in 11 coproductions and 6.3 million in 13 pre-sales.

Germany invested Fr 11.5 million (8.3 million in 23 coproductions and 3.2 million in 13 pre-sales), Belgium with Fr 8.3 million (7.2 million in 26 coproductions and 1.1 million in one pre-sale) and finally, the United Kingdom invested Fr 7.1 million in French or French-coproduced documentaries (including 5.9 million in 14 coproductions and 1.2 million in ten pre-sales).



Created in 1997, ARTE’s Aventures Humaines strand airs in primetime on Saturday night and constitutes a genuine breakthrough in French documentary television.

The program has a 5% market share and has become the top-rated slot on ARTE’s program schedule, explains Thierry Garrel, head of documentaries at La Sept/ARTE. ‘It’s nice to see that success is possible with demanding films.

‘In this slot we absolutely wanted to avoid oversimplification or a discovery-for-all [approach]. What we had in mind were films that displayed knowledge, were built around compelling stories but also demanding content. This is very much in the French tradition which consists of creating unique products, rather than more standardized [or commercial] films.

‘For us, these films constitute a fine introduction for people who are generally unaware of what documentary can bring. In this [program] sector, discovery and the dramatization of intelligence, we may indeed be on the verge of seeing a true French school emerge from producers such as Gédéon, Ideal Audience, Les Films d’Ici or Trans Europe Films.’

Managed by Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Paris-based Trans Europe Films produces the Découverte Gallimard collection for ARTE. The collection to date includes three 52-minute films: Il était une fois la Mésopotamie; Quand le Japon s’ouvrit au monde (an examination of the Meiji era); and Galilée, le messager des étoiles (which charts the history of the father of modern astrophysics). A fourth episode, Vers Tombouctou, l’Afrique des explorateurs, is currently in editing, while a fifth, Les cités perdues des Mayas, is in development. The collection is based on the prestigious Gallimard encyclopedia, and the venerated French publisher is participating in the production.

The collection uses both sophisticated narratives and leading edge post-production techniques to explore the history of civilization as well as the lives of great men and women. In most instances, the filmmakers are examining historical periods and characters which clearly pre-date the existence of film and photographic archives.

‘Our ambition with these films,’ expliains Jean-Pierre Gibrat, ‘is to take viewers on a voyage of discovery so they can participate in a process which is not didactic nor pedagogical. The films are conceived with four or five main points around which a narrative thread is developed. As the films are created for the international market, we have excluded all manner of interviews or on-screen expert commentary. We make use of a very rich iconography which we dramatize with reconstituted period scenes and modern images of the often timeless settings where the featured events took place.’

Gibrat offers the example of the Touareg caravans, which still transport salt as they did ten centuries ago.

The 360-title Découverte Gallimard collection is being translated into 15 languages and adapted for various book formats. It has been sold to 18 countries to date, including the United States and Japan.

‘The selection of titles is the result of discussions between Gallimard, ARTE and ourselves. But not all the titles are adaptable,’ says Gibrat, adding the proviso: ‘And when you work for ARTE, you’re working in a non-commercial, non-industrial context.’

Production budgets for the films in this collection tend to be upscale in French market terms, says Gibrat, who is seeking international partners, notably in North America where he is currently in negotiations with National Geographic, Discovery, Bravo, Tele-Quebec and CBC. Talks are also underway with SBS in Australia. ‘We are also exploring sponsorship potential,’ he says. ‘We’re talking with Air France, who could promote the collection via its airlines.’

Trans Europe Films is also working on the ancillary exploitation of the series via home video and dvd. ‘We expect to have a complete collection of six films for video rights. In future, in collaboration with Gallimard of course, it is not unlikely that we’ll simultaneously develop new episodes for both print and av production, notably from the DVD perspective.’


SAINT-THOMAS PRODUCTION: innovative screenwriting

Following in the footsteps of Frédéric Fougea and his production company Boréales, creator of the internationally acclaimed series Seigneurs des animaux series, a whole new generation of French producers and directors have undertaken to reinvent the wildlife doc, primarily through the use of original and innovative screenwriting styles.

One such producer is Saint-Thomas Production in Paris, founded by Bertrand Loyer and his brother Frédéric in 1995. Betrand Loyer is a civil engineer who grew up with a genuinely fervent enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon wildlife films. In the early 1990s, Loyer decided to take the plunge following a chance encounter with a film crew from Oxford Scientific Films in New Caledonia. Over two years, he has directed some ten films for Ushua-a, TF1′s nature magazine.

It has been Canal+’s rekindled interest in wildlife films which set the ground work for Loyer’s first production – a series of 6 x 26-minute programs entitled Mammifères Marins. The series is currently being sold in some 40 countries, including to National Geographic, which has already aired several episodes.

‘Marine cinematography is an area that’s been completely neglected by the Anglo-Saxons,’ explains Bertrand Loyer. ‘Our company has evolved thanks to our know-how in that area, but also because we’ve tried to make films using an innovative form of writing that is both narrative and emotion-driven, without sacrificing scientific rigor.’

In addition to producing four new 26-minute episodes of Mammifères Marins for Canal+, Bertrand Loyer recently completed a series of 4 x 52-minutes for France 2 called Conflits dans la Nature. This new and costly series explores the all-out wars fought by many sorts of animals in all types of settings – ponds, rivers, trees and in the jungle.

‘With budgets of Fr 2.5 million per episode, these are expensive films for the French market,’ says Bertrand Loyer. ‘Besides investments from the network and the minimum guarantee from [distributor] ftd, we currently deficit finance up to 40%, which we expect to recoup with sales.’

Saint-Thomas has also started production on a particularly ambitious one-off 60-minute documentary, Quatre ans avec les orques du Crozet, budgeted at Fr 5 million and coproduced with Canal+, BBC, Discovery and Japan’s NHK. The film follows a female killer whale from the time of her birth, and her upbringing by her grandmother. It is currently in principal photography and should be available by May 2000.

Finally, Saint-Thomas is in development on two similar projects: Vautours des Mers, which captures the death throes of a sperm whale – and the appetites it provokes among certain surrounding species; as well as La Puce et l’Oiseau, an account of a day in the life of a flea living in the feathers of an albatross. Up to 24 minutes of La Puce will be produced in 3-D animation.

MONA LISA PRODUCTION: microscopic wildlife and technical challenges

Based in Lyon, Mona Lisa Production was created some ten years ago and was initially active in short films. Thierry Berrod, who produces for filmmakers Gérard and Bruno Vienne and who is also a director, says he wanted to make films which break with the more academic approach associated with some wildlife documentaries.

‘I got the idea of making a film on parasites, [and decided] to put the emphasis on rhythm and humor,’ he says. The first one-hour film based on this initial concept was SOS Puces, coproduced with France 2. It went on to win 11 international awards and has sold very well in export. Distributor FTD’s total sales for the film are now in the order of Fr 1 million. ‘The advantage with this series is that it fits in both animal and science slots,’ says Berrod.

Following the success of this first production, Mona Lisa decided to launch a second episode with France 2 called Acariens Cannibales which features breathtaking images of mites in their many environments: rugs, wall-to-wall, bedding, and even human bodies. ‘The images of the animals were enlarged 50,000 times with powerful microscopic cinematography [and] then reconstituted with a computer interface which we developed ourselves,’ explains Berrod.

The parasite series will be comprised of 6 x 52-minute films, and Berrod says he is currently completing the third episode, La guerre des Mouches, which will be available next September. Three additional episodes on mosquitoes, termites and crickets are being written.

Mona Lisa is also developing Moon’s Animals, 4 x 52-minutes on the lives of nocturnal animals – a ‘real brainbender as far as lighting is concerned,’ says Thierry Berrod. ‘What interests me particularly is taking on technical challenges in order to do new things,’ he says.


January ’99

Le temps des vendanges 8 x 26-minutes Capa Productions (Paris)

February-March ’99

Hotel Cara-be 8 x 26-minutes Capa Productions (Paris)

March ’99

Protection rapprochée 8 x 26-minutes Tetra Media (Paris)

March-April ’99

Au coeur de la vallée 8 x 26-minutes Le Bureau (Paris)

April-May ’99

Vendeur de robot 6 x 26-mintues Albums Production (Paris)

May-June ’99

Croisière sur le Nil 8 x 26-minutes amip (Paris)


December ’98

Caviar sur canapé 5 x 26-minutes Tangram (Germany)

March ’99

Bonjour bébé 4 x 26-minutes Zero Film (Germany)

April ’99

A l’ombre des arènes 4 x 26-minutes Cinétévé (Paris)

May ’99

Marions-nous 4 x 26-minutes The Factory Productions (Paris)

June ’99

Petites histoires des 4 x 26-minutes amip (Paris)

Galeries Lafayette

September ’99

Histoire d’en sortir 4 x 26-minutes Phares et Balises (Paris)

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.