Financing Docs in France

Independent producers in France must have a soft spot for taxes. While most people tend to lump government imposed levies in the same category as death - inescapable and unsavory - French indies derive direct benefits from at least one particular...
June 1, 2000

Independent producers in France must have a soft spot for taxes. While most people tend to lump government imposed levies in the same category as death – inescapable and unsavory – French indies derive direct benefits from at least one particular aspect of the state’s tithes. Each year, French television broadcasters pay a 5.5% tax. The money is centralized at the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), which then redistributes it to French indie producers.

‘That’s why French broadcasters consider the CNC money as partly their money, and they put in less [to productions] compared to other international broadcasters,’ says Saint-Ouen doc-maker Florence Tran of Gedeon. National pride and loyalty aside, French channels have a vested interest in looking for home-grown programming before turning to the international market.

In 1998, the CNC redistributed Fr 1.136 billion (US$160 million) in support funds to the television industry and Fr 1.289 billion (US$179 million) to cinema and video. Georges Groult, a producer with the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA), says, ‘When you have a French broadcaster and the CNC, it can give you as much as 50% of your budget.’ (To qualify for CNC support, a producer must secure 25% of his budget from French broadcasters and be based in France.)

While CNC money is not available to non-French producers, they can access the funding indirectly if they hook up with copro partners based in France. However, it’s not as easy as simply attaching a name to the credits. The primary purpose of the CNC is to promote France’s audiovisual industry, therefore all grants are awarded with the proviso that the recipient must actively contribute to the achievement of this goal.

Understanding the CNC

Leslie Wiener, head of international development for Paris-based VM Productions, says her company has received CNC support over the last six years while continuing to coproduce with international partners. Over the years, she has learned how the system works.

Says Wiener, ‘For me to access [the CNC], I have to spend half of my budget in France, and at least 20-25% of my budget must come from [French] broadcasters. [Spending] can mean buying plane tickets, film, stock footage – it can mean a ton of things, but it also has to involve a certain number of creative and technical positions.’

The 25% broadcaster support is meant to help keep the money in the loop. ‘That’s just to avoid getting producers from coming into France and accessing CNC funding [through a French partner] when some non-French cable station has put up US$10,000 on a $500,000 budget. That’s basically why that exists,’ Wiener explains.

Established indies, such as VM and Gedeon, are virtually guaranteed CNC support. According to information from the funding body, producers who have already produced and broadcast programs can obtain an automatic account.

Tran explains further: ‘The amount is fixed every year according to the amount of hours broadcast during the [previous] year. Producers can invest this money on new projects and no longer need to present their projects to the selective commission.’ In 1998, 25% of the automatic support funding was granted to docs, totalling Fr 142.5 million (US$19 million). ‘That’s why broadcasters tend to go to big independent producers. They know they’ll be able to bring a certain amount of money to the table from the CNC,’ she adds.

For young production companies that are just starting out, their best chance to grab a piece of the CNC pie is through the selective support fund. These producers must submit their projects, including an outline of their budgets, for review by a commission. Of a total of Fr 122 million (us$16.8 million) awarded in selective support in 1998, 38.5% went towards documentaries.

In addition, the CNC offers advances against future subsidies to companies that have used up their annual automatic allotment. Money from this fund can also be used to assist prodcos working on long series (more than five hours) that do not have automatic accounts. Long series are ineligible for selective support. Fifty-three million francs (US$7.3 million) went to docs from the advances fund in ’98. Other CNC funding sources include support for documentary scriptwriting and preparation, and new technology grants.

‘It’s sort of a vicious cycle,’ says Wiener, acknowledging that the system tends to provide the most help to companies that need it the least (relatively speaking). ‘It’s very hard for small producers . . . to get off their feet with that, but once you do, that becomes automatic CNC money that you decide how to attribute.’

Getting a foot in the door

Producers based outside of France can approach French broadcasters on their own, but the chances of walking away with a copro deal are slim. ‘About 95% of the time, French broadcasters will say [to outside producers], ‘I’ll buy it when it’s done,” says Wiener. ‘If they really want something, they’ll go in on a pre-sale, but it doesn’t give them any access to the CNC.’

In some cases, the broadcaster may act as an intermediary and suggest a French prodco, in others the producers deal with one another directly. When Sherman Oaks, U.S.-based Unapix International needed a French partner to produce several episodes of its Superstructures series, they approached VM. Even though the program idea originated outside of France, French funding – from La Cinquième and the CNC – ultimately accounted for one third of the US$170,000 per episode budget. This was made possible due to VM’s role as executive producer, which guaranteed the use of local directors, crew and editing facilities. ‘That’s the only way we can have a foreign, non-European producer come in with their idea and have us raise that amount of money,’ Wiener notes.

Conversely, the development of Stolen Minds, Stolen Lives, a 52-minute one-off about schizophrenia, is an example of a program originated by VM for which they sought outside partners. Wiener says that after signing France 2 for 25% of the US$415,000 budget, and adding Fr 230,000 (US$31,600) from the CNC’s automatic fund, she joined forces with New York’s Partisan Pictures and went after Discovery. The cablecaster’s U.S. and international arms ultimately agreed to come in for 50%.

At Gedeon, Tran says they’ve spent years cultivating relationships with international partners. ‘This way, we can guarantee quality programs to the French broadcasters, and often make a better deal for our partner than he would have done by himself.’

Gedeon is currently developing a 13 x 26-minute series called Gene Hunters with London’s Cafe Productions, Cineflix in Montreal, Canada, and SWR in Germany. Broadcasters on board include La Cinquième and National Geographic Channels. The French prodco is responsible for two episodes and will receive CNC support to produce them. One piece examines how DNA analysis helped confirm the final resting place of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s son (‘The Louis XVII Affair’).

Have your people talk to my people

Since the CNC’s creation in 1946, the funding body has concluded several ‘mini-treaties’ with its counterparts in such countries as Canada, Australia and Germany. One of the most frequently mentioned agreements is with Telefilm Canada, an arrangement intended to encourage the development of French-language projects.

André Barro, VP of international affairs for Montreal-based prodco Pixcom, salutes the France/Canada mini-treaty’s existence, but laments its lack of exposure to doc- makers. ‘I’m almost alone in using it in documentary,’ he says. ‘The mini-treaty is about encouraging French and Canadian producers to work together. As long as you have a broadcaster on either side of the ocean – you don’t need to have one on both sides – you can develop a project together. You can receive up to CDN$60,000 (US$40,300) on each side, so $120,000 to develop a project.’

Barro says the mini-treaty helped Pixcom launch Insectia, a 13 x 26-minute series, three years ago with Paris’ Cineteve. ‘That really gave us a boost. We did the research, we did tests, we worked really closely with the broadcasters . . . It was really useful for us.’ They are currently in production on a second Insectia series, which is being shot in HD.

He took the unusual step of directly approaching a French broadcaster, La Cinq, before going to a French prodco. But he explains that Pixcom has invested a lot of time meeting French broadcasters in the past. ‘When I’m the initiator of the project, we go directly to the broadcaster. Pixcom has worked for a long time with France, we usually do two or three coproductions with them each year. It’s a natural coproducer for us.’ He adds that La Cinq was the logical broadcaster to approach in this instance. ‘If you do a series, you have no choice. It’s almost just La Cinq. [Other French broadcasters] don’t do long series.’

Another recent Pixcom project is Survivor, an 8 x 1 hour copro with Paris-based Marathon. For this program, Pixcom came in as a minority partner, producing two of the eight episodes (one on grizzly bears and one on wolves). Funding partners include Discovery U.S., France 1 and the CNC.

Overall, Barro holds the French system of financing programs in high esteem. ‘France is an easy-going country. When you have found a broadcaster, you know exactly how much money you’re going to get. That’s completely different from here.’

Wiener, however, offers a word of caution to outside producers: ‘They should ask themselves if there’s any reason why France would coproduce their show instead of buying it. If they have an answer to that question, then go ahead . . . Also, they have to have a reason why they would want to work with French producers, crews and researchers because it’s a real pain in the neck.’

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