With its non-fiction friendly ratio (docs comprise 40 to 50% of all programs, and 45% of thematic evenings) and a sophisticated programming bent, not to mention commissioning editors savvy to the international copro scene, French/German public broadcaster arte has become a reliable doc crib.
Thema, the moniker given to thematically linked blocks of programming, airs thrice weekly – a large chunk of airtime given the French/German channel broadcasts daily, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. On Sundays and Thursdays, the slots begin at 8:45 p.m., 9:45 p.m on Tuesdays, running until 1:00 a.m., but this varies, depending on what a particular evening entails. In all, there are about 150 thematic slots per year.
‘On Sundays we have family-oriented things; more society, current affairs on Thursdays; and the programs which are scientific & technological, youth oriented and arts & culture – this is a strange mixture, but it’s three different things – we do this on Tuesday nights,’ explains Christoph Jörg, deputy director of thematic evenings.
‘It’s all about juggling,’ he says, ‘juggling with programs.’ A team of six commissioning editors at La Sept/arte, the Paris-based French branch, arrange about 60 to 70 evenings per year, with the rest coming out of Germany. The French branch is easier to navigate as the German system is somewhat more complicated (both ard and zdf play a role in the German administration of the channel, whereas La Sept concentrates solely on arte).
Thema mixes docs, dramas and program links of a minute or two in duration. An upcoming evening on comicstrips includes: Nestor Productions’ 90-minute portrait of René Goscinny (‘no one has ever done a film on him’), the man behind Asterix, a copro with rtbf; Crumb from Terry Zwigoff (‘this is the kind of film we’re always looking for’); and I Want to Go Home, the Alain Resnais film.
The total budget per evening ranges from £130,000 to £170,000, with which, says Jorg, ‘I have to buy films, I have to commission films, do all the program links – it’s not a lot of money.’ Thema is split between 50-60% commissions and 40-50% acquisitions. An average 52-minute commission commands about £60,000. Licence agreements include both France and Germany as territories. ‘If we commission a program, if we are coproduction partners, three broadcasts in a period of three years, so we have the possibility to rebroadcast the program in another context.’
For example, Jörg repurposed two 50-minute docs on travel writers, broadcast last year. In the meantime, he had commissioned a program on the late writer Bruce Chatwin. ‘It’s a program I did with Kim Evans from the bbc,’ explains Jörg. ‘I had the occasion to rebroadcast the two other films from the Travel Writer evening and to do a new Travel Writer evening in ’99, but with a new element which will be the Chatwin program.’
Jörg himself puts together about 15 slots per year. As to where a particular idea stems from… .’Oh my God, this is -’ he pauses and laughs. ‘This is the most difficult question. I like projects with a real editorial ambition and the potential for international markets. This is what we look for all the time. But it’s the most difficult thing. If you do a thematic evening, you need a rich theme, you need a strong idea, you need contemporary access.’
Aired a couple of months ago, the Secret History of Internet evening fit into this category. ‘It was not a big audience; it was not the biggest hit on arte, but for me it was very important that we do this for our image on the one hand and, on the other, we do a very, very contemporary program and present a series with important information in an interesting way.’
Although it has partnerships with other European channels, rtbf, sbc and tve among them, the main audience is still in France and Germany. arte, pegged as a cultural channel, has been misconstrued as focusing on the arts – a strong area for the broadcaster – but its range in subject matter has more to do with national boundaries.
‘Our programming, we do it for France and Germany, and that’s it.’ Jörg cites a recent evening on actor Yves Montand as a strong rater. ‘If we get 10 to 12% of the general audience in France, it’s for us very good…. We wouldn’t do a night on an actor who wouldn’t be known in Germany.’ And though the ratings in Germany might not have been as high as in France, it performed well enough.
There are themes on virtually everything: secretaries, photography, the Human Genome, press scandals, rap. A flying adventures night includes Garfield Kennedy’s Year of Balloon (u.k.), Taxi Vidéo Brousse’s Blériot the Return (France) and Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Germany) Men’s Games has High Road’s Wrestling With Shadows (Canada) Phares et Balises’ Barbata (France) and Thom Fitzgerald’s Beefcake (Canada).
Although accquisitions come from various countries, one of arte’s mandates is to support French and German producers. About those with whom he likes to work, Jörg will not comment, saying simply, ‘There are 400 hungry producers in France. If I give you two names, they would kill me.’ As well, utilizing French production companies enables access to French government funds.
And, of course, international copros can facilitate ambitious projects. Even with a small licence fee, Jörg is in a position to trigger projects normally beyond his means, such as with Unmade Beds from Chelsea Pictures in New York, part of a future evening on singles. ‘I think I was the first partner on the project, and then the bbc and hbo came in. I met Nicholas Barker at a festival three years ago, and we talked about this, and I said I’m interested in doing a night on singles, and he explained to me the film he wanted to do. And I said, ‘Okay, this sounds interesting, but I could never finance this film.’ He said, ‘Of course not.’ And he found money in the u.s. and the u.k., and I don’t know where.’
A former journalist, Jörg came to arte via the German branch. Commissioning for zdf, he was involved in Thema from the onset. ‘It was the major thing when we started the channel,’ he explains.
‘We wanted to have something which was completely different from the other channels, and my old boss from zdf, he invented this program. He said, ‘Why don’t we put things together, films and documentaries with different formats on one particular subject, on the same night.’
‘Some said it’s not a good idea, and some people said it was a wonderful idea, but at the end, it was the best idea that we had, because everybody is doing thematic evenings, even Channel 4.
‘Now we think it’s working, but in the beginning it was very difficult. In six years, we’ve developed the experience to do this and it’s getting better and better. The ideas are more focused now and they’re presented in a better way. We’ve made a lot of progress.’