French documentaries singled out

Despite European public channels closing documentary slots and growing competition from hosted factual and reality series, the French single doc industry is finding success by diversifying and while presales are tough to secure, emerging territories are seeking international copro partners. Pascale Paoli-Lebailly explores the market.


Zed’s Sacrifice

At MIPDoc in April, five out of the ten most screened productions by buyers were French and compared to the type of factual and reality docu-series that are peppering screens worldwide, France’s most acclaimed productions continue to span a wide range of classical doc genres, from history, civilisation and current affairs to culture, adventure, wildlife and investigation docs.

The most screened titles included Lagardère Entertainment’s Inside JFK’s Assassination from Programme 33, France Télévisions Distribution’s Coca-Cola: The Secret Formula from Nilaya and Zed’s Game Over illustrating the variety of French documentaries on offer for international buyers.

“That’s what French producers are known for, even though there’s a dynamic [and global] push towards factual entertainment programming. Traditional documentary has still a full place in the market,” says Mathieu Béjot, general delegate of distributors’ association TVFI.

The 2011 results of TVFI’s yearly French TV exports survey confirm that French docs’ international appeal significantly contributes to the overall revenues they generate. Out of an overall rise of 4.8% in French programme sales in 2011 the measurement period, taking the total to €153.6 million (US$202.8 million), the share generated by docs increased by 2.6% to €27.1 million. Though the 2012 figures are still being collected, Béjot says the effects of the global financial crisis have not been as damaging to the genre as initially expected.

Over the last few months, titles such as Zed’s 6x52mins wildlife series Wildwives of Savannah Lane, France Télévisions Distribution’s Ardèche Images-produced 52-minute doc The Black Sun of Hiroshima and Arte’s sales arm Arte France Droit Audiovisuel’s Bonne Pioche-produced Waste: the Nuclear Nightmare have been found traction.

Arte France Droits won TVFI and CNC’s Export Prize last December for science investigation doc Waste: the Nuclear Nightmare and sales have been closed with more than 23 channels. Twenty thousand DVDs have been released, including 5,000 in Germany and 1,000 in Japan.

“The market is constantly evolving, and buyers are looking for stories that are well built, visually attractive and gripping in the first 30 seconds,” Doris Weitzel, head of international sales and development at producer Point du Jour notes. “Investigative and current affairs programmes are highly in demand. However, it’s true that it’s become tougher to sell single 52-minute docs.”

Regardless, at Sunny Side of the Doc, Point du Jour – whose 300-hour library comprises in-house and coproduced content – will push a pair of 1x52mins docs. Humorous popular science investigation Why Are Women Shorter than Men?, produced by Picta and Arte France has already been sold to Sweden’s SVT, TV5 Québec and Finland’s YLE, while current affairs-themed War, Lies and Video, about the war in Iraq and is a Point du Jour and LCP AN coproduction, has been picked up by Swiss pubcaster RTS.

In longer format docs Point du Jour is producing Between Heaven and Earth, a 20x26mins nature-themed series for Arte. Shooting is underway and it will deliver in Spring 2014.

Compared with other markets, La Rochelle’s Sunny Side is more oriented towards presales and coproductions; professionals head there to pitch new projects and compared to the last four years, the 2013 event should mark a “positive turn”, says its general commissioner and CEO Yves Jeanneau.

Jeanneau notes that “Asian and Latin American countries have become key documentary markets” and channels including CCTV were in La Rochelle looking for investigative docs and international coproduction opportunities. Other French producers and distributors confirm the emerging territories’ willingness to partner.

Meanwhile, Europe remains a key, but increasingly cautious, market for French doc makers. This is characterised by the transfer of many single docs from the big national terrestrial broadcasters, which are increasingly focused on event docs, to dedicated digital channels.

“This leads to a fall in acquisition prices, with primetime prices transformed into off-primetime prices,” TVFI’s Béjot says.

Factual entertainment programming, hosted docu-reality and other hybrid forms can give doc slots the look and feel popularised by US cable networks and can attract sizable audiences, say sources – but at the expense of the single doc.

“We’re heading towards a volume economy, with public channels such as those in Benelux or Scandinavian regions focusing mainly on reality formats. [Furthermore,] drama has impacted documentary, and only exceptional single films can sell worldwide when not on public channels,” argues Terranoa’s head of international sales Isabelle Graziadey (pictured). “Presales deals are also much more uncertain [than in the past]. Margins go down but are not compensated for by VOD or the multiplication of rights and platforms,” she adds.

Isabelle_GraziadeySmall distribution companies such as Only Lifestyle, which sells cooking, home, fashion and green-themed programmes, and feature film-focused Wide have survived and prospered by developing very specialised libraries. Others have compiled larger catalogues with high-profile line-ups.

Thirteen year-old Terranoa has been working to enlarge its 1,000 hour library, focusing on travel and adventure, history and science, and wildlife and environment-themed content. This has been expanded to include lifestyle, sports series and social affairs programming, and the label plans to open up to feature films. It has also distribution deals in place with 60 independent producers worldwide. Co-founding production companies Gédéon and Boréales’ shows account for 30% of the library.

Terranoa headed to La Rochelle with programmes available for sales and presales, including 1x52mins science doc Animal Doctors from K Production, and 1x90mins/1x52mins art film Looking for Picasso from Gédéon, which is already sold to Belgium’s RTBF and Czech TV. Companion doc Picasso Museum’s Renaissance is due for delivery next October. Terranoa was also shopping 5x52mins series Extreme Trucking, which is a coproduction of Gédéon, PVP, Planète+, TV5 Canada, SRC and Voyage.

At 500 hours, Zed’s library ranges from ethnology to science, nature and adventure. The company is headed to La Rochelle looking for financing for 15 projects, both series and event docs. Among them is a 52-minute film currently in development for Arte called Digital Amnesia, which looks at data preservation, and a 5x52mins series titled Secret Life of Lakes. After inking a deal with Austria’s Servus TV for the series, Zed is looking for Canadian, Chinese and Brazilian partners.

“We’re also introducing [Zadig Productions’] Annihilation, a big-budget 8x52mins series from [French director and author] William Karel about anti-Semitism and how Jewish people have been targeted throughout European history. Delivery is due for January 2015,” says Celine Payot Lehmann, Zed’s head of international distribution and acquisitions.

Zed will also pitch Sacrifice, an HD colourised-footage primetime doc about the 100 days covering World War II’s D Day to the Liberation of Paris for TF1, with initial presales inked with Belgium’s RTBF, TV5 Québec, and NRK and SBS from Nordics. Also coming is 1812: Fire and Ice, a 2x52mins CGI docu-drama about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which is currently in production. Docside, Arte, UKTV and NRK are attached. “The company positions itself on very high quality programming. A third of our turnover comes from Europe, but Latin America is significantly rising, as they’re fond of great docs,” says Payot Lehmann.

French-produced history programming also remains popular. Java Films is launching presales of director Serge de Sampigny’s 90-minute primetime film 1944: They Liberated Paris, which is being sold in 1x52mins format to the international market. The Histodoc-produced programme for France 3 is based on found footage and colourised archive material.

Independently owned Java is also introducing Global Gay from Rémi Lainé at Lignes de Mire Production, a 1x70mins/1x52mins doc commissioned by France 5. In production for the end of year, it follows the battle for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The first presales include Swedish educational pubcaster UR and DBS in Israel. “Investigative films are expensive, so issues must be international and universal,” Java founder Roch Bozino notes. “But there is a growing demand for contemporary history, environment and issues about daily life. Anglophone companies dominate distribution of hosted doc series, but French productions are not yet so uniform in their approach – there is enough diversification to be optimistic.”


Pubcasters dominate doc funding

While the international landscape is increasingly dominated by ob-docs and reality flavoured projects, the French authorities are backing traditional doc production with a cultural policy that obliges broadcasters to invest in local projects. French doc production has, in fact, never been so prolific. Last year, state organisation CNC funded a record amount 2,921 hours, a 9.6% increase compared to 2011. The cumulative amount spent grew by 12.8 % to €437.9 million.

Breaking with tradition, the French docs business also moved into low-cost production as new DTT commercial channels like NRJ 12 commissioned projects. “Low-cost productions such as [Docland Yard and AB-produced] science-on-the-edge doc Digital Memory Gatekeepers do not necessarily equal a lack of quality,” Terranoa’s Graziadey says.

However, France Télévisions and Arte still dominate proceedings. The pair order 80% of all programmes in the genre. In 2012, they poured €149.2 million into 1,290 hours. In comparison, commercial broadcaster TF1’s involvement decreased 9.2 % to €2.46 million and 23 hours.

The other side of the coin is that CNC is preparing reforms to better control funding and make the eligibility criteria narrower. It’s expected Sunny Side attendees will be the first to hear details of the reform, which is set to become effective next autumn.


Gédéon reaches new Brazilian frontier

French producers agree: Brazil is a country open to coproduction and ripe for big event programming. Gédéon Programmes has located strong partners there on the heels of the production of stereoscopic 3D feature film Amazonia, which has a theatrical release set for the end of the year.

Following a France 3 HD series about the French coasts, Stéphane Millère’s company is currently shooting 5x52mins series The Coast of Brazil from Above (pictured) along with local prodco Gullane Filmes. Brazilian net Globo and France’s Arte are attached.

Ahead of the next football World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016, the series explores and natural and geographical aspects of the 8,000 kilometre coastline.


Gédéon’s biggest multiplatform project is Rio: The Great Saga, a 4x52mins (plus one-off special) series adapted from Planète+’s Paris the Great Saga. Introduced at the Think Big Forum in La Rochelle, the Brazilian version is due for delivery in 2014 upon the 450th anniversary of the city. Produced with Dassault Systems, Globo, Rio Films and Arte, it sets out to explore the history of Rio, using the latest CGI and 3D augmented reality techniques to recreate monuments and sites. The €7 million project encompasses TV, expos and a live show on Copacabana beach on March 1, 2015.

Gédéon’s World Cities Over the Ages format is also set to feature Montreal, Brussels and Mexico.

“Ambitious international copros are still possible with Brazil, Canada, Japan and China. All our events now mix TV with multiplatform activities, including new technologies and publishing,” says company president Stephane Millière. “In the next three years, diversified activities outside of TV will account for 50% of our revenues. Content is the core business with digital elements around it.”