Market potential and challenges for French documentaries

In 2023, the French Ministry of Culture launched the "Year of Documentaries" initiative to highlight the prolific country's documentary production. Executives from leading local experts in the genre describe the current outline of that business.

22 JUN 2023

"Peter Doherty: Stranger in my Own Skin"

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France has always showcased its variety and creativity in storytelling the real world, culminating in 2023 with the French "Year of Documentaries," an initiative by the French Ministry of Culture. "We are uniquely fortunate to benefit from a very virtuous funding system that allows the documentary industry to address all kinds of subjects," expressed Cloë Pinot, Sales Executive at Balanga. "Our eco-system is composed of prestigious commissioners, whose high standards and tone are known by broadcasters around the world, which helps us to gain recognition for the French productions we represent and to facilitate their export," she added. In the same line, Myriam Weil, Head of Documentaries at Federation Studios, affirmed that it's a fascinating period for documentaries. "Streamers have had a global impact on the genre. Leading directors, writers, and producers create character-driven films and series, strong narrative arches, and powerful stories for a new and younger audience interested in watching these films and series."

For Véronique Commelin, Head of Distribution at CLPB Rights, the documentary remains a very popular genre in France and can even perform high ratings in prime time. "However, despite substantial financial involvement from French linear broadcasters, the genre remains under-financed, and the input of international financing remains crucial. Although less popular than fiction, French documentary is constantly highly demanded and managed to impose itself on a worldwide scale, despite the great competition coming notably from the US, UK, and Germany."

For Benjamin Ternynck, CEO of Kwanza, French documentary is living its golden age as audiences crave more amazing authentic stories. "We are lucky to be supported by robust French public TV and private media groups like Altice (RMC Découverte and RMC Story channels), with whom Kwanza has signed a strategic co-production and distribution partnership."

In addition, Laurene Voilliot, Head of Sales & Acquisitions at Only Distrib, mentioned that documentary is a vital genre in France as various slots and channels are dedicated to them, and authorities support this genre. "They are appreciated internationally. However, we witness trends in the types of programming channels are looking for, and it is sometimes difficult to diverge from it."

Sandrine Frantz, Managing Director at Lukarn, distinguishes between two types of French documentaries: the very local interests, which are by far the most numerous documentaries produced, and the international ones. "The international audience is only interested in the second kind. Distributors suffer from a lack of big international-oriented productions because the production costs are increasing, and the producers have more difficulty finding money to work properly in France. Broadcasters' budgets are tight, and subsidies are rare. Then producers have no choice but to buy only the rights to supply broadcasters; the charge is on the distributors to finance the extension to the international rights (archives and music mostly). Distributors are getting more involved at the beginning of the productions, supporting them with MGs and presales. That is maybe something that distributors were used to for fiction and animation, but this is also becoming the rule today in documentary production and distribution," Frantz stated.

The financing and the global appeal of local productions arose as the main challenges for French producers and distributors. "The budget gaps remain an important issue, as producers can directly impact accessing archives and are unable to opt for more costly editorial choices such as CGI or special effects. Coping with the ever-changing geopolitical situation is another frequent challenge, as it can impose unexpected difficulties in terms of filming," Commelin described. "The demand for quality documentaries continues to grow, and the main challenge is to be able to finance more ambitious projects," Benjamin agreed.

Yet, Pinot from Balanga analyzes how local stories have the power to reach an audience outside its borders and become universal. "For this reason, the main challenge would be to seek a universal story without losing the 'French touch.'" In the same line, Frantz affirmed that as a distributor, they have to find content that covers universal themes that can be of interest to all their clients worldwide. "There are several challenges when deciding to produce a documentary, but amongst them is finding a way to produce content of local interest for our local broadcasters that will also have an interest on the international market," Voilliot stated. Weil also added that there are as many challenges for the doc genre. "I could highlight the access to talent, exclusivity, the value chain of each title, competition in the global market, and, most important, reality!" she concluded.

In this new row of French documentaries that travel worldwide, CLPB Rights stands out the Arte series "There were millions of Them," the brand-new documentary "Insurgents!"; "About the Vikings, Beyond the Myths," the new Arte documentary "Clockwork Orange," "The Prophecy of Anthony Burgess," and the science documentary and international co-production "Beyond the Far Side."

Balanga is promoting "The Mysteries of Picasso," a premium biography produced for France Télévisions as well as the film "The Ghosts of Oil" and the documentary "China-USA: A new Cold War," a piece of very topical news given the current political context.

Kwanza is featuring its documentary "Rebirth," a worldwide investigation on the future of the planet and the solutions to preserve it, and "Inside D-Day: Filmmakers on the Frontline," inviting audiences to experience the Battle of Normandy first-hand. Amongst Federation Studios' documentary slate are "MH370," an extensive investigation about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, and "Peter Doherty: Stranger in my Own Skin," which follows punk rocker Peter Doherty over a 10-year period.

On the other hand, Lukarn is pushing its documentaries "Tanis, Raiders of The Lost Silver Pharaohs," "Olympic Games: Friendship, Respect and Excellence," "Mennonites, Into The Heart of a Secret Community," "#Essential," and "Gorongosa, The Park of Reconciliation." Moreover, Only Distrib is highlighting the travel documentary series "Off The Roads," together with "Fashion to the Challenge of Handicap" and the science documentary series "Shapers of Tomorrow."