Documentary: The New Deal
This Tuesday at the Forum des Images, ParisDOC held a day dedicated to the documentary journey, from writing to exhibition, with a focus on the pitfalls of financing. This public forum, which began at 10 am, was divided into three parts: first, a round-table of industry professionals, directors, producers and distributors, who reviewed the stages of documentary creation. This was followed by four case studies of four films already or about to be released in theaters, and, finally, by a meeting with the CNC.
From writing to exhibition, the journey of a documentary film
Bringing together Julie Bertuccelli (Scam), Aleksandra Chevreux (Docks66, SDI), Carine Chichkowski (Survivance, Nous sommes le documentary), François Farellacci (SRF), Régis Sauder (Acid, The Documentary Loop), Édouard Mauriat (Mille et une productions, SPI), Jean-Marie Barbe (Tënk) and moderated by Rebecca Houzel (Petit à Petit production) and Raphaël Pillosio (L’atelier documentaire), the round-table opened this day dedicated to the documentary journey.
The discussion, which lasted until 1pm, was interspersed with excerpts from various films produced, distributed or made by the panelists: Bricks, Lupino, Dernières nouvelles du Cosmos, Retour à Forbach, Peau d’âme and Après l’ombre.
The moderators first briefly reviewed the state of documentary film in France, pointing out that 70 to 80 films made on French initiative are theatrically released each year, half of which are approved – that is to say, they respect the conditions of film production set by the CNC. They then went on to address the central question of this round-table: the rules of approval (which allows aid to be automatically unlocked). As these rules are more specifically aimed at fiction, what changes would be needed to better take into account the specifics of the documentary?
For all the participants, it seemed quite obvious that the cinema medium allowed a greater space of freedom than television, as the latter has no obligation to invest in the documentary and, moreover, it is largely monopolized by the 52 minute format, which risks creating a standardized formatting. Cinema also allows greater proximity to the public, as filmmaker Régis Sauder pointed out. However, it is the access to funding that mainly determines whether the movie will be for television or for cinema.
For producer Edouard Mauriat, the freedom of creation relates to a plurality of financing: the more numerous the sources of funding, the smaller the risk of a standardized formatting. The distributor Aleksandra Chevreux put a slight damper on the attractiveness of cinema, pointing out that the reality of distribution meant that the number of theater admissions had to be seen in relation to the expenses incurred by the release itself. She noted in passing that, contrary to popular belief, the documentary did not necessarily make for fewer admissions than fiction. This is even more complicated when it comes to “wild films”, which are not approved because they do not allow distributors to generate the “Compte de soutien” (CNC automatic subsidies), which will eventually penalize future investments.
And here lies the very heart of the problem: the rules of approval and access to funding are not, or very little, suited to the constraints of documentary film. While funding counters are shrinking – leading to a pauperization of this environment –, the institutions still show a certain « archaism » as Jean-Marie Barbe remarked. One of the first problems is that public funding to finance a film is limited to 60% of the total, which prevents some films from being made as they depend above all on this aid. This public financial support can come from regions, CNC (automatic and selective) support or tax rebates. And there are plenty of boxes to check to obtain them. For example, it is not possible to ask for a pre-production advance on receipts (avance sur recettes avant réalisation) if filming has already started. For documentary films, this is a difficult rule to respect as they require a lot of preparation and often upstream filming. On the other hand, the post-production advance on receipts, which is more easily obtained by documentaries, penalizes the production company as it most likely needs this money sooner and has no choice but to take risks .
Moreover, there is a gap between access to certain aid, such as that for writing, and the reality of the documentary’s timeline. All panelists advocated for access to design subsidies, which are currently reserved for fiction. There is also a real problem when it comes to wages. It is thus very difficult to make a documentary film under the conditions set out in Appendix 1 of the CNC’s qualification, corresponding to the collective agreement (which defines wages), as this economy does not match the economy of the documentary.
Yet, having an approved movie is important for distributors, who can then generate a support account. But this is not the case for most of the documentaries that are made. However, these so-called “wild” films can be approved at the time of distribution, but such cases are still few and far between and subject to stringent conditions as, for instance, being selected by a category-A festival (Cannes, Berlin, etc.) and being released in at least eight theaters. As a result, it is difficult for audiences to view these films outside of festivals or local channels (which are a key source of funding).
Is digital the solution? Not quite yet. Jean-Marie Barbe spoke about the economic model of his documentary-focused platform, Tënk, and explained that it also allowed access to these otherwise invisible films. Ultimately, the idea would be to make it a key player in documentary funding but the economic model is still a little shaky. This is why such platforms are starting to partner with each other and with festivals in order to carry more weight. A real change could also come from a change in the media chronology. But this is another debate … currently underway.
From 2pm, the round-table handed over to four case studies led by Eugénie Michel-Villette (Les Films du Bilboquet) and Rebecca Houzel (Petit à Petit production) involveing four films: Braguino by Clément Cogitore, Premières solitudes by Claire Simon, Avant la fin de l’été by Maryam Goormaghtigh and Demons in Paradise by Jude Ratnam. Using these specific cases, the speakers, filmmakers and producers illustrated the difficulties and the realities of the documentary. Cédric Bonin (Seppia) talked about his difficulties with Braguino and explained that his case study was an example of « everything that you shouldn’t do », especially in terms of media chronology. As for Julie Paratian (Sister Productions), she had to apply to 30 funds over eight years to finance Jude Ratman’s film. Demons in Paradise also illustrates the constraints of documentary filmmaking, such as the passage of time and the changes it brings, which in his case were the political developments in Sri Lanka, where this first Tamil documentary was shot. Andrea Queralt (4 A 4 Productions) explained that the images originally filmed for scouting purposes for Avant la fin de l’été were, in the end, integrated into the final cut, which thus meant that the film did not comply with to the “advance aid” rules. Finally, Claire Simon, who shot Premières solitudes bit by bit, alternating filming and writing and not anticipating in advance, expressed the general feeling of the assembly: « Funding has to bend to suit the requirements of documentary genius and not the other way around”.
Meeting with the CNC
The day ended with a discussion with the CNC, represented by Director of Cinema Xavier Lardoux, accompanied by Dominique Barneaud (Bellota Films) and Julie Paratian (Sister Productions).
In response to the questions and requests expressed in the morning, Xavier Lardoux explained the Center’s position and possible and/or ongoing developments.
After reminding the assembly of the CNC’s function and various missions, the Director of Cinema provided some figures on the documentary. For this, he drew on the Observatoire de la production 2017 published that same morning. These figures showed that production was stable last year with 37 documentaries approved against 44 in 2016 with an increase in the average estimate, now up to €650 000.
Regarding cinema releases, based on 2016 figures, Xavier Lardoux said that 2016 had reached the highest level over the last ten years with 118 documentaries distributed, including 66% French films, of which 40 were approved. Their market share is estimated at 84% or 2.7 million viewers out of the 3.3 million watching documentaries in theaters.
After a question from Julie Paratian on the possible evolution of the CNC’s support for documentary, the Director of Cinema explained that public financing for this type of film was growing, notably due to the drying up of the counters. Regarding the pre-production advance on receipts, he said it was « like the Cannes Film Festival: the art of saying no ». Indeed, 55 projects out of 650 candidates are helped annually, a 8% success rate. Among them, the documentary represents 15% of the films supported by the 1st committee (dedicated to first movies) and 12.5% in the 2nd, committee for an average amount of €120 000 (much lower than that for fiction, but this is due to budget differences). For the 3rd committee (post-production advance on receipts), the documentary represents 33% of the supported films for an average amount of €90 000, equivalent to that of fiction.
In addition, as part of the accreditation reform that came into force in January 2018, Xavier Lardoux stated that flexibility had been introduced, specifically for the documentary, particularly in relation to the first day of filming (which is a condition sine qua non for access to a pre-production advance on receipts). However, the CNC does not wish to open up this possibility, fearing that regulated financing (such as Sofica or television channels) will do the same, or even abuse it, at the risk of no longer pre-financing films and of waiting until they are partly made to invest.
The two moderators also mentioned the public authorities’ self-regulation in financing to avoid exceeding the 60% of authorized public aid. While the idea of increasing the threshold for public aid was quickly mentioned, Xavier Lardoux explained that this self-regulation reflected the desire not to exceed this threshold so as to avoid having to ask producers to repay any surplus amounts, which could create financial insecurity for some of them. He also recalled the existence of the derogation that allows films to be approved at the time of their distribution, thus unblocking distribution and exhibition/broadcasting aids.
The Director of Cinema also recalled the other funds accessible to the documentary to support writing, rewriting or development. But when it came to access to design subsidies, the debate became somewhat heated. Xavier Lardoux explained that these issues, as well as that of support for new entrants, were currently being discussed within the CNC in a working group composed of several representatives of the various film organizations.
To be continued.
Report written by Perrine Quenesson