Industry Report: Documentary
Jacques Bidou • Producer, JBA Production, Paris, France
- What is the current situation for documentary films in Europe?
The documentary sector in Europe is very lively, but it also varies from one country to another. For example, while Britain has lost its dominant position, the other countries in southern Europe are clearly emerging. In Spain there is, in fact, a new wave of documentaries.
How are documentary films financed in Europe?
Documentary films are mainly financed by public broadcasters and by public investments. The market is still dominated by national productions as distributors prefer programmes produced in their countries. For the smaller countries whose language is not so common, it is more complicated to export their productions. However, as they usually use subtitles, it is easier for them to import a large quantity of films. The larger nations, accustomed to dubbing their films, tend to be supplied by them. It is very rare for Britain or the US to import films that are not shot in English.
For the companies the main problem is that the national subsidies cannot exceed 50% of the total cost of production. This situation varies from country to country. Some Western European countries, such as Belgium or Finland, are very dynamic and their production companies are obliged to search for financial resources abroad. The larger nations instead have a proactive audience who follow documentary films: without public money there would not be any documentaries.
The problem is that public investment is adverse to co-production obligations, according to which funds should be used in the country that allocated them. This rule has unfortunate consequences. For example, much support is available for post-production, but it is impossible to carry out simultaneously the post-production of one film in different countries. With the help of new technologies, producers have to find a new way of producing and cut costs, reducing, for example, the number of shooting days.
What is the role of the French-German chain Arte?
Arte plays a key role in structuring this sector - more in terms of impact than of audience. For 15 years, Arte along with other broadcasters (such as Channel 4, France Télévisions and Finnish public TV) has been re-launching the genre.
How has the documentary market evolved since Arte was launched? From 1987-97 the documentary sector was an art film sector. Documentaries were created by filmmakers and produced by independent producers with the financial support of broadcasters. For a long time, as opposed to the fiction sector, documentaries were not threatened by independent American productions.
Today, the market has considerably developed around specific themes, such as adventure, discovery and wildlife. This genre is dominated by American and English productions, great quality and standardized productions. These productions that compete with original and creative documentaries attract private investors.
What are the market's most recent evolutions?
We have witnessed the birth of a new trend in southern Europe. In the north the tendency is more concentrated towards the production of programs focusing on current affairs, instead of documentaries. The situation is rapidly evolving and it would be difficult to give a complete view of the documentary scene and anticipate the next trends. The market will probably be completely restructured with digital production and distribution.
The majority of productions come from independent companies, often very small (from two to five people). It is a "patient" market because it is too difficult to make money with documentary films. The market is notoriously dependent on financial support, but although fragile, it is still a strong sector. It is important to build a strong catalogue – this forms a substantial return on the investment, particularly in the country in which it is produced.
What difficulties will the sector encounter in the coming years?
First of all, the genre will become excessively formatted and rigid. This is a consequence of the progressive changes in public broadcasters during the 1980s. Time slots existed for documentaries, with a series format: 26 minutes (for half an hour) and 52 minutes (for an hour). Today, these slots for feature documentary films no longer exist. Despite that, European documentary filmmakers have adopted an efficient strategy, creating different versions of the same programme for different audiences and distributors.
From 1985-95, the director was the real core of a documentary. He could present his idea to a distributor and be financed. With the era of the time slots in the mid-90s, the commissioning editors became the real decision-makers. [They] are in charge of the slots and know what is good for the audience. In order to personalise the target the distributor refers to very simple concepts: the romantic women over 60, youths, single women.
Under this kind of pressure, documentary filmmakers pressure simplified the genre and produced magazines, reports that are less expensive and more easily accessible by the main audience. Distributors have the tendency of reproducing models that worked positively in the past.
We can take as an example the films produced in Great Britain in the last 15 years. Structurally, we see a very important change: a reduction in the number of time slots and budget plans. The editorial guidelines of these broadcasters have completely changed. The number of opportunities for independent documentaries (on politics, current affairs) has been reduced.
The answer to a difficult situation in terms of co-production with Britain is the development of networks and alliances. It would be necessary to carry out a production in a country with a local partner. And it is also very important to conduct research and understand exhibitors’ programming.
Which are the most interesting programmes for television?
When you approach a distributor it is most important to have an original point of view. In Eastern Europe, there is a long tradition of documentary and cinema. It is fundamental to be aware that this tradition will not be ruined by co-productions. When searching for a co-production with a country in the West, it will be important to defend this point of view.
What is the average budget of a documentary?
The budget is on average between €75,000-1,000,000 for a feature documentary film. This depends mostly on the subject and on its destination (cinema or television). It is possible to make a good film with €100,000 euro. If you use archives, then the costs increase. It is important for a producer to find a good balance for the project in the countries and different situations.
At what stage and with which documents can a producer approach a distributor?
More and more often the producer has to finance the development of his project by himself. He must search for the funds, carry out research, draft texts, search for partners. Only when the project is sufficiently developed and solid is it then possible to search for distributors and partners. The best is to present well-developed projects.
It is also important to have a distribution company responsible for following the distribution of the documentary or the film abroad. It would be too much effort, time-wise, for a producer to follow his project until the end. It is necessary to carefully choose the distribution company and have close ties with it.