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Smart thinking from the people running the content business.

Unifrance’s Daniela Elstner on flourishing French TV

Unifrance’s Daniela Elstner explains the export growth for French content and looks ahead to the Rendez-Vous programming market in Biarritz next week.

Daniela Elstner

This September marks the 29th edition of Biarritz-based content market Rendez-Vous, an annual event dedicated entirely to French TV programmes.

The market is organised by content export agency Unifrance, whose executive director Daniela Elstner says demand is rising for French programmes from both linear broadcasters and streaming platforms globally.

France is a world leader when it comes to animation production, and French toons like Molang and Ladybug have traditionally been in highly sought-after internationally. In more recent years, documentaries and dramas have also been experiencing increasing demand.

“Animation has always been very important for us and this hasn’t changed much. French animated series are present in all countries around the world, including in territories where other types of content are harder to sell, like China, India and Latin America,” Elstner says.

In the drama space, Elstner credits titles like 2021 crime-comedy Haut Potentiel Intellectuel (aka HPI), a TF1 show coproduced with RTBF in Belgium and RTS in Switzerland; France 2’s 2015 comedy-drama Call My Agent!; and 2015 political thriller Le Bureau on Canal+ as having “opened the doors” for French scripted series to break into the international market.

Unifrance is due to reveal French content exports figures for 2022 next week in Biarritz, alongside the National Centre for Cinema & the Moving Image (CNC), but the numbers for 2021 show that sales of French audiovisual programmes brought in €186.1m (US$185.2m).

2021 saw a strong increase in sales of French fiction – up 22% to €57.3m, marking the second-highest level ever for French drama, after the record €63.7m set in 2017 – with scripted representing 31% of all sales in 2021. Other French scripted productions to have gained international traction include Paris Police 1900, Lupin and La Jeune Fille et la Nuit.

“Fiction series have experienced the biggest increase in demand in recent years. Previously, French fiction series were not easy to sell. So the rise in demand is most impressive on the fiction side,” Elstner says.

Kaitlin Olson in High Potential, adapted from French drama HPI

“They are not necessarily sold to one big platform but are sold country-by-country to different TV channels. Sometimes they might also not only go to a free TV channel in a particular country but to pay TV as well. That is something that has changed over the years.”

When it comes to documentaries, for which Elstner says demand is “steadily” rising each year, the titles travelling the best are those related to history, science, nature and investigation.

The exec adds that French producers have also been experimenting with different documentary formats, such as Arte’s 2022 animated docuseries Magellan’s Extraordinary Odyssey, which are attractive to international buyers.

Europe is the biggest importer of French content, according to Elstner, with countries including Germany, Italy and Spain consistently topping the list. More recently, however, Poland has been upping its acquisitions of programmes from France and is now one of the country’s most important markets.

Outside of Europe, Canada is an important importer of French content, thanks to its Francophone region, Quebec. Interestingly, Mexico is also a gateway to Spanish-speaking countries, Elstner adds.

“It’s interesting because Latin America is not the easiest place to sell non-English-language, or non-Spanish-language, content. Mexico remains the second market in Latin America behind Brazil and has a few adaptations like Call My Agent, produced by Eva Longoria. The US is also a tough country for non-English-language content, but we have a steady presence there,” she says.

The original French version of Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent)

US buyers have been found for French fiction, including Canal+ drama Baron Noir (picked up by Amazon’s Prime Video), Call My Agent! (Netflix) and Le Bureau (iTunes), while more recently HPI has been adapted into an English-language series called High Potential by ABC, with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Kaitlin Olson leading the cast.

Elstner notes that the streamers have also helped French productions travel globally by boarding projects as coproduction partners. Call My Agent, for example, was originally produced by public broadcaster France Télévisions, before becoming a copro with Netflix for the original and Amazon for the UK version, Ten Percent. Meanwhile, hit thriller series Lupin is a copro between France’s Gaumont and Netflix.

Both the original versions and format adaptations of French shows are selling well, Elstner adds, although she points out the latter won’t sell well if the former doesn’t.

“A lot of adaptations are sold, but the most successful ones are those where the original versions were a success,” she says. “Call My Agent is a very good example – it’s a very adaptable format, having been adapted in countries including India, the US, Turkey and Korea. But without success at the beginning, the remake rights are much more complicated to sell.

“It can happen in cinema, where films or even TV films don’t sell well but get a lot of remakes, but it happens less often with series.”

Meanwhile, alliances with other European countries that go beyond the typical coproduction model are an important way to fulfil the increasing demand for European content while competing with the global streamers, Elstner says.

Canal+ Baron Noir was picked up by Amazon’s Prime Video

“[This involves] creating a hub together, a steady collaboration between different TV channels or producers, such as The Creatives, and an alliance of different countries to launch a series that can compete with [those from] the big streaming platforms,” she says.

Pubcaster France Télévisions, for instance, is part of the European coproduction partnership called The Alliance, alongside Germany’s ZDF and Italy’s Rai.

“It’s the demand that creates it, but also the global platforms are encouraging this kind of alliance, which is more than just coproduction. It’s a way to get the subjects to sync the project together, rather than a simple coproduction where the project is already there and you just have to look for partners,” adds Elstner.

“This is something that can make Europeans much stronger, allowing them to bring the countries together and produce a stronger series that can go far beyond Europe. It’s true for fiction series, but it’s also true for documentaries that might be on a big scale and, of course, animation.”

Buyers from all over the world will be attending Rendez-Vous next week, with more than 200 from 48 countries confirmed to attend, according to Elstner. Almost 60 French distribution companies will also be present, selling more than 1,000 programmes.

“It’s a really big market for us,” Elstner says. “The buyers will have time to watch all the productions while they are there. We will have a gala screening during the opening night on the Monday evening for season three of France Télévisions’ comedy series Parliament, produced by Cinétévé. We will screen it in a cinema and the cast will come.

“Documentary buyers and animation buyers will also be at the screening. I think that’s nice because we will have all these buyers together watching the same series and then having dinner together, which makes the discussion possibilities larger. It worked quite well last year, so we decided to do it again.

“We also provide dinners and lunches, each one focusing on a particular programme, where the producer can talk about it during the meal, across all the different genres.”