Blood, Sweat and Producing, Part II: France --
Co-Financing, Cultural Barriers, and Boyfriends
by Anthony Kaufman
What two things are almost impossible to sustain in France?
Co-financing and French boyfriends. This was the answer given by some
of the American women at an informative panel held last week at the
Avignon/New York Film Festival. Sponsored and moderated by New York
Women in Film/TV's Joy Pereth, the panel entitled "American Producers
in Paris...Tales From the French Front" consisted of four experienced producers
who have recently returned from overseas and much the wiser: business
and development exec Carol Bidault, Simon Hart (former producer at Canal
+), Julia Pimsleur (doc producer) and Catherine Scheinman ("Vincent and
Theo"). Of these four producers, three stayed in France for love while
the forth was just a big Francophile. And hearing these producers
speak, it's got to be one reason or the other to remain in a country
whose business and cultural styles differ so greatly from what producers
are used to in the States.
"I learned to play the game pretty well there, but I ultimately realized
it wasn't a game I wanted to play," said Julia Pimsleur, whose
experience in both documentary and fiction (with a stint at French film
school), supplied her with some of the most poignant views on the
differing protocols between the two countries. Speaking of "the
double-edged star status" of Americans in France, she said, "There's a
real love-hate relationship with America that rules your life while
you're there. That you're very competent and professional and on the
ball. But then they also think that you're pushy, and all you think
about is money and you can't be trusted."
These former ex-pat producers depicted a production picture of France
that is just as difficult, if not more so, than producing in the
States. One of the most difficult obstacles is just getting started.
"The most common misconception," says Pimsleur "is you want to film your
American story totally in France, and by virtue of the fact that you're
filming in France, [you think] this becomes a European production and
you somehow have the right to tap into European subsidies." But she
explains, "This is just not going to happen."
A bad economy or what the French call "mauvaise ambiance" (literally bad
ambiance) has also made co-financing especially difficult over the last
few years in France. Scheinman, who recently returned to work in New
York stated, "it was harder and harder to get financing, especially if
you were doing documentaries, people were starting to merge, they were
trying to find bigger partners to back them. Six companies went under
that year, that was in '93 - '94. All these small companies that were doing
quite well were starting to get into a lot of trouble financially." Many
of the panelists also noted that France was hot in the late 80's and
early 90's, but now much of that fever has moved into a British
"Up until recently, CIBY 2000," says moderator Pereth, "which we've seen
its demise, was financing totally quite a few American auteurs, like
John Sayles, David Lynch, supporting some really interesting films.
There are others...particularly those who are connected very much to
international sales, and who are very keen to increase their English
language libraries, so if you are an American independent, and you have
some notoriety, that is certainly one way of working with France."
But what if you're not David Lynch, as is the case with most directors
or producers looking to navigate the oceans of international film and
television co-productions. How does one find a foreign partner they
can trust? "Ask around," suggests Hart, "Not every producer is made to
get into an international co-production. Some of them do what they do
very well, but should stay in their backyards, play with their own toys.
...And that's not the kind of person I want on my project." On the
American side, she looks for, "Francophiles, they love Europe" and for
the French company, she makes sure "they're not too French, they love
America," concluding "Find those people who are going to have mutual
respect of each other's cultures."
Scheinman, who got 5 countries and 7 different broadcasters to finance
Altman's "Vincent and Theo," also offered some advice to documentary
producers seeking a partner in France, "There's two ways you can do it.
If it has some kind of French content, you can pre-sell to a
broadcaster, which means it has interest in France. Or you can try to
hook up with another production company and work with them as a
co-producer, meaning you have access through their company to government
money and television networks, but the project again, has to be
something that both the French and the Americans are interested in."
But for the broadcast arena, Simon Hart warned, "When you're talking
co-production, it's co-creation, co-financing, co-ownership, you're
going to 'co' it all the way down the line," she reiterated, "and get
that in your head, because some people mistakenly will come to the
broadcasters/French partners in the television world and think that
co-production means just co-financing. No, you're going to be doing that
dance." Hart continued, "People do not do co-productions because
they're just dying to work with each other, they do it because there's
an economic need. If you can walk into a partner, and you basically
have a piece of the financing in place out of America, then it will be a
valid project. A lot of producers think, 'no,' I'll get my foreign
partners, and then I can back into the United States."
Pimsleur soon popped this fantasy, "I don't think I've ever seen an
American succeed in arriving in France, getting a meeting with a French
broadcaster, and then convincing them to actually do it. It's very hard
to get people on the phone, it's very hard to get a meeting," she
claims, "Don't underestimate it." As an alternative to seeking
broadcasters directly, Pimsleur offered, "As hard as it may be to find a
co-production partner, I think that is the way to go. My very concrete
recommendation is to go to markets and festivals, meet people, exchange
cards, see whose done work like this...That's your best bet."
And once one does form that miraculous much-needed partnership, "People
are very caught up in the government grant system," says Pimsleur about
the French, "It takes months and months and months, and you have to be
in the system and to get your project voted by one of these committees
that decides who gets the money [and] you have to know people in the
committees who will defend your project," she confessed. "No one is
going to tell you that, but that's the way it works. It's very hard to
get off the ground as an independent in France...If you want to go
that route, plan on spending several years, because you have to get to
know everybody before anything works."
What "sums up the whole difference between America and France is that
the word ambitious ('ambitieux' in French) is only negative. There's no
positive connotations of that word," said Pimsleur. "They have another
expression, it's called 'avoir les dents longs' which means you 'have
long teeth' that drag along the carpet because you're so trying to get
your teeth into everything." For Pimsleur, these cultural differences
were reason enough, "So that's why I left France."