MIPTV: France Boosts Local Production as It Battles Streamers, Turns Away From Hollywood Hits

Ten Percent (Aka Call my Agent!) Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix

France Televisions' Delphine Ernotte and TF1's Gilles Pelisson discussed how Netflix is both a boon and a burden, and creating change in the local production.

For all its notable absence in Cannes, Netflix is still the elephant on the Croisette.

When France Televisions' Delphine Ernotte and TF1's Gilles Pelisson on Monday took to the MIPTV stage to highlight France as the country of honor, much of the discussion surrounded how the homegrown networks are combating the international SVOD.

Ernotte has championed Salto, her alternative to Netflix, which has been caught up in a regulatory quagmire bouncing between Brussels and Paris. It will bring together the three French giants — France Televisions, TF1 and M6. It landed back on the desk of French regulators last month, and the trio are hopeful they will be given the go-ahead by the end of the year, though Ernotte has lamented that Netflix gained another million or so subscribers in the time since the idea was announced a year ago.

After an initial slow start, it currently has 5 million subscribers in France.

Salto will stream content from the Big Three, but it will be pulling from a catalog that is less than deep. Historically, the networks didn't retain rights even if they fully funded the project. In January, they signed a historic "anti-Netflix” agreement with French producers to keep their majority-financed content off of competing SVODs going forward. It was a reaction to the release of France Televisions' hit Call My Agent on Netflix just two weeks after its initial broadcast.

Ernotte said it's not a question of ignoring Netflix — TF1 just secured a pre-financing deal for the historical drama Le Bazar de la Charite, which will air on its channel first before going to the SVOD — rather a question of retaining rights. The producers' agreement finally gives her a new bargaining chip, she said.

But for all the grief Netflix has given, it can in some ways be credited with this cultural boom and has been a positive force for creativity.

"People have really got used to a different type of drama, a more high-end drama thanks to Netflix and Amazon," said Ernotte. With Netflix's European content budget ringing in at $1 billion, France Televisions' alone is nearly half that at $473 million per year on French content creation with 10 projects in development.

"We will do our part for the French creative industry, and we think we have something to say not only in France, but all around the world," said Ernotte.

"It's an economic pole of French industry," said TV France International head Sarah Hemar of the increase in local production. And it's been a boon for international sales as well, with global exports hitting a 20-year high. "At the end of the day, it's created a new dynamism in the kind of content we can produce and [increased] production values."

France has always had famous filmmakers, but the growth in series has been a benefit to the industry. "The new methods of development in terms of writing, productions are increasingly integrating the writers room and showrunner concept, so this has really dramatically improved the quality and our capacity to produce more episodes and more volume," said Hemar. The increased volume has made French series more attractive to overseas buyers — notably content-hungry platforms in Asia opening as a new market.

Territorial broadcasters have all but abandoned the American programming that filled their primetime schedules for decades, instead of making big bets on local content. While the trend is evident at this year's MIPTV, TF1's Pelisson says that his network — still the leader in France — has seen the quality of free-to-air programs decline even in this "golden age" of premium dramas. "We have been badly affected by the drop in quality of what comes out of Hollywood," he said, though noting the exceptions that still perform well on his channel are The Good Doctor, Lethal Weapon and SWAT. "The global content for us as a domestic broadcaster is difficult for us, so in the future, we'll be focusing on our connections with the French market."

In January, they formed an alliance with other European pubcasters — Germany's ZDF and Italy's Rai — which Ernotte sees as a line of defense against Netflix and the other U.S. giants that seek to dominate the streaming market. Though she admits to being both a fan and subscriber, Ernotte has in the past expressed frustration that the network's shows were available on international SVODs, leading to the signing of an accord with producers that will recoup the company's investments.

And while it is no longer acquiring American series, TF1 is acquiring new production companies. It took Newen back in 2015 and has since snapped up a trio of shingles across northern Europe, giving it a larger footprint and, most importantly, stronger rights.

They are continuing to look at other acquisitions, though they will all be outside of France. "I don't believe much in vertical integration," said Pelisson. The company may also combine its film division, which backs more than 250 movies a year, and its TV arm in the future as viewer consumption habits shift to series.

For now, the focus is on getting the international players on the same financial field, said Pelisson, focusing on tax avoidance. The company is working with new culture minister Franck Reister on crafting a new audiovisual law that will require local investment in line with the French funding law.

"We are aware that we need to be stronger, and we need stronger producers and creators," said Ernotte. "And all together we will be able to have the best content, which is key."