U.S., U.K., India among participants buying Gallic TV prod'ns

ST TROPEZ, France — Fallen Vivendi-Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier’s infamous cry that “the French cultural exception is dead” has fallen on deaf ears judging from the frenzy at this year’s French TV Screenings, which wrapped Sept. 13.If the screenings are any indication, Gaul is doing more than ever to support its cultural products.

TV France Intl., the state-funded body which promotes program exports, picked up the tab to fly 160 buyers from 110 television stations around the globe to St. Tropez in the south of France to meet 51 local TV production companies and see over 700 programs.

And it was money well spent as hundreds of hours of French programs were snapped up.

“The buyers are here to buy French,” notes Thorunn Anspach, managing director of Marathon Intl., whose animated skein, “Totally Spies” is a hit in the U.S. on ABC Family. “You’ve got a captive audience in a great atmosphere compared to Mipcom where everyone is dispersed.”

According to several buyers, coming to St. Tropez means having one less territory to deal with at Mipcom.

U.S. participants included Discovery and WNET; Channel 4 and its Welsh subsidiary S4C from the U.K.; and other buyers from as far as Hong Kong, India, Brazil and Qatar, the base of screenings habitue Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, a buyer with very deep pockets.

“We’ll buy over 200 hours here,” says Tareq Zuitar, buyer for the Arab satcaster. “Al Jazeera is launching a documentary channel in June, so we’re buying lots of French, English and American current affairs, political and social documentaries.”

Al Jazeera taste ranges from a one-hour doc, “Up Close and Personal: Afghanistan,” produced by Doc en Stock, to wildlife series, economic and travel programs and even a doc on French cheese production.

The station recently co-produced “The Spiral of Martyrdom,” about the lives of three of the Sept. 11 terrorists, with French company Sunset.

Docs were hot ticket items at the screenings. The French are increasingly savvy about gearing their docs for international consumption. Despite the general economic slowdown, French documentary sales remained stable in 2001, at $27.8 million.

“It’s the high-end docs that sell internationally,” notes Mathieu Bejot, TVFI’s managing director.

These include docs such as MK2′s “Fellini: I am a Great Liar,” which was bought by First Look Pictures and opens theatrically in the U.S. in November and “Bejart into the Light,” which was part of this year’s official Venice Film Fest selection. Both had budgets of over $1 million.

“There are changes in the market place,” notes Discovery’s Marian Williams. “The French are looking at subjects from an international angle, even when telling true French stories,” such as a doc about French astronaut turned science minister, Claudie Haignere.

Animation sales were also swift. Cartoons topped the list of exported French fare for the sixth year in 2001, banking $56 million, and garnering 44.6% of foreign sales. Sales of French cartoons doubled in North America, with that market copping 12% of all French animation shows sold.

“French animation has a very special spirit,” opines Veillon. “It’s witty, more educational, very stylish and there are great French animation creators.”

But while docs, cartoons, and catalog films were brisk sellers at the screenings, sales of made-for-TV fiction were flat.

According to Olivier Sapaut, CEO of TF1 Intl., French fiction is a hard sell due to its traditional 90-minute format, though many of the new big-budget miniseries — such as TF1′s “Dangerous Liaisons” and France 2′s “Napoleon” — are now geared for multiple 52-minutes timeslots.

French fiction sales also continued to take a hit due to increases in local fiction production elsewhere. “There are fewer primetime slots to fill with prestige fiction shows,” notes Bejot.

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