TF1 at 40: Record Year at the Box Office Boosts Profile in Film Biz

Rolling off a record year at the box office marked by the success of “Serial Bad Weddings,” “Lucy,” “Supercondriaque” and “Paddington,” TF1 has strengthened its profile in the film biz.

TF1 ranks as France’s second-biggest investor in films, behind pubcaster France Televisions — although it’s routinely blasted by some local industryites for snubbing smaller movies — and is involved in co-productions, acquisitions and international sales through TF1 Droits Audiovisuels and TF1 Films Prods., both topped by Benoit Louvet.

France’s top-rated TV network, TF1, like other general channels, must invest a percentage of its annual revenues into French and European content as part of government regulations.

For a commercial broadcaster highly reliant on ratings and advertising coin, these investment and broadcast quotas have often been deemed burdensome by TF1 CEO Nonce Paolini and Louvet, especially since the company was not allowed to combine the obligations of the flagship channel with its three free-to-air DTT channels HD1, TMC and NT1.

But, says Louvet, “Among various changes (to the system), we’re discussing with other media companies and institutions how to regroup our investment quotas for TF1 and our DTT channels. We’ll be able to come onboard a wider range of fresh films that may not be appropriate for primetime TF1, but can be great on HD1, TMC and NT1.”

TF1 Films Prods., which feeds the network’s Sunday programming slot dedicated to films, invested in 18 movies — either through acquisitions or co-productions — which sold a record 37.7 million admissions. It marked one of the three best-ever years for the group.

While some film biz critics say TF1 relies too much on big-budget comedies with little international potential — although it also works with ambitious indie producers such as LGM (“Point Blank”) and up-and-coming shingles like WY Prods. (“A Perfect Man”) — Paolini has never diverted from its strategy of backing mainstream pics that cater to primetime auds, and so far it’s paid off.

Meanwhile, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels — the entity covering international sales, home entertainment, co-productions and distribution — has a more global scope. Thanks to its partnership with UGC, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels mostly co-produces French movies with B.O. potential, such as the hit “Les Profs” (“Serial Teachers 2).

“Suite Francaise,” above, an English-language WWII drama budgeted at $15 million-plus starring Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas, is an exception.

“We initiated this project seven years ago because we fell in love with the book and bought the rights way before we signed the deal with UGC, so it’s not part of it,” explains Louvet. “Initially we invested a lot of money in the project and we then found various partners, such as eOne and the Weinstein Co., to limit our risk.”

TF1 aims at developing one big-budget English-language movie every 18 months or so, per Louvet.

Still, “Suite Francaise” underscores TF1’s aim of opening up to different kinds of films, either edgier titles or more socially engaged ones like “Once in a Lifetime,” a drama telling the true story of teacher in an underprivileged school whose students — mostly minorities — take part in a collective project about the Holocaust in order to overcome their own prejudices.

“The director, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, came to us, and we were moved by the story so we decided to make the film. We’re very proud of the result,” says Louvet, who also pointed out that although the movie isn’t a Gallic blockbuster, it proved a sleeper box office hit in France and grossed €3.8 million ($4.2 million) from 600,000 admissions.

TF1 also backed Jean-Paul Rouve’s bittersweet dramedy “Les Souvenirs,” based on David Foenkinos’ novel, another modestly budgeted French pic which, like “Once in a Lifetime,” proved a good bet for TF1 and UGC, grossing an estimated 6.3 million Euros from over one million admissions.

TF1 Droits Audiovisuels also acquires upscale U.S. indies such as “Dallas Buyers Club” and the upcoming Todd Haynes’ drama “Carol,” with Cate Blanchett.

“These films have a good value in secondary markets and complement our mainstream French offerings,” says Louvet.

TF1’s international sales biz, spearheaded by Sabine Chemaly, has also been exploring new ground with premium TV dramas and animated series.

“The Americans were the first to energize the TV business (with high-end series from HBO and other cablers) and we’re now catching up in France. Many bridges have been built between our film and TV industries,” said Chemaly, who cited “Call My Agent!,” the smallscreen debut of Cedric Klapisch (“The Spanish Apartment,” “Chinese Puzzle”), as an example.

“Call My Agent!,” a miniseries created by veteran French talent agent Dominique Besnehard and Fanny Herrero, centers around a dysfunctional team of Parisian talent agents.

Although the series is being developed by France Televisions, TF1 managed to snatch up international sales because it came in first with a significant minimum guarantee, says Chemaly.

Louvet says TF1 will be increasingly pursuing third-party pickups such as “Call My Agent!” by offering competitive minimum guarantees.

TF1, for instance, reps some territories on Luc Besson’s “No Limit,” which could have been sold entirely by EuropaCorp.

Under TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, Louvet also handles acquisitions of U.S. skeins like “Unforgettable” and “The Mentalist” and relationships with U.S. studios, such as Warner Bros. and Sony, with which it has deals. Louvet also recently managed to sign a deal with Marvel that covers the upcoming series and movies, a great coup, points out Louvet.

These U.S. shows and films have become vital to the network because they pull the highest ratings (up to 9 million viewers in the case of “The Mentalist”), but that “dependence is quite dangerous for TF1 because it’s paying increasingly large license fees for content it does not own,” said Tim Westcott, principal analyst at IHS Technology.

Especially with platforms like Netflix that are now distributing content in France, Louvet says he is aware of the necessity to come on board very early on or initiate projects in order to own rights to content.

Although TF1 doesn’t look to emulate Studiocanal’s model of internationalizing its distribution operations, it surely aims at broadening and strengthening its position in French films and TV.

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