Following only the U.S. and Japan (though operating, it should be noted, on an exponentially smaller scale) France has become the world’s third-biggest animated content supplier, producing an average of 300 hours of programming each year and banking $137.7 million in global sales in 2020. And though that sales figure marked a 13% increase from that of the previous year, it is hardly an outlier for an industry that has always been structured around international attention.
“Historically, domestic broadcasters have played a minority role in financing French animation,” sayss Raphaelle Mathieu, senior VP of sales and acquisitions at Cyber Group Studios. “So naturally producers need to look for money abroad. That forces us to develop programs that are not entirely oriented towards France.”
An industry leader, the Paris-based Cyber Group Studios won the 2021 Export Award from the TV division of Unifrance (formerly TV France Intl.) for “Gigantosaurus,” a preschool series that sold to more than 140 worldwide territories, including — as Mathieu is proud to point out — with several rather hard to crack buyers in China and Japan. To score those deals, Cyber Group invested not only in extensive R&D but also in a deft and dexterous territory-by-territory charm offensive.
“The market has become more demanding,” says Mathieu. “We used to be an industry of volume, where we worked on more package deals; only today, there are more international buyers who buy less projects overall. Instead your approach has to be super-customized — you have to really be keen to individual needs and to deem no deal too small.
“Our job is to listen,” she continues. “We have to be permanently reactive and adaptable to make smart targeting choices, to offer the right projects, and to ensure that buyers return to us again.”
The local industry’s reliable pipeline has been another key factor fueling international revenue. While Cyber Group could lure prospective buyers with the promise of subsequent seasons of “Gigantosaurus” either well-into production or already ready for delivery, animation studio Xilam, which claimed TV France Intl.’s Export Award in 2014, was able to mine its own back-catalog toward additionally lucrative ends.
“We were among the first in France to launch into the digital space,” says Morgann Favennec, exec VP of distribution at Xilam. “We always kept the full rights to our series, which allowed us to test out the [AVOD] market.”
Beginning in 2014, Xilam started creating dedicated YouTube channels for back seasons of accessible, dialogue-free shows including “Oggy and the Cockroaches” and “Zig and Sharko,” building a small empire of proprietary, previously broadcast material that extends across 56 active channels and boasts 36 billion views. (Indeed, the channels for “Oggy” and “Zig” both claim more than 10 million subscribers each.)
With such a hefty digital footprint, Xilam believes it could do more than simply monetize back titles, and has begun using the online ecosystem to test out new properties and potential spin-offs, leveraging online attention toward broadcaster sales.
“What works in digital can just as easily work in linear broadcast,” says Favennec, who points to “Boon & Pimento,” a Xilam original that premiered online in late 2020 before selling to the U.K.’s ITV a few months later, and to “The Adventures of Bernie,” a spin-off title that will launch before buyers at this year’s Mip TV having already won more than 335,000 YouTube subscribers.
“We’ve even used our online performance to sell older seasons of ‘Oggy,’” Favennec adds. Buyers from TV Ecuador “were not so convinced by the program, but when they saw how well it did on YouTube in Latin America, they bought the series. So it creates a positive loop that serves everyone, and it goes to show that digital and linear need not be opposed.”