Former TF1 Group CEO and chairman Gilles Pélisson has gone through a baptism of fire this week in his new role of president at French film and TV promotional body Unifrance as he attends his first edition of its annual Paris Rendez-vous.
In its 26th year, the event has long been a must-attend event for cinema buyers looking for French films. More than 420 cinema buyers from 50 countries are attending this edition as 40 film sales companies unveil their French slates for 2024.
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Since 2022, the event also features a TV market and screening program following Unifrance’s merger with TV France International in 2021.
Close to 50 French audiovisual distribution companies have been presenting animation, documentary, and fiction to some 100 European buyers for the third year.
Appointed in July, Pélisson took over from film critic and former French Cinematheque head Serge Toubiana as Unifrance’s first president hailing from the audiovisual world.
Deadline sat down with Pélisson and Unifrance driving force, managing director Daniela Elstner at the Paris Rendez-vous to talk about his arrival and international challenges and ambitions for French cinema in 2024.
DEADLINE: Gilles, you’re the first figure from the audiovisual world to take up the role of Unifrance president. What drew you to the role?
GILLES PÉLISSON: I’ve had two professional lives. One in the tourism world, where I was the chairman and CEO of Accor hotels. This led me to travel all around the world and learn about new cultures as well as the way in which people look at the French.
I then worked for Disney [as CEO of Disneyland Paris] which led me into the creative world and connected me with movies and television. At TF1, I was involved in producing movies and buying a studio, Newen. We also had the animation focused Blue Spirit production house.
When I decided to leave the corporate world because, you know, I’m 66, I started thinking about my new life, what would it be and how to stay connected.
[Former TV France International president] Hervé Michel and Daniela did a great job in uniting cinema and television within Unifrance and when I heard about this role, I got very excited. I thought I could contribute something to the project.
DEADLINE: What do you think you can bring and contribute Unifrance?
PÉLISSON: I’ve worked a lot with the platforms. At TF1, we did The Bonfire Of The Destiny (Le Bazar de la Charité) drama with Netflix and other projects. So, Ted Sarandos, people like that, I got to know them… It’s all about the French cultural potential, how to expand it and export it and how, within the international context, to help smaller players, European players exist.
DEADLINE: In your latter years at TF1, you were outspoken about the detrimental impact you felt big global platforms such as Netflix and Amazon were having on audiovisual European players. Do you still see them as a threat?
PÉLISSON: Things have moved on. The French have made it an obligation for these companies to produce in France [under its application of Europe’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSVD)] which is a major step. That started a whole new process and a type of cooperation that I think everybody can be very happy about. Additional money is coming in and facilitating French talent, whether they’re a producer, director or an acting talent.
There are still things we need to be vigilant about: transparency of the figures is definitely something we need to work on collectively. Not knowing how much a film has achieved at home or worldwide puts producers at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating fees and terms. The other big issues are AI and the move to end geo-blocking in Europe.
DEADLINE: Daniela, Unifrance kicked off the Paris Rendez-vous with its traditional presentation of the annual international box office figures for French cinema. The report revealed a 37.8% hike in global receipts to $256M gross. The numbers are encouraging but remain 19% below 2019. Do think the market will ever return to pre-pandemic levels? What’s your take on the market for the international market for French cinema now?
DANIELA ELSTNER: That’s hard to predict but what I can see is that there’s strong attendance at the Rendez-vous and I get people coming to me every day thanking us for making it happen. You just need to look at the traffic around the booths to see it’s really buzzing. 2020 and 2021 were difficult but since 2022 it’s been coming back. I remember one of the Italian distributors telling me two years ago that even if they lost 10% of their theatrical public it would be fine because there would be other ways to monetize the film, even if the TV situation remains difficult in Italy.
I think the big issue for sales remains minumum guarantees. These have decreased and producers can no longer necessarily look to them as before.
Just about every European distributor who counts is here, watching films and promos, reading scripts. Berlin films are being pre-sold. So, there is definitely a desire for French films. The success of films like Anatomy Of A Fall can also only help. They showed some images here last year and expectations were high it would be strong, but no-one could foresee the extent of its success. That’s the beauty of cinema.
PÉLISSON: I think what the also study showed was the diversity of French cinema, it’s variety and richness. On the one side you have a hit animation like Miraculous, then Anatomy of a Fall, and then you Jeanne du Barry and The Three Musketeers – D’Artagnan. They are very different types of movies
DEADLINE: One of the more surprising revelations of the study was that Russia was the top territory for French cinema in 2023, in spite of its near frozen political relations with Europe right now due to its war on Ukraine. How do you feel about this at Unifrance?
ELSTNER: It’s something we have control over but our rules are very clear around how we as an organization treat Russians. We don’t invite them to the Rendez-vous but if they come under their own steam, they can get an accreditation as long as it’s clear that they’re not connected with the government.
DEADLINE: A lot of Russian cinema professionals with strong European connections are now living outside of the country. How do you decide whether to categorize them as Russian or not?
ELSTNER: We look at where their companies are based and where they’re doing business. We also have long-time Russian Rendez-vous attendees also buy for other countries.
It’s complicated. I’ve been thinking about the debate myself. On Monday’s, [producer] Bertrand Faivre told a debate at the Unifrance Expoert Day that it would be fantastic if his films [tackling issues such as tax evasion, police violence and whistleblowing] were showed in Russian because they would open minds.
On the other side, we added Ukrainian subtitles to the films in our online festival MyFrenchFilmFestival and have a bigger platform in Ukraine.
DEADLINE: But there’s not partnership between the festival and Russia anymore?
ELSTNER: No, of course not.
DEADLINE: It was interesting to learn that you had opened up the Paris Rendez-vous to Latin American professionals this year. What was the thinking behind this?
ELSTNER: We used to run a market together with the other European bodies in cooperation with the Miami Film Festival, inviting all the Latin American buyers. It’s stopped for various reasons. We decided to invited these buyers to the Paris Rendez-vous instead as a test. For our European guests, we only pay the accommodation but for the Latin American buyers, we’ve always helped with the travel , working with local branches of the French Institute and embassies to help cover the cost.
DEADLINE: Admissions for French cinema rose 12% in North American to 1.9M in 2023. How do you see this market?
ELSTNER: The U.S. remains a very important market and partner for French cinema. Even if the box office has decreased over the years, you only have to look at our presence on the platforms and in the festivals. We’re in the Oscars race [with entry The Taste of Things and Anatomy Of A Fall, which has been positioned in other categories]. We also work with the International Emmy Awards. The next big event on our agenda is Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York in March which is important for us.
DEADLINE: Will you both be going this year?
ELSTNER: Yes we’ll both there, and then Gilles will go on to L.A. for meetings and then the Oscars.
PÉLISSON: A French delegation went to L.A. a couple of months ago to present the government’s 2030 strategy, with all the actors – such as the CNC – involved in increasing French production capabilities. This had a great resonance with all the major platforms. Everyone attended as they’re now producing in France because they’re part of the system. I think they all wanted to hear how the French government is embracing the implementation of studios. There was a time when it was only Britain and now France is positioning itself.
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