Documentaire salle : un état des lieux qui interroge
Sébastien Lachaussée & Elisa Martin-Winkel

Sébastien Lachaussée & Elisa Martin-Winkel

Difficulties in producing theatrical documentaries in France

These last 10 years number of documentary feature films available for theatre exhibition doubled and reaches 17,8% of the offer with 120 documentary films in 2017 including 87 French documentaries.

This strong growth is also noticeable within production, where documentaries represent 14.3% of CNC approved films. Moreover the number of documentaries of French initiative remains at a high level in 2017 with 37 films out of the 43 accredited by the CNC.

Regarding financial terms, the average budget of French initiated documentaries amounts to 0,69 M€, while the average budget of fiction feature films reaches 4,9 M€. Except for the share of salaries that is similar, the distribution of expenses between documentary and fiction differs greatly. Indeed, the proportion of filming expenses is lower for documentary (20.8% compared to 31.7% for fiction), while that of technical expenses is much higher (21.4% for documentary, 10.5% for fiction).

Above all, and despite such increasing production, production of feature documentary film encounters many difficulties related to the documentary format itself, and to the lack of support devices that take into account the specificities of such production.

At first it should pointed out that the moratorium on films with a budget under one million euros does not apply to documentary feature films. This moratorium is very advantageous within low-budget productions by allowing the producers to derogate from the salary grid of the collective agreement and to determine salaries of the technicians by mutual agreement, subject to complying with the French legal minimum wage.

In addition, article 12 of Title 2 of the collective agreement provides for the sharing of the receipts as follows: « It is hereby established, under the conditions set out in Annex III, for the technicians involved in the production of a specific film and corresponding to the characteristics specified in that Annex, an agreement on the sharing of the receipts specific to the operating revenue of such films. » This mechanism is narrowed and implies the approval of the film by a joint committee understood that only 20% of the films can benefit from the sharing of the receipts.

However, if this provision is in favor of the producers, Annex 3 applies more strictly to documentary feature films. Indeed, in order to benefit from this mechanism, the estimated budget of a documentary film must be under 0,6 million euros, the threshold being set much higher, at 3 million euros, for fiction feature films.

Similarly, the provisions on tax credits as provided for in Article 220 sexies of the French general tax code are not favorable to the production of documentary feature film.

It may be noted in this regard that the costs associated with the acquisition of archival images are not part of the expenditures eligible for the tax credit for cinematographic works, even though they constitute a customary and significant expense in production of documentary films and are eligible expenses in the context of audiovisual works.

On the opposite, expenses related to the remuneration of actors, special effects of costumes, hairdressing and make-up, which are eligible expenses, are practically non-existent or very low in the context of documentaries, which clearly favor the production of fiction.

In addition, the tax credit time schedules are not compatible with the production time of documentary feature films but adapted to the production of fiction. Indeed, the production of documentary films often requires very long filming and production times in order to follow the subject of said documentaries. Therefore, the obligation to reimburse the sum perceived as tax credit if the Visa of the film is not issued within 2 years following the end of the last fiscal year for which the tax credit was obtained penalizes for producers of documentary films.

Finally, it can be highlighted that the supports in favor of documentary feature films are very few. There is notably not specific scheme for the development and writing phases. Producers of documentary feature films can only apply for the advance on earnings (before or after the production of the film), Aide au Cinémas du Monde or automatic and selective « aides à la création visuelle ou sonore par l’utilisation des technologies numériques de l’image et du son » (fund relating to digital technologies). Regading the advance on earnings it should be noted that the competition is tought, and that practically no documentary is supported prior production.

In view of the foregoing, it would be pleasing that the regulation of documentary feature film production evolve, in order to recognize the place that the documentaries feature films deserve in view of the success of this format.

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