I met with Serge Lalou in Paris on the 14th of March just before the outbreak of the Iraqi War. In the lobby of Les Films d’Ici, two grand posters told me that the company was involved in both Iran, Veiled Appearances, by Thierry Michel, and Etre et Avoir, by Nicolas Philibert. That made the first question easy to ask.
Tue Steen Müller: ”Etre et Avoir has sold almost two million tickets in France. How can a film about a teacher and a school class in Auvergne generate such a box office miracle for a documentary? Is it because the French love to watch French culture or…?”
Serge Lalou: “No, it is not. In Germany, they have sold almost 200,000 tickets, and other countries are showing it, too (Italy, Greece, USA, Canada, Korea, Japan, Belgium, Switzerland, Brazil, and others). I think it is a combination of many elements. It is a beautifully shot and edited film. It is a story that touches us all. The appeal of children. And we would all love to have had a teacher like that! It is an optimistic film, a film that tells us how the director would like the world to look. And, very important, the marketing work was superb! Films des Losanges did it the right way. Before the official screening at the Cannes Film Festival, they organized a special ‘séance’ for the cinema owners in France. 240 came to see the film, and they know what can attract an audience. 123 prints were sent out for the premiere, a lot of targeted marketing had been directed on educational circles. The week after they had to double the number of prints.”
Back to the company and to Serge Lalou, who is known in France as well as in the international documentary environment. He works at Les Films d’Ici as a producer and is one of three shareholders (Richard Copans and Frédéric Chéret are the other two) who own 50% of the company. The Lagardère media group owns the remaining 50%. According to its web site (www.lesfilmsdici.fr), Les Films d’Ici has produced more than 450 films since 1984. The catalogue includes impressive names from recent documentary history such as Claire Simon, Robert Kramer, Nicolas Philibert, Patricio Guzman, Stan Neumann, Judit Kele, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Avi Mograbi, Thierry Michel and Eliane de Latour. Lalou recently co-produced Etre et Avoir by Nicolas Philibert, August by Avi Mograbi, Latina Littoria by Gianfranco Pannone and Iran, Veiled Appearances by Thierry Michel. Last year Lalou directed a film himself, a fiction film entitled Entre Nous.
Serge Lalou: ”We have a permanent staff of 12. We make 25 to 30 films a year. Besides production, we now have started to do some of our own distributing. We have released 6 to 8 documentaries a year in cinemas. It’s a militant kind of activity. Yesterday we set up Thierry Michel’s film in the Parisian cinema L’Espace St. Michel, and we had 200 people the first day. This was without any kind of normal marketing, based solely on a couple of good reviews. This is not at all profitable, but we wanted it to happen as there is an audience looking for content. There is a concern about the war, and people are interested in films that deal with the world. There is a need for debate.
“Three exceptional things happened to documentaries in this country. The successes of Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore) and Etre et Avoir are enormous, and on television L’Odyssée des Especes reached 38% of the audience. Although this may give cause for optimism, be careful! Philibert knows that it might not happen to him again in his lifetime. There won’t be one like that every year. But a psychological barrier that prevents people from going to the cinema to buy a ticket for a documentary has fallen.”
Shift in Company Position
Serge Lalou continues, “L’Odyssée des Especes is a producer’s film and therefore a television programme. It’s conceptual. It does not have a filmmaker’s approach. It is completely different from Etre et Avoir in which Nicolas (Philibert – ed.) wants to make a film. They represent two different schools. I have learned that we have to be present in both categories. In other words, we must include the more industrial approach to television where the typical budget is three or four times greater than that of Etre et Avoir. We will move into that market, we want to and we have to. If you are not present on that market, you lose the other one, the classical auteur documentary. L’Odyssée des Especes was a big international co-production, which proved that France can make programmes traditionally made by the English and Americans.
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