Small is Beautiful

Since 1988 he has produced over 50 fiction and documentary programmes, and with considerable success. Most recently his efforts won him the PROCIREP French “Producer of the Year” award – shared jointly with big-budget producer Jean-Pierre Guérin. Denis Freyd himself prefers to stay small and independent.

With his engineering studies at the Ecole Polytechnique and a master’s degree in philosophy, Denis Freyd’s high-level education dealt with thought in its most abstract forms. But he did not become a technology freak or an abstract thinker himself. On the contrary: the Archipel 33 producer has devoted himself for ten years now, with talent and success, to developing the film projects he holds dear. Producing only a few films at a time (between 3 and 5 a year), with a small team, he devotes himself intensely to each project. As a result, his company’s filmography reads like a list of prizes. In 10 years, 12 films have won awards, including: “Les vivants et les morts de Sarajevo” by Radovan Tadic, “Le Convoi “by Patrice Chagnard, “En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud” by Gérard Mordillat, and “Corpus Christi “by Jérôme Prieur and Gérard Mordillat. In 1998 Archipel 33 developed 3 productions: “La commission de la vérité “by André Van In (which won an award at Cinéma du réel 1999), “Off the Pigs” by Jens Meurer, and “En cet an là “by Thomas Sipp.

“Les vivants et les morts de Sarajevo” by Radovan Tadic

How did you get involved in production?

I worked in the programme department of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA) for 6 years. That gave me the opportunity to see very different things, because it really was the television research and creation sector: we were there to invent, to find new forms of television and new frameworks. INA had an autonomous budget for production and the broadcasters were required to air the programs. Today this is no longer the case.

Do you think that French production misses that?

Yes, because I think every sector needs a research and development service. Today, having a team of program people not linked with broadcasters’ demands, who would be free to think and invent genres, forms, find new filmmakers – it would be a breath of fresh air for television.

How did your experiences at INA influence your career choices afterwards?

It was there that I really acquired the taste for production and met lots of directors, with whom I continued to work later. Suddenly, although I wasn’t a specialist in documentary production, I became very interested in the process of development. It is extremely fulfilling, because it opens you up to realities to which you wouldn’t otherwise have access. And I found it very interesting to place myself on the border between the two genres: fiction and documentary.

“En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud” by Gérard Mordillat

What are the necessary qualities for a producer, in your opinion?

Obviously one must be able to deal with all the financial problems, but the essential quality is artistic expertise. When you have a project in your hands, you must be capable of discussing it with the filmmakers, of pushing them to go further. It’s really at the level of these artistic questions that the distinctions between producers becomes clear.

What do you look for when you produce a documentary?

The director’s attitude. For me, the relationship between the director and the people being filmed is just as important than the subject itself.

Do you think there is a Archipel 33 “school”?

No, because what interests me is precisely being able to accommodate a diversity of points of view, and to find the appropriate means that will allow each project to succeed. That’s what’s interesting about a given project: finding the right means. Because one can totally ruin a project if, in the beginning, the right choices have not been made in terms of shooting time, size of the crew, and the technical means.

How did you react to receiving the PROCIREP “Producer of the Year” award?

I am very happy that the industry – because it’s important to mention that the jury corresponds more to what makes up the heart of television, which is mainstream fiction – acknowledges the work of a small outfit working in a marginal way. Because you know, my small independent producer friends and I had been promised that we were going to disappear quickly. We were told: “You won’t survive.” Meanwhile, I think the independent production sector in France has become very efficient in all aspects: artistic expertise, putting projects together, doing exports. The fact that diversity is accepted now, and that a little company like Archipel 33 can exist alongside a J-P Guérin, with one of the biggest successes in the history of television – that’s wonderful!

Jérôme Prieur and Gérard Mordillat

Do you think that this two-speed model is a bonus for the French film industry?

Yes, because we could never supply mainstream television – it works differently, as we know – but it’s also important to know that we can work differently, with a different point of view, with different filmmakers, and that we are also able to gain access to the public!

You’re not interested in expanding?

No, I’m not, because I think it’s very, very difficult, unless you have a very strong base of capital, to keep your editorial independence in a large structure. At a certain point the choice of projects is determined by questions of profitability, of covering costs. The business people who invest in the sector are not doing it for charity. There’s a point at which they will not be satisfied with just a successful picture – they want significant financial returns. In terms of what I want to do, I think there’s a contradiction there.

Is that why you wanted to start the distribution company Doc & Co?

There, now that’s a really important question! They say “small is beautiful” but it’s not that simple. And yet, in terms of the choices we had – either to expand, to take on financial partners, to grow internally, or to merge with another company to form a larger one – I myself preferred another solution, which is to stay small and completely independent but to organize with others to create some common tools. And that’s what led to the creation of Doc & Co. We were exhausting ourselves with our little catalogues and so we said, “Let’s put our films together and create a distribution company.” And we are very pleased. It’s working very well, we have increased our returns on international sales considerably, and it has also created a space for sharing, a real site of solidarity.

Is there a particular identity?

Doc & Co is there to provide support, and has no impact on the editorial line of the participating producers, such as Interscoop (grands reportages) and Lapsus (culture). The films are then listed in the Doc & Co catalogue by collection.

Are you also involved in producing fiction?

Since 1993, I’ve started developing fiction features at Archipel 33, but it’s a slow process. I have the option on a book, “La Maison d’Esther” by Yves Dangerfield, which tells the story of the Saint Cyr school of Madame de Maintenon. It’s very beautiful story. I proposed the project to Patricia Mazuy (“Travolta et moi”). The whole thing took a crazy amount of time, and at the end of last year I found myself with a script ready to circulate. To separate the two activities – the film has a budget of 45 million French francs (6.8 million Euro) which is too heavy compared to documentary productions – I created Archipel 35.

Do you have a specific organization there as well?

 The other example of a specific tool is in the area of the cinema. There it was the uphill climb which preoccupied us the most: how to finance the scriptwriting and the development, which is always an enormous problem. We got together with Pierre Grise Production and Jacques Bidou, and the three of us created a development fund. It’s always the same: alone, none of us could have done it, but as a threesome we were able to put together a development proposal for a dozen features and interest a Sofica (Société de financement du cinéma) which allows us to finance our projects very well. So, there are two examples of tools which don’t weigh down the structures, which have no influence on our editorial policy, and which really help us to survive.

What do you think is going to happen next?

Once Archipel 35 is up and running, after the Patricia Mazuy film, I’ll continue to produce one feature every two years, at the most, and continue making documentaries. My ambition is to be able to continue to produce the films that I love. Voilà – and I pretty much have the tools I need to do it!