Interview with Sarah Chazelle and Etienne Ollagnier, Founders and Managers of Jour2Fête, France

By Joachim Soudan


Sarah Chazelle and Etienne Ollagnier, founders of Jour2Fête, develop for us their points of view over independent film publishing in France and over the struggle against the effects of the pandemic. Through ongoing discussions with the government and between all the actors of the cinema industry, France has put in place structural aids and incentive bonuses for the cinemas’ reopening.


How would you describe Jour2Fête’s editorial line?

We started in 2006 and our first acquisitions were European films, especially German films. With time we defined two main typologies of films: documentaries (we release from two to four documentaries per year); and fiction films, which account for two-thirds of releases, with a mix between European (50 out of 110 Films released) and French films (one-third). To be able to release French films, and to some extent European films, we have to intervene very early now, on script basis. Every year we keep places for European favourites, films acquired during festivals, or on script basis.

We like films to have a hold on current events, on society, that talk about important subjects, anchored in reality, bringing debate and discussion. We accompany the films in theatres, with associations and partners who want to debate after the film. This aspect is very important in our work, even when the films are relatively mainstream.


How do you see the work of a distributor, how do you conceive it?

We are publishers. The work we do is the same work that a book publisher does for the author he represents. It’s an accompaniment of the author, more and more often from the script (it’s a general trend in Europe, distributors intervene earlier and earlier in the choice of films). We see the films at different stages, and we try to have a constructive dialogue with the authors and producers in order to present them to the public, to theatres, and to the press, in the best possible way. We do our best to be this link between the creative part and the audience. For example, with the last film we released, Un Pays Qui se Tient Sage (David Dufresne, 2020), we held 150 debates organised with partners and experts.

So, we prefer the word “publisher”, which is much more appropriate than “distributor”, a notion that often only includes the sales aspect. We make sales, it’s a big part of our job, but there’s also upstream work that’s taking on a lot of importance and that can be very long, which can start two, three or four years before a film is actually made when the film is acquired at script stage.

All the films we release in theatres benefit from video publishing. We create a new editorial work and bonuses around the films: an interview of the director, sometimes short films by the author, even when there’s no economic profitability in releasing them on DVD. And we do the same work for VOD.


What does this work as a publisher bring to European works?

Today, platforms are competing and fighting over the same films, but with a global marketing strategy, undifferentiated in relation to audience typologies. But local work is important in our business. Each distributor works on its specific targets, its content, its marketing, which is often extremely different depending on the territory. The types of audience and the film landscape are not the same: a film that is commercial in one country can be very arthouse in another.

With Jour2Fête, we try to build a fundamental work, an editorial line. We capitalise on the work we do on documentary films, especially on politicised films, for all the following films. We have built an identity, and formed a community (especially on social networks) through working on certain types of films.


What is special about European films and what are the difficulties in France in distributing them?

It’s difficult to think about European cinema in the broadest sense. The work and difficulties are not the same, depending on the nature of the films and the countries from which they come. We have a strong experience with German cinema which lead us to realise that some German films in France have a hard time finding their audience despite considerable efforts. For example, a film that we love, a true masterpiece, Victoria, (Sebastian Schipper, 2015), only made 92.000 admissions, probably because the French audience is not used to have this type of film from Germany. There are barriers to be broken. We believe there are very great German films and very great authors. Over the last fifteen years, we’ve tried to release a lot of them, and we can see that this work ends up paying off and now some authors have really found their place, like Christian Petzold. That’s an in-depth work.

What is also complex for us when we release a European film is the absence of a known cast, because French audience is attached to that. At first, we refused to accept it, but in the end, we realised that having a cast that has been identified attracts the press and brings it into the spotlight: it will inevitably work better. We saw it on Scandinavian cinema, with A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012) with Mads Mikkelsen, which was a great success in France.

Overall, in France, European cinema is really appreciated by the public. There is an audience for arthouse cinema, and sometimes we manage to overflow the larger audience.

For some movies it even seems easier in France. Dancing Dreams made over 300,000 admissions in France and had made only 30,000 in its country of origin, Germany. Later on, it entered a French school cinema program called “Collège au cinéma” and every year it continues to make admissions (150.000 admissions were reached within the school cinema programme). So, these films can be worked on properly for an arthouse audience.


What was your greatest success?

We just had the news that Two of Us (Filippo Meneghetti, 2019), for which we manage the international sales and which received the selective support from MEDIA for fifteen European distributors, has been selected to represent France at the Oscars in 2021, so we will see.

So far, our biggest success is a French film, Merci Patron (François Ruffin, 2016) a documentary that sold 500,000 tickets. Besides documentaries, the three biggest adventures were Papicha (Mounia Meddour, 2019), A Royal Affair and Woman At War (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2018), which sold over 200,000 tickets in thousands of cinemas (not only big cities but also small towns where you can organize events). Woman At War is a film we signed on script, and was co-produced by the French producer Marianne Slot. The movie wasn’t obvious on paper: the script was very original, but these original ideas were also disadvantaging at that stage and the producers had a lot of trouble setting it up because some people wouldn’t believe it would work. But we did. Woman At War is really the type of European film we are looking for, with lots of ideas, lots of innovations in the filmmaking, not easy on paper, but very exciting. Presented at Cannes, in front of the exhibitors, there was such enthusiasm: a standing ovation! The same happened with Papicha. When you’ve committed yourself since the script, it’s a great feeling, a great adventure.


What would be the essential ingredient for a successful campaign?

A perfect mix of marketing (a trailer, a poster, a campaign on social networks – which are becoming more and more important) and on-the-ground support. It’s always based on that coherence, but it also means finding the doors to the film. With Woman At War, there were some good small ideas. The title, for first, came at a time when women were taking an important place in people’s minds and discussions. We also made “Woman at war” t-shirts, which were worn a lot in Cannes, by women and men. This little marketing idea (a t-shirt isn’t much), at that precise moment, was taking all its strength and gave us visibility because journalists were wearing the t-shirt on TV sets, or at parties that had nothing to do with the film.


What is, in your case, the repartition of income between the different exploitation windows?

It varies a little from year to year. A good turnover in theatres has repercussions on the other exploitations of a film. It’s a virtuous circle. For the year 2019, the breakdown is about 56% in theatres, 7% on TV sales, 8% on video sales, 16% with international sales, and VOD is 3%.

When VOD started a few years ago we thought it would replace DVD but, for independent films, it didn’t happen. Independent films are made for the theatres and have to go through the theatres. The economic model of these films reveals the necessity of theatrical release because that’s where the film is born. For other movies, a shift is taking place, some VOD companies have doubled or even tripled their turnover during the lockdown. These are very important ongoing discussions about the French cinema’s ecosystem, because platforms are entering into financing movies and it raises questions about independent movies’ status.


Can you tell us about the support measures put in place for distribution in France?

Etienne Ollagnier: I am at the heart of these discussions because I’m the co-president of the Union of Independent Distributors (SDI). We’re talking with the CNC (National Cinema Centre) and the government. The measures put in place this summer to restart the opening of theatres must be changed, with the second wave and second lockdown, and these measures are currently under negotiation.

This summer, there were increases in selective support, or special selective support for films, which allowed independent distributors to release a lot of films (we decided to keep releasing films, also to support the cinemas). They were the only ones on-screen and it got the machine up and running again. Distributors gradually agreed to release films that were a little more promising.

Before closing again, October was the best month since June, with some very good successes. At Jour2Fête, for example David Dufresne’s documentary film, Un Pays Qui Se Tient Sage, benefited from the support measures. It means even though it only made 100.000 admissions (we initially hoped for 200.000), we reach a taking close to what we would have got with 200.000 tickets.

Now with the lockdown, there is a new negotiation with the CNC and the state. CNC is listening carefully at the moment. People are aware that the ecosystem can collapse. And will collapse if there’s no way to keep the theatres and the distributors alive – and the producers and the authors, of course! It’s important for our talks with the Ministry of Culture and the state, and we believe that they have the willingess to keep this ecosystem alive.

Another positive aspect of the reopening is the public’s attachment to the theatres. Audiences came back gradually. There were fewer admissions than last year because there were not films for everyone (like some categories of big American films). But the arthouse and French films audience had a very strong presence.


What kind of help will compensate theatres’ closure?

It’s difficult for the CNC and the state to compensate for losses, because it’s hard to calculate. In distribution we can have a bad month that is not linked to the lack of release, and after that a very good month: it’s more complicated than for any other business. So, we’re basing ourselves more on incentives for recovery, for reopening.

Different types of assistance are discussed. Structural aid for fragile companies, which release two or three films a year and live a lot on their catalogue and see their current income reduced to almost nothing. For slightly more established companies that release seven to twelve films a year, we talk about incentives for recovery, allowing them to have higher revenues as soon as things start up again.

It’s not defined yet. There are trade-offs at the state level that will be made. The question is: what envelope will be available? For the theatres? For distributors? For producers? There will be inter-professional negotiations to see who are the actors who need it most, how this support can be distributed so that, as the government has said, there will be no bankruptcies.

The longer the closure, the more worried we get. We’ve seen the public come back, but we’ve also seen that the public is attracted to other things and subscribed on SVOD platforms. We don’t have proof that all types of public are coming back. The regulars have really come back, but the others… it is part of the questions and fears.


What’s the outlook for the distribution of European films in the coming months?

There needs to be a national consultation. The unions are very supportive of each other, relatively speaking. There is the idea of having a blank week at the reopening: without any new release in order to make room to the films who had been released before the lockdown and let them make their admissions. Then there has to be a minimum of decency in the way the films are going to put in relation with each other, otherwise it’s going to be a brawl. We experienced it after the first lockdown: we had a week with 25 films released and it was catastrophic for everyone.

We also think we have to shout out loud and clear that the independent distributors played the game of the theatres: we released films, we took risks, we endangered our companies to preserve the ecosystem. We would at least like to be recognised for what we have done collectively during the crisis period. Maybe we even could ask for some kinds of regulation that allows us to keep existing in this way, and not be undermined by the competition of large American or French distributors. It started a little bit in the last weeks before lockdown: independent films, especially European ones, were beginning to be largely crushed. It’s a very competitive business with very large players, sometimes linked to theatres and with colossal power compared to small distributors. For European films to find their place, we must all be vigilant.

The press has a tendency to ride for French stars, but journalists should be more aware of the power they have over the arthouse audience. There are some magazines and editorials that have a huge influence. If these people are not aware of the threats made upon independent distribution, it can be very dangerous.


What led you to become a film publisher?

Sarah Chazelle: I started by doing financial auditing, then worked two years at PolyGram in various countries when it became obvious that I wanted to keep working in the film industry, but closer to films. I went back to Paris, and I met Etienne who was creating a company, with others, in which we were both partners. We got a taste for it, and then we created Jour2Fête.

Etienne Ollagnier: A large part of my story is linked to Sarah’s. If I go back further, my desire for cinema comes from my childhood: my father had a cine-club and showed me a lot of films. At the time of my studies, I became a road and bridge engineer. But I met Jean Rouch during an internship at the CNRS audiovisual. He was a former road and bridge engineer and told me he stopped to work as such when, in the war, he was asked to blow a bridge he had starting to build. That’s when he left for Africa to do ethnology and cinema. I understood that it was what I wanted to do too. Publisher, Distributor, it’s a path to enter the cinema.


Ideally, what will film distribution look like in a few years?

What we dreamed of when we created the first company were theatres that would be places to live, where people could exchange ideas, where all types of audiences would come, younger audiences too, where everyone is comfortable to discuss important and varied subjects and discover new authors as well as old authors. We are convinced that the theatre must and will continue to exist, that we need public places to confront ideas and passions. Perhaps independent theatres will evolve and become more local: a place where people come to discuss and exchange ideas about films. We believe a lot in all that.

But obviously we’re going to look at the world we’re entering. We have to develop all the axes of film publishing elsewhere than in the cinema, in parallel. We also believe in the virtue of the French media chronology. So, we are developing tools that allow us to connect with audiences on other screens as well. VOD didn’t work for independent films and it would be important that platforms to show independent films exist for people who are passionate about cinemas, and need to know where to find the auteur films that correspond to their taste.