Film Festivals: Arte

Since its first broadcast in 1992, Arte has become the most innovative television programmer in Europe. Its attraction is due to a creative programming philosophy unhampered by commercial considerations. Apparently simple issues are presented in depth from original perspectives and, conversely, complex matters are made comprehensible without undue simplification.

Arte funding is one of the better-kept secrets among independents. But it’s worth investigation, because cost considerations, niche programming, and the internationalization of upscale television have made European funding more accessible and programming trends better understood. More U.S. independent directors can certainly benefit from this shift. As producer Peter Friedman puts it, “Arte is the most filmmaker-friendly and least risk-averse TV channel in the world. [B]e patient and persistent, but not pushy.”

Arte was the first European channel to offer theme nights (or in Arte’s parlance, ‘topical evenings’), which have since become Arte’s trademark and a device borrowed by other European stations. More than 1,000 theme nights have been produced since 1992. Anything concerning the public can become the focus for a theme night, consisting of three or four hours of programming which can be a mix of documentaries, feature films, expert discussions, essays, and other formats. Sunday nights is generally designed for family viewing. Tuesdays are given to art, theater and literature. Thursday is the night to analyze social, political, and economic issues from a European perspective.

Scheduled during primetime and throughout Arte’s line-up are documentaries contextualizing events and news stories. Among the most successful are those dealing with history and World War II (leading to the trade quip that whenever one sees a swastika on the screen, it must be on Arte). Arte’s film programming includes independent productions and favors auteur and high-end niche titles. To date Arte has co-financed or acquired numerous American independent documentaries and bought indie feature films, but not yet provided production funds for fiction features.

Independents wishing to become part of Arte’s line-up should be aware of certain basic parameters. When dealing with co-productions and acquisitions, Arte applies similar considerations for theme nights, documentaries, and features. First films are acceptable, but the director must have a producer with an established track record. Ideally the topic must be European or have an appeal to European audiences. Most importantly, U.S. independents have to establish a personal relationship with Arte’s commissioning editors or executives. This may prove difficult, since the channel has no U.S. presence, but it’s not impossible, if a producer is willing to travel to the many international cofinancing forums and markets.

Arte’s organizational structure is unique, very complex, decentralized, and rather fluid. So it should come as no surprise that there is no standard model for pitching a project. In general, productions are proposed to a commissioning editor or executive at La Sept or one of the participating German public television stations. If the concept is appealing and fits Arte standards, this broadcaster in turn presents it to the program conference in Strasbourg, which must approve it. This holds for all program categories, including the arts, drama, documentaries, and theme nights.

Overall control of the theme nights stays with the commissioning television station and is rarely given over to an outside producer. However, producers can submit ideas for a project that might fit into a particular theme night, once these themes have been established. Ideas can also be proposed directly to senior executives in Strasbourg, which produces about 10 theme nights and 15 documentaries a year. Strasbourg may choose to accept the idea or relay it back to an Arte commissioning editor at a particular station.

American independents have found many roads to Arte. Markus Gieppner, a German-American producer/director based in New York, approached Laurent, chief of Strasbourg’s documentary section, with the concept for 18B Justice. This is a documentary about a publicly funded private investigator in New York who helps indigent defendants. Laurent referred him to a commissioning editor at ZDF, who after the customary half-year delay, committed to half the funding.

Then there’s the case of Robert Longo, an American artist/director with a WDR/Arte commitment who was able to work through an American production company. Longo signed on to direct A Winter Tale, a documentary about the German poet Heinrich Heine, based on a script by the German playwright Klaus Pohl. Once WDR demonstrated interest, Longo went in pursuit of a production company to work with, which ended up being the New York based ICON Pictures.

Still others have found their single idea blossoming into a much bigger affair. Such was the case with producer/director Jane Weiner. A veteran producer who had prior experience working with Arte, Weiner proposed the theme of “La Douleur” (“The Pain”) to Strasbourg headquarters, which passed it on to La Sept. Ultimately ZDF took charge of the program. She produced the required documentary, working closely with ZDF’s commissioning editor, and structured the whole evening at ZDF’s request—an editorial freedom rarely enjoyed by Arte’s producers.

ZDF then asked her to develop a theme night on the topic “Lost & Found.” After her proposal was accepted by the programming conference in Strasbourg, she executive produced three new productions for the evening, one of which she directed, along with the habillage (the opening, closing, and interstitial segments of a theme night). Working with ZDF’s commissioning editor, she also acquired a fourth documentary to fill out the evening.

When producers work with Arte, there’s often a degree of fund-raising that’s part of the job. The total budget for a theme night is $250,000 at the most for a four-hour slot. In addition to the principal documentary, this budget must also cover the licensing a feature film in many cases, as well as other components, such as essays, studio discussions, etc.

Additional funding frequently has to be secured through other sources. As Weiner explains, “Both France and Germany usually put up less than half of the budget for any single film, so the only way to make a program is to co-produce with another major broadcaster in one of the few territories left . . . The producer may retain the rights to a non-Arte territory [and] it is necessary to ‘reserve’ the territories for a first broadcast before signing the Arte contract,” a complex endeavor, since broadcast territories do overlap. Nonetheless, Weiner has been able to sell to or find co-funding from stations as diverse as NCRV-Holland, Canal 22-Mexico, Channel 4-UK, NHK-Japan, SVT-Sweden, PBS, and HBO.

Arte Deutschland TV consists of two national public television networks: ARD, a decentralized consortium of the television systems based in each of the German states, and the nationally broadcast ZDF. Each network provides half of the German Arte program share, with ARD’s contribution broken down roughly according to the size of the audience each state television system serves. (These include WDR, Cologne, 22%; SWR, Stuttgart, 17%; NDR, Hamburg, 16%; BR, Munich, 14.5%; MDR, Leipzig, 10.5%; HR, Frankfurt/Main 7%; SFB, Berlin 5.5%; ORB, Potsdam, 2.5%; and SR, Saarbruecken, 2.5.)

As the largest European public broadcaster on the continent, WDR takes the lead in the ARD network. Its Arte budget is $5 million. There is no particular program genre WDR specializes in, but, given its sizable budget, it has more editorial flexibility than smaller German pubcasters, most of which have not yet worked with American independents. WDR Arte is headed by Dr. Sabine Rollberg, who says she welcomes co-productions with U.S. indies.

Nevertheless, interviews with producers reveal that WDR sometimes tries to impose production conditions which can be onerous, such as co-producing the program with a German company. According to Douglas Sloan, who produced Robert Longo’s A Winter Tale, “Lengthy negotiations with the WDR were needed to get the required production flexibility.”

As with La Sept, producers can pitch projects that sync up with WDR’s theme nights. In late September 2000, the station was assembling theme nights around the topics “Waltz,” “Couples,” “Art Theft,” “Double Life,” “Child Abuse,” “Medicine 2000,” “Mama’s Boy,” and “Women in Russia.” Among the WDR projects the station will be discussing at the Arte programming conference this month are: “Happy Birthday Woody Allen,” “Who Is The Most Beautiful: Beauty Pageants,” and “Presents: Christmas Specials.” Among the new theme nights WDR will be suggesting are “Lions,” “Wodka,” “Fishing Fever,” “Erotic Tales,” and “Salt.”

WDR has a rather limited track record with U.S. independents, whereas ZDF has worked with them for many years. Eckart Stein’s program Das Kleine Fernsehspiel (The Little Television Feature) funded numerous U.S. independents before shifting support to directors from developing countries.

Since ZDF provides half of the German portion for Arte, its Arte budget has became an important European source of funding for U.S. indies, specifically through the vehicle of the theme nights. ZDF/Arte’s principal objectives are to foster new filmmakers, avoid the lockstep of traditional approaches, and present everyday themes in an unusual and demanding fashion. Though the ZDF budget is limited, there is an incredible flexibility with respect to format, content, and formal execution. This approach reflects the preferences of a rather autonomous group of commissioning editors, and through it ZDF/Arte is trying to establish its own profile. As Markus Gieppner points out, “Once ZDF commits funding, it is smooth sailing, since it is a pleasure working with their commissioning editors.”

For better or worse, American independents have an excellent reputation in Europe as a group. To tap this good-will, you’ll need to know what European commissioning editors and executives want, hire well-known producers, cultivate crucial interpersonal skills, and develop some linguistic acumen. It also helps to be mobile and spend a portion of the year in Europe.

Claus Mueller [] is a New York-based writer who teaches media analysis at Hunter/CUNY and curates the annual New York Screening Days.