Daniela Elstner, the new managing director of Unifrance, talks about increasing support for producers, advising on the overhaul of France’s audiovisual laws and why she is working on a code of conduct to support victims of sexual harassment.
The international film market calendar kicks off this month with Unifrance’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris (January 16-20). It will see some 35 French sales companies lay out their French-language slates for the first half of 2020.
This will be Daniela Elstner’s first edition in her new role as Unifrance managing director since taking over from Isabelle Giordano, who left in July. However, the seasoned film agent has been a regular attendee in her former role as CEO of sales outfit Doc & Film International.
The new position brings Elstner full circle. She got her break in the French film industry as an assistant to the general manager at Unifrance in 1995. In the interim 25 years she went on to set up the film sales department of Les Films du Losange under the guidance of Margaret Ménégoz, before leaving to head up Doc & Film International.
At the latter, she piloted sales on a slate of arthouse fiction features and documentaries, working with the likes of Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi, Partho Sen-Gupta, Stéphane Brizé, Leyla Bouzid, Bruno Dumont and Rachid Bouchareb.
She also represented the interests of sales agents in France and Europe through her presidency at the French Film Exporters’ Association (ADEF) and has been involved in Europa International, which represents some 46 sales companies across Europe.
Unifrance president Serge Toubiana — who has just begun his second two-year mandate — says it was this impressive résumé that convinced him Elstner was the right person for the job.
“She has had an interesting career path and the fact she was also trained by Ménégoz, who is one of my references, was also a plus,” says Toubiana, referring to the veteran producer of late filmmakers Eric Rohmer and Andrzej Wajda, as well as Barbet Schroeder and Michael Haneke.
Elstner’s remit is not just confined to supporting sales agents. Unifrance’s 1,000 members are divided across four separate chapters comprising sales agents, producers, artists and short films. She has spent her first three months in the job doing the rounds of the chapters.
“The conversations at these commissions [chapters] can be quite lively,” says Elstner. “There are a lot of ideas and requests.”
One of her ambitions is to get producers more involved when they travel as part of Unifrance’s international delegation to festivals or at events such as the Rendez-vous with French Cinema in New York, French Film Panorama in China and the French Film Festival in Japan.
“Often when Unifrance touches down with a delegation somewhere, the sales agents are working non-stop, the talent is working non-stop and then somehow the producers are less into the whole business than the rest of the team,” she says. “I want to professionalise the producers’ presence. This makes sense given the ever-globalised nature of producing.”
In the meantime, Toubiana wants to instigate a deeper reflection on the agency’s priorities with a special focus on the US, where traditional distributors of French cinema are now competing with platforms. He also sees Africa as a major growth territory this year.
French cinema continues to command attention internationally. This awards season has seen a clutch of French productions making waves, including Ladj Ly’s Oscar submission Les Misérables, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Atlantics, a co-production that is Senegal’s submission for the best international film Oscar.
There have also been a slew of strong performers at the international box office including Gilles de Maistre’s South Africa-set family film Mia And The White Lion, which has grossed some $35m internationally, midlife-crisis drama La Belle Epoque ($12m) and The Specials ($1m).
But Elstner arrives at Unifrance during a complex and challenging time for French cinema. The country’s independent production and distribution scene is facing the same challenges as its global counterparts amid the disruptive rise of digital platforms.
“The big question is who is going to watch cinema in the future, and how are they going to watch cinema,” says Elstner. “One of the things we need to hold onto is the excellence of our independent production scene, which produces films like Les Misérables, Atlantics and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which have attracted the platforms this year but also enjoyed theatrical releases.”
Amazon acquired Les Misérables for the US, Netflix picked up most of the world for Atlantics excluding some territories such as France, and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire was picked up for the US by Neon in a joint deal with pay-TV outfit Hulu.
Elstner is closely following the French government’s ongoing overhaul of the regulations governing the audiovisual sector, updating them for the digital age and the arrival of the global streamers, and has been involved in some of the discussions.
“Our message to the regulators is that French cinema needs to be well financed and produced in order to reach international markets. Our success abroad is driven by the diversity and quality of our independent production,” she says.
Elstner has also been drafting a new code of conduct aimed at preventing sexual harassment at Unifrance or any of its associated activities. The proposed code, which Unifrance is developing with other professional bodies including European Film Promotion and France’s Collectif 50/50, would set guidelines around what is deemed inappropriate and put a framework in place for a victim to lodge a complaint and for it to be investigated.
“We are working to find the right formula because a body cannot simply suspend someone’s membership on the basis of an allegation, but while a case is being investigated measures need to be in place to protect the victims,” explains Elstner.
Astonishingly, given Unifrance’s remit to promote French cinema around the world, German-born, longtime France resident Elstner is the first sales agent to be appointed as either its managing director or president since its creation in 1949. Past managing directors have mainly hailed from institutional backgrounds while many of the presidents have been producers, such as the late Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Ménégoz and Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre.
“I’ve been able to hit the ground running,” she says of the benefits of her sales background. “I also have a big network. As well as buyers, sellers and producers, I know and have strong relationships with festival directors, artists and directors.”
However, she acknowledges there is a downside to this: “It can also be a trap. I was just one of 35 [French] sales agents who all have types of slates and methods of selling. I’m having to deconstruct and reconstruct my own career and take on a much larger perspective beyond my personal experience and view.”