Julien Aubert: the short series sector in France and its international development
Founder of Bigger than fiction, Julien Aubert co-directs the 'short series' division of PXN, the association of independent new media producers. While the Institut français is embracing this format with Binge, a programming platform for the French cultural network abroad, he talks to us about the issues surrounding short series, the structuring of the sector and its international opportunities.
Updated on 27/09/2023
You work in the audiovisual sector, particularly in new narratives. Could you tell us about your background?
After studying at business school, I planned to work in music production. I was fascinated by the narrative and transmedia worlds developed by artists like Nine Inch Nails, Wu-Tang Clan or even IAM. In 2007, I joined a digital communications agency as Community Manager for the online video game Second Life. At the same time, I started a blog devoted to transmedia, which introduced me to many people in the industry. I then became a freelance designer and writer, creating the alternate reality (ARG) game Faits divers paranormaux, while at the same time branching out into the web documentary format. Finally, at the age of 27, I set up my own company, Bigger than fiction, a digital communications agency working with television and digital broadcasters.
How has Bigger than fiction evolved and what is your editorial policy today?
From 2011 to 2019, we focused on community management, digital content creation, social media strategy and the creation of websites and applications, mainly for broadcasters and production companies. In 2013, we also became executive producers on transmedia projects, notably for Cut (France Ô) and for the SKAM France series, as well as line producers of innovative digital programmes, such as ÉTÉ, a comic strip serial for Instagram that was Arte's first series designed for broadcast on this social media platform. We also produced Rap Fighter Cup with Slash in 2019, and Morts à l'aveugle the following year with TCM Cinéma.
In 2020, we shifted our strategy, going from 25 to 5 employees, and devoting ourselves to editorial consulting. Our customers come to us for our expertise and our network of creative talent. This also frees up resources for our outsourced production activity. Since 2021, we have been developing linear series (short or long) featuring young adult characters confronted with contemporary issues. Our knowledge of this generation's codes and aspirations allows us to develop series with innovative concepts that offer a different take on standard narrative codes.
What are your main projects currently in development?
We now have several projects for long series. We are currently adapting our animated musical series Rap Fighter into a longer 'soap opera' format, and also our Instagram series ÉTÉ into a longer series. We are also developing a Christmas rom-com with an elliptical narrative spanning 10 years, as well as two series that remodel the codes of detective series and thrillers through the eyes of young adult characters. As for our short series, there are a number of things in the pipeline, but I can't reveal them just yet!
You are also very active within PXN, the association of independent new media producers, and you co-direct the 'short series' college. This group works to structure the short series sector to encourage widespread distribution. Can you tell us about this creative format and its specific features?
We define a short series as an audiovisual format with a serial narrative where each episode lasts less than 20 minutes (or where the total length of the season is less than 200 minutes). These series, produced by production companies and often co-produced by broadcasters, are designed for online broadcast. They can be found on the internet platforms of the major television channels and on their social networks, as well as during dedicated programming at festivals. They differ from short content that can be accessed free of charge online, created by amateurs or, in any case, without a producer or broadcaster.
For broadcasters, this format is a real accelerator for talent, allowing new writers and actors to prove themselves and make a name for themselves. It's also an editorial accelerator, since short series often develop highly singular worlds, carrying strong personal intentions or developing innovative and original concepts. The paradox is that these are also projects to which broadcasters find it hard to commit large budgets, because they represent a risk. On the other hand, these series are often "hyper-broadcast", i.e. broadcast both on the publishers' platforms and on their social media platforms such as Instagram, Youtube and Tiktok, and they are attracting an increasingly large audience. Short series therefore develop narratives and themes that are inspired by these platforms and media, and of course by the worlds of their audiences.
In a way, short series are an antechamber to long series, a bit like short films to cinema. It's a way for creators to get a calling card, to get noticed, and to launch a career in long series. This was the case, for example, for the creators of Tu préfères, who were selected at Cannes and at the César Awards for their film Les Pires, or for someone like Simon Bouisson, who developed short-format projects and now directs several long-form series for young adults, or Louise Condemi, the creator of Malaisant, who is now involved in the development of several long-form series.
The Institut français is keen to support the short series sector by offering Binge, a new "turnkey" programming platform for the French cultural network abroad and its partners, designed to promote the richness and diversity of French short and digital series internationally. With PXN, you have also run two training webinars on this subject for members of the French cultural network abroad. What are the current international prospects for French producers?
We have seen French and foreign series festivals give awards to short series from all over the world! In a similar fashion to the French industry, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia and Argentina have all developed funding ecosystems for short series. In other countries, such as the Middle East, Asia and the United States, the short series is a commercial format broadcast on niche platforms or produced by alternative means. It is therefore a format that is developing worldwide.
In France, short series frequently continue to find their creative ambitions limited by low budgets. Funding from broadcasters and public institutions, lower than for long formats or even short films, limits production costs. What's more, short formats don't always qualify for the aid and funding schemes available to longer productions, such as tax credits. So we see other countries that broadcast short series as potential partners for co-production, rights acquisition and foreign broadcasting, as well as for raising the profile of festivals, which are important for the sector's development. Our aim is therefore to bring the international players in the short series sector together, in order to consolidate and perpetuate this still emerging and fragile market, which is nevertheless set to grow considerably in the coming years.
The French cultural network abroad has a role to play in the international development of the industry, by helping to identify and network stakeholders and broadcast French short series abroad. The Institut français Binge programming platform, which will be rolled out worldwide, and the training provided by PXN are an initial response to encourage this dynamic. Other projects will follow in due course.
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