Although it is increasingly possible for international business professionals to communicate from a distance—on the phone or online—international events at which professionals meet in person have paradoxically not only continued, but have multiplied and grown since the 1980s. These events—international trade fairs, trade shows, and marketplaces—are in fact an excellent field for observing globalization (Brailly & Favre 2016) insofar as the latter refers to an unprecedented expansion of international business and transnational exchange (Lecler 2015a, 2018). They stem from both preindustrial trade fairs and international marketplaces (Dollfus 1982; Fontaine 2013: 55; Margairaz 1988), as well as universal exhibitions and industry and technology trade shows of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Benjamin 1999: 18; Gunning 1994: 423; Weber 2015). Ten thousand are listed today, in approximately a thousand cities around the world. They range from aeronautics (179 events) to luxury goods (51) via packaging (262) and eroticism (33)1. In all sectors, international exchange professionals attend an international event circuit, such as in television or cinema (Lecler, 2017a). For instance, in a 1999 article of the French professional magazine Écran total, journalists specializing in the media sector showed their surprise at the massive expansion of international marketplaces despite the widespread use of long-distance communication. They concluded that globalization “only reinforces the need for individuals to meet in person2.”
This resembles another paradox that has fascinated globalization theorists: the dispersion of production on a global scale, while leaders, elites, and experts are concentrated in “global cities” (Sassen 1991) or “clusters” (Castells 1996). To illustrate this, a group of geographers defined these marketplaces, fairs, and shows as “platforms for the creation and circulation of knowledge” (Bathelt & Schuldt 2010) to access “distant knowledge” (Maskell 2014); as “temporary clusters” facilitating an information-rich “worldwide buzz” (Schuldt & Bathelt 2011); or as “nodes” in international business (Skov 2006) or “central nodes of the global political economy” (Schuldt & Bathelt 2011). In fact, in their eyes, these events above all allow companies to learn about their competitors, partners (Maskell 2014: 893), and sector (Rinallo & Golfetto 2011; Sharland & Balogh 1996). As with “global cities” or “clusters,” the concentration of individuals and their “co-presence” (Bathelt & Schuldt 2008) are mainly supposed to facilitate data collection.
But these theories miss out on a crucial aspect of international trade, which is first characterized by a problem of mistrust, since professionals in the area are pitted against one another, insofar as their judiciary and professional judiciary and professional systems, cultures, and methods of exchange are very different. The risk of deceit, fraud, or even misunderstandings that are consubstantial with commodity exchange is thereby reinforced. The development of international trade in the twentieth century gave way to an increased risk, which explains the implementation of various mediation devices, such as a prudential international trade right, the lex mercatoria, international arbitration rates (Lemercier & Sgard 2015), and even national export risk control agencies (such as COFACE3). Historically, such risk was averted by strong ties through family, religious, or ethnic networks, and by a reputation system based on a shared commercial culture (Trivellato 2012). During the “social disembedding” of long-distance commerce in the nineteenth century, “commercial travelers” were able to “confer the strength of strong ties to buyer-seller relationships which, from all perspectives, seemed to be ‘weak’, since they were anonymous and depersonalized” (Lemercier, Bartolomei, Marzagalli 2012: 21). This historical perspective invites us to think of international trade shows, fairs, and marketplaces as a new solution to the issue of defiance. These events, in their current characteristics (specialization, professionalization, and systematization), were indeed invented at the beginning of the twentieth century with “sample trade fairs” (Debluë 2015).
Many studies in economic sociology give examples of marketplaces where trust is not a given (Dubuisson-Quellier & Neuville 2003: 17) and where participants “keep their distance” (Chantelat 2002: 532). For instance, the observation of marketplaces in Kabylie led Bourdieu to state that “relations reduced to a purely ‘economic’ dimension are conceived as warlike relations, which can only happen between foreigners, and the prime space for economic warfare is the marketplace.” He notes how everything is then done to “substitute a personal relationship with an impersonal and anonymous one” (Bourdieu 2003: 80). Many researchers rely on observing commercial interactions to demonstrate how trust is gained face to face, “on the razor’s edge” (Chantelat & Vignal 2002), thanks to “professionals in symbolic interaction” (Le Velly 2007), or how trust implies a “re-coding of interactions” to “flirt [...] with the tone of personal relationships” (Weber 2000: 106-107), and necessitates the use of specific trust-inducing mediums (Trompette 2009).
This type of approach shows that participants in trade shows, fairs, and international marketplaces, more than seeking to carry out transactions or collect economic data, rather attempt to integrate a professional community, assimilate its norms, and in fine, wish to “personalize” their exchanges. This observation was confirmed by the fieldwork that I conducted in 2010 on two main international media events, both in Cannes4. The global export of media goods and services represented 40 billion euros back then—around 20 billion for the European Union (World Trade Organization 2015) and 15 billion for the United States (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2013: 50-51). The international market of film and TV is thus enormous. However, the corresponding marketplaces are not very commercial, but instead are spaces for socialization within a single “transnational community” of international media professionals (Carroll & Fennema 2002; Djelic & Quack 2010; Morgan 2001). For this reason, they could be compared to the international conferences in the scientific world, except that commercial stakes, although minimized and euphemized, remain their raison d’être. It is always ultimately about selling films and television shows, but not necessarily in situ. The success of interactions between participants, significant for an adequate integration into the professional milieu, is the most important aspect, and the condition for lasting participation in the international trade of media goods. These marketplaces thus scarcely resemble the ones studied by neoclassical economic theory. “Commercial civility” predominates, as a symbolic instrument of integration and self-presentation, essential for trade professionals (Pinto 2017). We shall first demonstrate how international film and TV marketplaces facilitate social grouping of this professional community, before moving on to how the personalization of relations between participants takes precedence over the commercial dimension.
The analysis concerns the International Market for Content Development and Distribution (MIPTV), launched in the early 1960s, and the International Film Market (MIF) which was institutionalized as an outcome of the post-war Cannes Film Festival. Both take place over a period of several days once a year, in Spring, and are held at the Cannes Palais des Festivals.
Each event gathers around ten thousand participants from around the world: international distributors, including exporters, importers and international film and TV show co-producers. They each represent a geographical region for which they buy and sell distribution rights from producers. They are thus the “knowledgeable interpreters” of the varied tastes of different audiences and regions (Bielby 2011: 530); they are thus particularly likely to be mobilized by organizations that support exports and subsidize national booths in international film and TV marketplaces.
For this research, I combined cinema and television because films are also sold as television shows and the same participants often attend both the MIF and MIPTV. I observed commercial meetings between more than a dozen French exporters and their foreign buyers at MIPTV and the MIF. I completed these observations with interviews with French cinema (n=29) and television (n=22) exporters. Limiting myself to French exporters enabled me to avoid a—necessarily superficial—glimpse of the differences between national contexts, which are essential in order to understand the production, export (Steemers 2008), and import (Kuipers 2015) of media goods. Other researchers have made the same choice apprehending MIPTV through professionals from the United States (Bielby & Harrington 2008) or Eastern Europe (Havens 2006). Although the films exchanged at the MIF range from blockbusters (Miller 2001) to experimental cinema, and at MIPTV from big budget series (Hoskins & Mirus, 1988) to lifestyle magazines, French films sold are more likely to be festival films and French shows are destined to fill international daytime5 television schedules (Lecler 2017b).
Furthermore, because I was on the exporters’ side during the three days of MIPTV and the ten days of the MIF, I have been able to continuously observe as many interactions as possible, since, while sellers stay on site, the buyers move from one booth to the next. I was also able to analyse the variations in discourse and strategies used for the presentation of a particular media good to different buyers. This method is innovative compared with studies on television markets (Bielby & Harrington 2008; Favre & Brailly 2015; Havens 2006; Moran 2009). It was difficult to put into place because I was refused entry to numerous face-to-face meetings. Authorizations previously obtained during interviews were sometimes cancelled on the spot. Nonetheless, a dozen individuals agreed to take part. The two indispensable badges to gain access to the market spaces were obtained for free, for research purposes, during interviews with the MIF and MIPTV organizers.
Fig. 2. Apartments rented by cinema exporters close to the Palais de festivals at the MIF in 2011
© Romain Lecler
For the respondents of the research, the MIF and MIPTV are above all spaces for integration amongst international distributors. Albert Moran in fact speaks of MIPTV as a “kind of club that is the worldwide television industry” (Moran 2009: 21) and Timothy Havens describes it as an event that gives buyers and sellers the crucial feeling of belonging to a close-knit business “community,” to an “international jet-set” (Havens 2006: 5-9). MIPTV and the MIF are for professionals. They require entry badges that many of our respondents collect on their desks as a testimony to their status in the scene. This exclusivity favours a temporary social grouping in marketplaces. Baptiste, in his thirties, a graduate from a Marseille business school, who sells films at the medium-sized company Vignemale, says that he “meets the same people all over the world; it’s kind of like a summer camp.” Jerome, a literature graduate in his forties, a Russian speaker and former Moscow correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, now selling films for Aigoual, another medium-sized company, states: “Even those with whom we have a merely professional relationship, we get to see them five to six times per year. We are in a world in which everyone is somehow an expat.”
On site, the creation of this professional social grouping involves serious emotional work (Hochschild 1975). During business meetings, these professionals overplay the joy of seeing each other again, and joke around and banter. For instance, during a meeting at MIPTV, three Denali saleswomen (one of the large-scale European TV export companies) digressed and joked around with a Canadian buyer at length. One of them exclaimed, in a voluntarily exaggerated way, about a documentary series on sailors: “It’s beautiful, just beautiful, buy it!”. She congratulates herself out loud on escaping the daily grind of softwares, accountants, and finance directors which weigh her down at the office: here, at least, “we work and have fun.”
Aside from the meetings, everyone is accustomed to ‘making luck happen’ by skilfully exposing themselves ‘to the contingency of events and meetings’ (Jouvenet 2001) whether in a hallway, a café, or a hotel lobby. In order to recognize each other, some participants use a directory which identifies all of the attendees, along with their position in their respective companies and their photograph6. As she is pacing the corridors of the MIF, Fabiola, a German literature graduate of Paris Diderot University, in her forties, and the founding director of the small export company Avaloirs, constantly greets her peers in German, English, French, and Mandarin. In fact, in the marketplace, our respondents are constantly on the lookout, as demonstrated by Cyril, a DESS [the French former equivalent of a Master of Business Administration] graduate from Université Paris Dauphine, and a salesperson for Maroon in his forties, a medium-sized company that specializes in cartoon. While I was interviewing him at the Manhattan Hilton bar, where Kid Screen, a major international animation picture marketplace, was coming to an end, Cyril saw a buyer cross the lobby from afar. He rushed to say a few words to her in English:
“Jessica! Hi! Sorry, I just wanted to say hi! I glimpsed you once or twice, but I didn’t get the chance to say hi! How are you? Tired? Are you still on the preschool shows? Are you planning to move onto something else? Ok, great! Great to see you!”
The social grouping plays out in numerous encounters ‘outside the market’: opening and closing drinks, cocktails and drinks on the terrace, meals, and private parties. They require participants to constantly be available, something that Baptiste admits can be exhausting:
“Personally, it takes me at least two weeks to recover physically, and at least a month to recover mentally. Really. For fifteen days you are physically over-sociable and over-solicited. From the moment you arrive, you become a social object. 24/7. Even when you’re asleep! And you have to be as clear-headed at 9am when your first Japanese guy comes up to you, as at 4 or 5am, when you’re dead drunk with the Serbian guy. It’s like that for fifteen days. [...] Except that at 4am with the Serb, you are still working.”
This requirement of constant availability explains the young age of most participants. The great majority of salespeople are in their twenties and thirties. Buyers, also mostly young, are often former salespeople. Participants over forty are usually sales directors who combine sales with international coproductions or direct their own export companies.
Some even compare this availability to that of a “streetwalker,” to articulate the relation between intimate and business exchanges (Zelizer 2007). Flora, a graduate from both Sciences-Po and FEMIS [the most selective cinema school in France], in her thirties, saleswoman for the medium-sized company Ecrins, thus says of the Toronto film marketplace, located in a grand hotel, that “there are quite a few similarities between the different jobs at the hotel, between exporters and prostitutes”:
“If you don’t have enough people in your suite because there isn’t enough foot traffic, and you don’t have enough meetings scheduled, you can go to the lobby and catch people there. That’s exactly how it works. It’s actually called tapiner [French slang for being a prostitute]. It’s a common expression in this line of work.”
Similarly, Guy, who organizes media show trade shows in emerging economies in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, compares himself to a matchmaker:
“I play the role of the concierge. It’s as if you were in a hotel: ‘I would like to meet eight girls’... my role is to make sure they get together. Full stop. Your role is to say whether you want a blonde, whether you want her to be tall or not, or otherwise … That’s it.”
Stories of “awkward debuts” in the marketplace (Garcia-Parpet 2005) and initiation rituals are testament to this social grouping creation. In the game of marketplace interactions, they embody the “trial and error” characteristic of the learning process of international business (Surubaru 2013). It was only after many MIPTV events that Timothée—a Nice business school graduate, in his forties, who has been selling documentary films for Brasstown Bald for twenty years—was spotted by foreign buyers, thanks to a “huge stroke of luck”: just before the 9/11 attacks he had an unpublished documentary to sell about Taliban Afghanistan. From then on, he finally felt he had integrated into the scene:
“It takes a long time to gain access to key buyers, everyone from the channels, whether it’s the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Austrians, the Spanish. They were nice to me but nothing more, I wasn’t an indispensable contact […]. The way they saw me completely changed.”
Victoria is a foreign language graduate in her twenties and went to a press agent school. She speaks Chinese and sells lifestyle magazines for Sunflower, a small, new company, and did not have an entry badge when she went to her first MIPTV:
“My boss said: ‘It’s so dumb that you’re here, and that you can’t see anything; this is the marketplace.’ We didn’t have a badge for me, it was too expensive. It was really basic! He said to me: ‘At 1pm the guards will be on their lunch break.’ And we managed to sneak into the Palais without a badge. Nowadays that would be impossible. I couldn’t believe it! I ended up there although I wasn’t supposed to, so I stayed the whole day, pacing the alleyways: this was the very heart of my future career.”
Damien, in his fifties, a law graduate and founding director of Maroon, a company specializing in cartoons, explained that when he first started out, it took him “two MIPs to understand” that it was the salespeople and not the buyers who had the booths (“I was going round backwards”). During his first meetings at MIPTV, Timothée also went through “a year and a half in a patchwork manner,” observing his French competitors’ meetings like an “idiot”.
While observing MIPTV meetings with Anissa, a saleswoman in her thirties, who was recently hired by Denali to replace Catherine during her maternity leave, it is possible to observe how neophyte participants are integrated in the professional scene of international distribution. During a meeting with a bilingual French-English buyer who represented the main public television channel in Finland, she made a number of “false moves” and was politely called to order. From the onset, the Scandinavian buyer criticized her for having forgotten to greet her boss, the director of purchases of her channel, the day before, on the yacht that Denali rents for parties with its clients. Confused, Anissa admitted that she had left her phone behind at the hotel. Then the buyer remarked that Anissa did not know the new scheduling orientation that her channel had taken, and took her time to explain it to her. Anissa then presented some of the new shows offered for sale by Denali, but was wasting her time because the buyer already knew most of them—and had even already bought some. Furthermore, when the buyer took an interest in a series from the catalogue that was co-produced with Sweden, Anissa could not indicate whether Denali could already sell them in Scandinavia. For another show, she could not remember the number of episodes available. When she suggested an Italian series, the buyer immediately refused because her audience, she said, is used to English language shows. Anissa ended up suggesting some older shows, but the buyer interrupted her sharply:
Buyer: – I know the old shows… By the way, how long have you been doing this?
Anissa: – Why?
Buyer: – I’m just curious…
Anissa: – I started last July…
Buyer: – Hmm … Ok …
Anissa: – Is it that obvious? [in French]
Buyer: – Well you have to start somewhere!
And in a haughty tone, the buyer concluded: “– Ok. Very well. Congratulations to Catherine.”
In less than half an hour, she brought Anissa’s attention to the fact that good preparation for meetings, respecting engagements, more precise knowledge of shows, and more attentive compliance to commercial relations were necessary. All of these calls to order did not, however, impede on the smooth running of the meeting, which the buyer, as a seasoned professional, mostly guided. Anissa’s meeting thus constituted more of an initiation ritual than a business negotiation.
The creation of this social grouping is coupled with an instilled set of hierarchies that structure these marketplaces. The MIPTV map that is distributed to participants thus pits two sectors against one another. The first, in red, in the basement, is reserved for small companies whose numerous, cramped booths are arranged on each side of a long and busy central corridor. The second green sector hosts larger companies such as the BBC, Paramount, Universal on the upper floors, or Fremantle and HBO on the piazza or the beach. Here, the booths are larger and quieter; most of them have sea-view terraces: they resemble the traditional houses of wine fairs, “fitted out so that you only feel like you can enter if you already have a meeting set up, or a business card that would be taken seriously” (Garcia-Parpet 2005). At the edges of the Palais des festivals, these large companies are “allowed to be out of the trade show borders” (Brailly & Coulondre 2016: 177-178). The MIPTV organizer explains:
“They are all in big tents. On the beach, with direct access to the sea. [...] The American studios are all at the top, on the third floor, [...] They want so much space. And they want their own environment. [...] They don’t need to be at the centre of the market. They don’t want anyone to bother them, they want their own private space, and for us to respect the fact that they want to build an office or whatever [in English].”
The trade fairs, shows and international marketplaces constitute a “space of statutory positions” (Menger 2013). Many sociologists have thus likened them to other international events such as competitions (sports, cultural, etc) and awards, where rituals and reputation reign supreme (Moeran & Strandgaard Pedersen 2011). They indeed reveal “various levels of prestige” (Havens 2006: 9) and “make the relative positions of exhibiting companies directly visible to the trained eye” (Skov 2006: 768).
However, the booth distribution at the MIF or MIPTV does not only inform participants about the distribution of company positions in the marketplace. It also serves an integrative purpose. It provides participants with a sense of orientation in the marketplace since companies usually keep their booths from one year to the next. The participants can thus find both their way and their place in the market. At the MIF, “Only the small companies are in the Palais [...] and that’s not our spirit,” for Claudia, an Italian saleswoman, foreign language graduate; in her forties, working for Grand Paradis. Her company is indeed settled in front of the entrance of the Palais, in an apartment with a “little bit of balcony,” just like the other large export companies that rent apartments or hotel suites along the Croisette. Jeremy, sales director for Carré—a slightly more modest company—has, for his part, decided to go back into the Palais after having rented an apartment along the Croisette for a long time:
“We want to maximize our chances of captivating buyers’ attention. Apartments are dangerous if you’re not a major company. [...] You don’t get much footfall, people don’t come by just because they have fifteen minutes to kill.”
When these participants move from one company to another, they keep this sense of orientation in the market: they know what their place at the MIF or at MIPTV will be because of their new position. Many exclusive spaces (private terraces, cocktails, yachts, and villas rented out for the occasion), prone to lavish expenses, further reinforce this experience of hierarchical inculcation and figuring out a sense of one’s place. Denali, for instance, spends 35,000 euros at MIPTV on renting a yacht and organizing “VIP meetings” at parties—and that’s “nothing compared with the booth,” a saleswoman confesses. Only the clients and partners of this company, one of the largest in Europe, have access to its exclusive spaces.
Before being transactional or economic data spaces, the MIF and MIPTV constitute the means of personalising long-distance relations between foreign partners. Surprisingly, the respondents try their best to minimize what should in fact be at the heart of the interactions—negotiating a sales price—despite the fact that they are all, almost without exception, from sales backgrounds. For instance, when Cyril encounters a buyer from Quebec at MIPTV, show prices are never mentioned, not even alluded to. He begins by offering the buyer some Titeuf sweets [Titeuf is a cartoon he is selling] “for her kids”: this type of gift, which is very frequent at MIPTV, contributes to the transformation of the relationship towards a logic of exchange, while reminding the buyer of the object of the commercial exchange (Sciardet 1996:43). “How’re they doing?... And your family?... How about you?” Quite rapidly, he manages to ask the buyer if Samsam, a show she recently bought from him, was doing well in Canada. “Absolutely,” she answers: “Do you have anything new?” He shows her a cartoon still in production, Casper, informings her of the length and number of episodes, and that it would probably be ready between January and April 2012 (“That’s tomorrow!”). He shows her an extract on an iPad which makes her enthusiastic. Both marvel at the work put into character expression. She scribbles a little star in her notebook next to Casper, before asking him if he has any other shows that he might like to show her. He opens his folder, unconvinced:
“Cyril: – Something with big-toothed monsters?
Buyer: – Is it an advert for dentists?
Cyril: – No, science-fiction.”
They both know each other well: the explicit refusal of a show is avoided through banter. The rest of the meeting is dedicated to The Little Prince, which she bought from Cyril “against everyone’s advice” on her own channel. Eventually, he offers her another gadget adapted from a cartoon: a children’s alarm clock, and she claims “I love this job!” As shown here, neither the price nor the decision to buy are raised during the conversation. It is decided later on, at a distance, as on wine marketplaces where the same “commercial denial” is found, and where business is not done immediately, but contact is made (Garcia-Parpet, 2005). Here, Cyril and his buyer rather display, on the moment, the pleasure of meeting each other again. They bring up memories of a previous meeting and hence prepare those which are to come: price negotiation will take place later, when each of them is back at the office.
During these events, meetings are therefore less “commercial,” so to speak, than a means of maintaining a long-term commercial relationship between professionals. That is precisely why Yannick goes to MIPTV in the first place, “for the encounters,” since he “hardly passes any formal agreements”:
“When we do sign here, it’s because we have an opportunity to shake hands, have a drink, that’s it, but it has all been negotiated beforehand, of course, by Skype, on the phone, via email, we come to an agreement on everything beforehand and arrive with the document ready.”
Christophe tends to agree:
“We try to set up lunches with buyers, because it’s nicer, even if we don’t really talk about business. You start to build bonds, which is extremely important in the end. Between my film about the Dalaï-Lama and Europe Images who also made a film about him with the same kind of producer, the contact made with the buyer will make a difference later on. That’s where the personal connection matters.”
Even at the MIF, where buyers decide whether or not to purchase films onsite, commercial language is minimized. For instance, from the outset of a meeting, Fabiola makes an offer to an Italian buyer for a film that has been nominated for the Un certain regard selection at the Cannes Festival. The buyer wants to think about it. It is the only time that a price is discussed during one of the meetings observed. However, in the following twenty minutes, Fabiola shows the buyer an Italian cinema blog, lists all the countries where she already sold the film and tells various anecdotes about the documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman’s caprices and demands, whom she has been following for several years. The critical part of the interaction rested on the commercial relationship that the exporter manages to maintain, once the financial question is dealt with.
The fixing of prices is confined to brief moments on the booths, or even in telephone or email exchanges. Fabiola manages to validate an offer by texting a simple “yes” on her phone. As for the “deal memo,” it was reduced to a few key points “so as not to spend the whole night drawing up a contract,” as Jérôme notes. “We sign it during the festival, and afterwards when we’re back at the office, the lawyers send a more elaborated forty-page contract,” says Melvin, a film seller in his thirties, graduate from a business school in Reims, working for Cervin, one of the three biggest French companies in the field. In reality, long negotiations are an exception, Flora states:
“We always make roughly the same share of takings, with the distributors that I usually work with. We can agree on a deal in five minutes whilst drinking a glass of champagne: ‘OK, how about, ‘38’ [38,000 euros] with the same conditions as usual’... And I know that the next day I’ll send my contract, and it’s done and dusted in two minutes, because we’re used to working together and we just need to agree on the price. For everything else, we know that it will all work out fine. But I’ve already negotiated deals for an hour and a half to two hours. It’s just awful, horrible. Very very hard. That’s usually with distributors that I’ve never worked with before, very nervous people who want to go through every last thing in detail, and then afterwards change their mind.”
The respondents see a limited number of foreign partners with whom they have frequent meetings. Despite the geographical distance, they “appropriate the clients in their portfolios,” just like bank sales representatives who regularly see their clients at their office; they “share them as little as possible,” establishing “strong, complicit feelings and [...] a ‘private’ relationship style [...] which even resembles a virtually informal relationship” (Roux 2009). Claudia recalls how even “her” Turkish distributors, who “are used to” working with her, take a dim view of the idea of starting from scratch with another film seller at Grand Paradis: “I know what they like, I know what type of films they make, I know what they’re used to, it just makes sense.” This complicity explains how Claudia manages to impose film ‘packages’ on her buyers:
“They knew very well that they weren’t going to be able to take big titles from the catalogue and leave us the rest. It’s a little too easy. We weren’t forcing them at all, but they were saying it themselves ‘I’ll take these, and three or four little ones’—which also interested them.”
On site at the MIF or MIPTV, the key is to bring the commercial relation to life during brief and standardized interactions. The notebook which all buyers and sellers place in front of them before each meeting, used to note down the DVDs they need to send and all kinds of other information, is a key tool. The more international events attended, the more this notebook is filled, detailing a buyer’s likes and dislikes, as Christophe states:
“They have to be able to trust us; if we say, ‘this is definitely for you,’ they have to know that we’re not just trying to sell them something on the Talmud when they’re from an ultra-Muslim Indonesian channel.”
Fanny, a seller in her forties, with a master’s degree in media communications from Nantes, has been working for Marcy, a big company specializing in documentaries, for about ten years. For her, knowing how to “pitch” [in English] the presentation of a show to one’s audience is “an art”:
“For the buyer looking for nature, we’ll pitch them the show’s nature angle, if they’re looking for animals, we’ll pitch them the animals, if they’re looking for the environment, we’ll pitch them the environment. And it may change. We think it through a lot, though.”
As a result of this portrayal, Mathilde affirms that “we are by no means in the ordinary commercial business industry, we are definitely involved in human relations, in the intuitu personae.” Dominique talks about how to fit in with a buyer:
“The buyer comes up to you, they know your business and its reputation, and that’s how an interpersonal relationship starts to emerge. They always arrive ten minutes late and they always have to leave before the end of the meeting, so, basically, you’ve got fifteen minutes. The first five minutes are spent asking them how their holidays went, how their grandson is doing and if their dog has gotten over a fractured paw.”
For Flora, showing interest in buyers is a real professional skill:
“It’s really important to maintain good interpersonal relationships with distributors. Going to dinners, knowing about their private life. Basically, it means that we’re forced to be good at communicating with people and take an interest in their lives, know the names of their children, ask them where they spent their holidays, and remember all that for the next meeting—basically, you’ve got to be able to talk about things other than films. That’s what works, in the end. In fact, that’s the only thing that works, of course! [...] That’s what makes or breaks a seller, if they can remember that, enjoy it, and do it with flair. Otherwise it’s a real pain. And I’ve noticed that some sellers just aren’t interested in that.”
The portrayal of commercial relationships is also expressed through the development of professional “styles” as can be seen with contemporary art curators for instance (Jouvenet 2001). Flora distinguishes between those “who exchange mostly through seduction” and those “who are more emotional.” With colleagues from Montcalm, “there is a zero-seduction policy and emotions are permitted in reasonable quantities.” For those from Grand Paradis, what counts is “partying with the clients.” Ecrin’s style (hers) is, “not seductive, and as for emotion and partying, we’re in the middle, middle to high end,” contrary to Grande Casse:
“Their sellers are pretty aggressive, with an American business style, not at all a party-hard style: they are all male bar one, between forty and fifty years old, so it’s pretty distinctive, there are no twenty-five-year-old blondes wearing miniskirts.”
The diversity of the respondents’ attributes and backgrounds is illustrated by how they exemplify their commercial relationships. Yannick, a middle-aged trained actor with an atypical background who converted early into the media domain, is at the head of a small business in documentary exportation. His technique is based on seduction during meetings (this even was the reason for which I was refused entry into his meetings). He explains:
“It gets physical! There’s a very physical aspect that’s almost palpable. [...] There’s a lot of seduction involved, a lot of things are happening. You have to keep a distance with some, but with others you have to be in direct contact [...] men or women.”
If the respondents personalize the commercial relationship, it is mainly because they are concerned about how long it might last. Being successful at MIPTV or the MIF is not so much measured in signed contracts as in the number of good relationships one maintains with other professionals: in these spaces, “non-monetary transactional dimensions” predominate (Menger 2013), and a type of “commercial civility” prevails (Pinto 2017; Trompette 2009), which guarantees trusting relationships and even establishes a personalized relationship between participants, despite the cultural and geographical distance separating them. Thus, instead of “further exploiting the brief and sequential nature of the interactions with misinformed buyers (to their advantage) regarding the quality or quality of distribution of the goods considered,” the distributors intend to “operate over the long term” in the marketplace (Menger 2013). The worst that can happen to them is being on the receiving end of an angry buyer. Several sellers have such memories of traumatic “breakups.” Jeremy remembers one moment where two buyers “started piling on the pressure,” causing him to argue with one of them. Even if he admits that it is “the name of the game” and these breakups are part of the “market breakdown,” they are nonetheless made up of painful episodes with long-term consequences: “Things can deteriorate due to anger, and relationships can break down for six months, even a year or two.”
Timothée remembers having sold his documentary on Afghanistan for too high a price to a Danish buyer, who subsequently refused to deal with him: “It’s been ten years! Ten years she’s been sulking! It’s not a good idea to take advantage of hot topics because people don’t necessarily come back.” Since then, Timothée has learned a lesson:
“The only guarantee of duration in this profession is honesty, which is why I’m against cheap shots. Even if I had images of Bin Laden getting killed in my possession tomorrow. Every time that we have images that correspond to something that people want; we never take advantage of them. We don’t force people, because they never come back, that’s for sure. That’s what it comes down to. That’s why I’m against people who are excellent at negotiating, really smart, but at the same time they don’t realize the damage that can be done.”
The respondents are not at all accustomed to explicit negotiating and competitive situations, to long bidding, despite the fact that they are expected market behaviours, according to economic theory. They realize that they will come across these same partners throughout their career in the international film and TV marketplaces. This is why “you should never lie to a buyer,” according to Mathilde: “everything is based on a real ancestral relationship and strong ties of trust with our intermediaries.” Even bankrupt buyers can ask to be reimbursed for a show that has already been sold. At MIPTV, in the middle of the Greek financial crisis, I witnessed a buyer from a Greek television producer obtain a cancellation for a buyer’s contract from Maria, a seller at Denali. Even so, in the case of fraud or misconduct, the professionals’ reputation—along with the business’—is on the line and can quickly be the cause of a breakdown in future transactions and cause exclusion from international exchanges. Reputations can deteriorate fast in this line of work. If a producer mentions that a distributor “never paid me, that’s it!” explains Fanny. Jérôme confirms that everyone “knows the bad payers.”
The crucial role of reputations explains why gossip is so widespread: by influencing who is praised and who is blamed, it creates “status ranking” (Elias & Scotson 1965). During a meeting at the MIF between Fabiola and Amel, a Tunisian buyer, the two women denounce several French businesses who are believed to promised false sales prices before changing them during the contract-signing stage. Stories of fraud and misconduct are indeed typical gossip material that constitute the market’s sociability (Sciardet 1996).
International trade shows, fairs and marketplaces are therefore privileged spaces of international commerce. Their rise is surprising in the context of contemporary globalization, where long distance communication has developed, and the regulation and institutionalisation of international commerce are increasing. The economic explanations of this paradox in recent studies portray them as spaces for commercial negotiations, transactions, and even information exchange about a specific sector. Without denying these aspects, this survey on two international film and TV marketplaces illustrates that another aspect predominates for their participants: the development of a social grouping and the personalisation of commercial relationships. Our hypothesis is that this observation applies beyond the international events dedicated to cultural goods, and that trade shows, fairs, and marketplaces are on the whole an original solution to the problem of constitutive mistrust in international commerce in the contemporary economic global climate.
In fact, attending these film and TV “marketplaces,” which are markets only by name, primarily helps to develop a transnational professional community. Negotiating prices or getting in-depth knowledge on an economic sector can be done at a distance. The process of integrating the professional community is played out in such events. Such observations can be made at the MIF and the MIPTV, especially during commercial meetings where there is no place for discussions of transactions or prices. Regularly attending these markets has become a full-blown speciality in the field since the 1980s: the French individuals interviewed, who are now part of the international distribution industry, never stopped attending and continued to meet the same partners, all the while changing professions, going from sales to purchases or international co-production. We can thus better understand the point of “emotional work,” “physical availability,” “initiation rituals,” the minimized commercial language or the market civility that rule these spaces. The continuity and enchantment of the relationships that take precedence over “good deals” are the very premise of these marketplaces.