Cinessance, a French film streaming service, debuted today with the goal of helping this cinema-loving nation get its movies in front of a global audience that has become harder to reach over the past decade.
France produces the second-most films after the United States. But the decline of art house movie theaters and the shift toward online platforms means many of the best French films are never even distributed in the United States.
Serial entrepreneur Clément Monnet, who is based in Oakland, California, had grown particularly frustrated in recent years by his inability to find and share both recent releases and beloved classics from his youth. He often found himself wanting to show a French movie to his American fiancée, only to discover it wasn’t available via any of the major online or digital platforms.
“My fiancée, she understands French but does not speak French,” he said. “But she’s interested in French culture. So many times I tell her, ‘Hey, you have to watch this movie, I watched it on the plane. It’s great.’ And then we can’t find it online. Or, I say, ‘There is this comedy from 20 years ago. It is amazing. You have to see it to understand French culture.’ And then I can’t find it online. So that’s how it started.”
Cinessance arrives amid a global streaming frenzy, which offers both a massive challenge and opportunity. Indeed, TV5MONDE USA, has been available in the U.S. for nearly 25 years through cable TV carriers and launched its own VOD platform for its cable subscribers in September 2020.
More than 7 years ago when Netflix first arrived in France, the nation’s film industry was anxious that the company would upset the financial system that funded TV and movie production. But more recently, Netflix has come to be seen as an ally as it has become a significant source of production budgets for French-language content. Major French TV stations even joined forces to launch a streaming service.
While French producers are now fully on board with streaming, Cinessance also faces a crowded marketplace dominated by streaming giants such as Disney+, Apple TV+, and Amazon. The good news is that consumers have tended to sign up for more than one streaming platform, and some smaller players have found strong niches.
In that respect, Cinessance is targeting a rather sizable niche: The global community of 300 million Francophones, 120 million Francophiles, 3 million French ex-pats, and 200,000 French language students in the U.S. Not to mention cinema-lovers who want to deepen their knowledge of French cinema.
To entice this audience, the service will launch with more than 100 titles featuring such actors as Jean Gabin, Marion Cotillard, Romy Schneider, Michel Piccoli, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Louis de Funès, Catherine Deneuve, and Gérard Depardieu. Subscriptions cost $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year. Initially, the service is just available in the U.S. and Canada on a web browser, iOS, and Android, and can be cast to most TVs via Airplay or Chromecast.
An Entrepreneur’s Global Journey
Monnet comes from Clermont-Ferrand, a town in the center of France. After graduating from university, he took a manufacturing job before later joining Airbus and moving to Singapore and then Beijing. Eventually, he relocated to Silicon Valley when Airbus opened its A^3 (pronounced ‘Ay cubed’) incubator.
Starting in 2016, Monnet began developing an idea for a kind of “Uber for helicopters” that would make urban air mobility more accessible. Eventually, that led to a company called Voom being spun out with Monnet as CEO. The service launched in Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S. and raised $19 million in funding. However, in March 2020 the company announced it was shutting down.
“Scaling globally isn’t easy for any business, and we found this to be especially true in an expensive industry with a truly transformative model for both Airbus and the transportation market as a whole,” Monnet wrote in a blog post. “Couple these truths with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and we have been faced with some hard choices, as are so many businesses today. On March 23, we were forced to cease global operations due to the virus, and today, with our Airbus leadership, we have made the tough call that Voom will not resume its operations.”
After briefly working on another urban air mobility startup, Monnet turned his attention to Cinessance earlier this year. This first version of the service came together remarkably fast, Monnet only began working on it full-time in April after extensive market research convinced him there was a real hunger for a French streaming service.
“I realized that French cinema is the second-largest exporter of movies in the world,” he said. “And yet there is no streaming platform dedicated to French cinema even though streaming services are booming.”
On the technology side, Monnet signed a partnership with Dutch firm 24i, which provides a kind of streaming-in-a-box service. 24i runs almost all of the back end such as the content distribution network and helps develop the front-end interfaces. The success of 24i, which supports more than 200 streaming platforms, is just one more indication of how quickly consumer interest has shifted to this mode of consuming subscription-based video content.
Monnet brought aboard a mix of partners and advisors to help build Cinessance, including Chris Allexandre, a venture capitalist at Diaspora Ventures; Evan Tahler, who was a former chief product officer at Voom; Arnaud de Fontenay, former General Manager of the foundation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé; and Julien Etaix, Chief Investment Officer at the $3 billion Singe Family Office.
This combination of technical, financial, and film industry advisors helped Monnet build credibility when he started to license content for the service. He found most production partners willing to engage in talks and to strike deals. But the actual process for finalizing all the content licensing deals turned out to be quite laborious, he said.
“That was something that struck me is how manual process is to negotiate those things,” Monnet said. “And it's under-optimized. Because it's high-value assets and the studios are very selective in how and to whom they license the movies. They have big spreadsheets with all the movies, the different rights for the different countries. It just takes a lot of time for them to negotiate.”
Even with a technology partner, the delivery of films for the service also proved to be fairly complicated.
“You have a lot of technical issues in delivering the movie and then making sure it's the right audio tracks and the subtitles are synced,” he said. “But we still did that fairly quickly. We created a company in April and launched in November.”
Cinessance will have a few advantages going forward. For instance, to protect French movie theater owners, at least one year must pass after a movie is shown in a cinema before it can appear on a streaming service. But that window only applies in France. Monnet has secured the rights to movies released in 2020, and now he’s hoping to get even more current releases even as they are still being shown in France.
So far Cinessance has raised an undisclosed pre-seed round of funding. Post-launch, Monnet plans to raise a Seed round to help secure more content deals and massively expand marketing, including partnerships with organizations that teach French.
He’s also tapping into the extensive French Tech community in the U.S., particularly in the Bay Area. And the French consul in San Francisco is organizing a launch party later this month, with a wine tasting, of course.
For Monnet, the enthusiasm he’s seeing from the French community and the film industry is gratifying.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to pay tribute to French cinema and, like many ex-pats, find a way to reconnect with our heritage,” Monnet said. “We want to give back to our country. And I was always trying to find a way. And so this is the perfect combination for me because it's my chance to promote French and French culture abroad. And at the same time, it's a solution for an existing problem that we can solve with tech.”
The seed for Cinessance was planted when Monnet watched a movie called “Black Tide” (Fleuve Noire) starring Vincent Cassel on a plane. He was dying to show it to his fiancée, but couldn’t find it online in the U.S. Now it’s on Cinessance.
Here are 3 older movies that Monnet loved growing up in France and are now on his platform:
- “The Magnificent Tramp” (Archimède le clochard) starring Jean Gabin.
- “Max and the Junkmen” (Max et les ferrailleurs) starring Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider.
- “Four Hopefuls” (Quatre Garçons pleins d'avenir) starring Olivier Brocheriou, Stéphan Guérin-Tillié, Olivier Sitruk, and Éric Berger.
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