Rare WB French Foray A Fizzle

In these dark, disturbing days of wartime, Warner Bros. has found itself handling European distribution for a dark, disturbing film – Gallic helmer Eric Barbier’s debut pic, “Le Brasier.” The result has been one of the most spectacular boxoffice failures in France in recent years.

At least that’s one explanation. The other is that regardless of the state of international politics, Warner Bros, simply goofed when they chose to risk 16 million francs ($3.2 million) in minimum guarantees on a story of Polish immigrants and the mines of northern France during the 1930s.

The gamble is all the more surprising when one remembers that Warner Bros, rarely distributes French pictures. Ticket sales illustrate the unhappy story. “Le Brasier” opened Jan. 30 on 187 screens nationwide and attracted a mere 144,000 people. Two weeks later, the number of copies in circulation was down to 145 and the attendances had slumped to just 56,000.

That meant that a picture that cost $17.2 million to make – four times more expensive than the average French film – has taken in about $1.7 million so far in France, and is not expected to take in much more.

Producer Jean-Francois Lepetit – the man who came up a winner with “Three Men And A Cradle” – says he had no option but to go for a big budget. “If we wanted to tell the story, there had to be lots of people on the set.”

Warner Intl. prez Richard Fox also is putting on a brave face and taking a longterm view of “Le Brasier’s” prospects. “We’re not throwing up our hands, or backing away… People will rediscover this movie.”

Nevertheless, somebody is going to be out of pocket. The first unfortunate will probably be the 15-month old IFCIC, a group of French private investors that came together to help finance big-budget Gallic pics.

So far, the IFCIC has shown remarkable consistency in picking losers. “The King’s Whore,” “Jean Galmot Aventurier” and “Lacenaire” all have failed in France, taking with them a large part of IFCIC’s $7 million investment.

Lepetit said his company, Flach Films, also would say goodbye to part of its $3.7 million. As for Warner, with all European rights outside France and Gallic video rights on top, it looks like being a matter of patience. “We know we’ll see a profit… eventually,” said a hopeful Fox.

Lepetit admits finding a distributor for North American will be difficult. WB is not falling over itself to take U.S. rights.

“The film presented us with a major marketing challenge,” was how Steve Rubin, head of Warners’ French operations summed up the situation.

“It is a very dark film… a difficult subject treated without concessions” added Patricia Bales, prez of Argument. Bales rejects suggestions that the $1 million marketing campaign for the film did little to help its chances.

She insists that the gloomy posters of two lovers embracing against a backdrop of pitheads and smoke was true to the film. “We couldn’t have put bright, happy colors on the posters as if that was the spirit of ‘Le Brasier’; that would have been trying to con the public.”

Bales also held firm when the previews brought negative reaction from the critics. “There were people who told us not to show the film before the release date. But we could not do that. We aren’t ashamed of the picture.”

But Bales says the film’s problems were primarily of timing. “The public certainly didn’t want to watch this kind of picture at that particular moment.”

Looking back, Lepetit feels he might have been able to improve parts of the film before shooting actually started in November 1989. “It is possible that there will be some changes in the film between now and the Berlin opening in a few weeks time. I haven’t talked to Warner Bros, about that yet,” said Lepetit.

According to Fox, his company would “love” to work with Lepetit again. “We have projects we’re talking about now.”

Charles Fleming In Hollywood Contributed To This Report.

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