Local Franco-lingo pix now top Quebec’s B.O.

French-lingo Canuck pics are in the midst of a commercial resurgence in Quebec after a couple of years of dismal ticket sales, and, thanks to a handful of slick, ultra-commercial features that have little to do with the arty fare produced in French Canada, the B.O. is jumping.

Quebec helmers, under pressure from the local distributors and public funding agencies, are moving toward a more accessible style of filmmaking, and it’s already paying off at the box office.

The No. 1 film in the province, among both the Hollywood and Canadian releases, is “Black List,” a taut, fast-paced thriller about a prostitute who attempts to blackmail her upscale clients, including several judges and government ministers. The film, directed by newcomer Jean-Marc Vallee, has garnered C$330,000 ($252,000) in B.O. receipts since its release in early September, and it’s showing no signs of a drop off. Pic, handled by Astral Distribution, remains on 33 screens across the province and is set to open in Toronto next month.

Veteran director Robert Menard’s “Behind the Blue” (L’Enfant D’Eau), a melodramatic account of two survivors of a plane crash, is also pulling in good crowds, with distributor Film Tonic (formerly Max Films) generating more than $191,000 in receipts in its three weeks in theaters.

The field became even more crowded Sept. 22 when CFP Distribution opened “The Sphinx,” a much-hyped comic-drama featuring local TV star Marc Messier. Together, the three Quebec-made pics took up 77 screens last weekend, roughly one-fifth of the screens in the entire province – an unprecedented presence for homegrown, French-language cinema.

“I think the young directors and even the experienced directors are more concerned about reaching an audience than they were five years ago,” said Pierre Latour, president of Film Tonic. “That’s a new trend. In Quebec, it used to be the French-from-France auteur school.”

Last autumn, all the major Quebec releases were B.O. disappointments and most were personal, director-driven projects, like Micheline Lanctot’s “A Hero’s Life” and Andre Forcier’s “A Wind From Wyoming.”

The helmers in French Canada are trying to emulate the success of their TV colleagues, who reach large audiences with quality, homegrown fare, according to Latour.

The trend is strongly supported by federal funder Telefilm Canada and Sodec, its provincial counterpart, said Jean Bureau from Astral.

“I know Telefilm and Sodec are more open to accessible films, to films that will generate good box office,” said Bureau, veepee at Astral Distribution. “Telefilm and Sodec told us it was in their plans to open their doors to more commercially oriented films. As long as we make good, entertaining films, people are ready to come and see them.”

Christian Larouche, senior veepee at CFP Distribution, agrees that it’s one of the best falls in years for Quebec pics.

“These films are different and that’s why they work,” Larouche said. “I think Quebeckers want to see films that are different from the films of the ’50s. Since the beginning of September, I see a light at the end of the tunnel, whereas last year the tunnel seemed real dark and hard to travel through.”

But the cinema d’auteur is not dead in French Canada. Robert Lepage’s acclaimed feature film debut, “Le Confessionnal,” hot off its North American preem at the opening night of the Toronto Film Festival, is set to open commercially in Quebec via Alliance Releasing on Sept. 29 and the distrib has high hopes for the complex, arty pic.

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