Gaul’s Gotten Testy

These are testing times for French filmmakers. Literally. A small but growing number of producers are introducing film tests or previews into their production agendas.

They are hoping that Gallic directors, who have a preference for cutting their own throats rather than their films, will start to realize that re-editing after a test can be better than sending an overlong or poorly constructed pic into box office oblivion.

Over the past year about a dozen pics have trodden the preview path. That’s not a whole lot compared to the 100 or so movies France turns out per year, but it’s almost 12 more films than were tested two years ago.

While distribution companies such as Warner Bros, or MK2 have often screened films to selected audiences in order to work out marketing campaigns, the idea that a director would re-edit on the say-so of an organized preview is new to say the least.

Among the pioneering producers, Rene Cleitman insists “I will now systematically use tests for all my pictures.” Cleitman previewed Francois Dupeyron’s “La Machine,” reportedly offering audiences three possible endings. He repeated the experience with Bertrand Tavernier’s “L’Impasse” and will test France’s biggest budget pic to date, “Le Hussard sur le Toit,” before it gets a national release later this year.

Producers are loathe to suggest that testing films reflects recognition that Gallic fare is having an increasingly tough time at the box office. A typical double-speak explanation from one producer: “We are not out to make more commercial films, we just want to help directors find their audience.”

“Commercial” remains something of a dirty word on the auteur-driven French film scene. Others argue that the influence of the Nouvelle Vague, where the writer-director was all powerful, is finally beginning to wane. “The problem has been that post-Nouvelle Vague directors have had their heads filled with the idea that every word they write is sacred and that their works of art should not be touched. Young directors now are becoming more flexible on this,” says producer Alain Rocca at Les Productions Lazennec.

Flach Films topper Jean-Francois Lepetit co-produced Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” and organized a test in Paris with an expatriate American audience – although that was largely because Polanski’s fugitive status in the U.S. prevented him from attending the U.S.-based previews of the pic.

One major problem facing the producers is the question of the final cut. French law stipulates that both the producer and the director have to agree on changes to a film. But even if a producer is convinced of changes, the law gives the director a right of veto.

Growing frustration

Such power has led to a growing sense of frustration among some key players. Canal Plus chairman Pierre Lescure tells Variety of a film “we had backed and suggested it would benefit from being shortened. The director refused and the film went out uncut. But when an American video distributor expressed interest and said the picture was too long, the director agreed to make changes.”

Almost all producers agree that for testing to become a staple in France, directors must be convinced that they are not sacrificing their artistic integrity.

“It’s vital that tests are not seen as sanctions,” says Andre Asseo, film journalist and producer. Prompted by Rene Cleitman, Asseo has set up a company to organize previews. Infinitely well-connected on the film front, Asseo pacted with statistics specialists Diapason company last year to run the tests and report the results. “Most producers I talk to are very positive; most directors are not,” he says.

Testing, testing

“Producers have got to say to directors at the start of production that tests will be done,” says Asseo. “If you suddenly announce halfway through shooting that you think it might be good to test, the director is going to think that you don’t like the film. Testing has to become integrated into the general production budget.”

Even pro-testers like producer Jean-Francois Lepetit admit that there’s a long way to go before producers preview automatically. “Producers here are already struggling to raise finance. Either they are reluctant to invest for the tests or they simply don’t have the cash to make radical changes, even if the previews suggest they need to be made.” But Lepetit admits that at between $14,000 and $18,000 a shot, the previews aren’t that much of an addition to the average French budget of $4.4 million.

Ironically, despite a general resistance from Gallic directors to preview, some helmers have re-worked their films on the basis of less scientific data than offered by Asseo and his associates. Agnes Varda, for example, did a rapid re-editing on her latest pic, “Les Cent et une Nuits,” following a press screening in December. Journalists apparently contacted Varda and ensuing conversations prompted the director to revamp the pic in time for the Jan. 25 release.

“I do my own private research,” said Varda. “I always do two special screenings while I’m still editing, inviting 10 or 15 people, half of them I don’t know at all.”

Cut and run

Others return to the cutting room at the suggestion of American distributors. “La Reine Margot” helmer Patrice Chereau trod this path when Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein encouraged Chereau to chop 20 minutes from the film for the U.S. release. Chereau says his directing colleagues expressed considerable surprise at last year’s Sarasota French Film Festival when it became known that he had agreed to make changes.

Chereau says he would be happy to test his pictures in the future, although he had not done it for “La Reine Margot.” “I’m absolutely convinced that the American system is worth using. With the plays I direct, every night is a chance to see the audience reaction and make changes. It wouldn’t worry me doing the same for a film.”

‘Margot’ previews

The “Margot” experience prompted the pic’s producer, Claude Berri, to throw his weight behind previews. In a recent interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Berri said, “It’s a healthy practice which should be adopted in France.”

But don’t expect Berrito to go previewing mad. By common consent, his “Germinal” was on the long side and was not previewed. “Whenever I have talked to Claude (Berri) about testing, he changes the subject,” muses Andre Asseo.

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