Hachette hopes for profits through its ‘Roof’

France’s biggest-budgeted pic of all time, the 176 million franc ($35 million) “Le Hussard sur le Toit” (The Horseman on the Roof) hit 300 screens Sept. 20, with pundits wondering whether the French market can support such an ambitious project.

Unlike megabuck American films, which can reasonably hope to match or better their domestic take internationally, French-language pics rely heavily on recouping in their own territory. Producer Rene Cleitman estimates that for Hachette Premiere to recover its investment, the Jean-Paul Rappeneau costumer will have to sell 4.8 million tickets in France.

Considering that Claude Berri’s $32 million “Germinal” wound up selling 6 million tickets, Cleitman’s target isn’t unreasonable, but the stakes are high.

Cleitman’s parent company, the giant publishing and communications group Hachette, is bent on becoming a major European film player and would dearly love to have a successful “Hussard” as a calling card. In April, Hachette chairman Jean-Luc Lagardere announced that the group intended to produce 10-15 pics per year.

This summer, Hachette Premiere financed and shot its first U.S. production, the $7 million “Unhook the Stars,” directed by debut helmer Nick Cassavetes and starring Gerard Depardieu and Gena Rowlands.

“We want to gradually create a big studio that will be like an American major in 10 or 15 years’ time,” Lagardere said.

Hachette has mobilized its entire empire to back the film. Radio subsids Europe 1 and Europe 2 have been carrying dozens of ads. Film magazine Premiere and Elle have carried front-cover spreads on the pic.

Lagardere has made little secret of the fact that he sees “Le Hussard sur le Toit” as an important promotional tool for the whole Hachette group. It was Lagardere who eventually greenlit “Le Hussard,” accepting that Hachette would have $12 million at risk, with the remainder of the budget financed by third parties.

Of the non-Hachette investors, indie distributor AMLF has the most at risk. AMLF picked up the domestic rights for $4 million and is believed to have invested another $4 million in prints and advertising.

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