Pic Biz Sees French Resistance

They’re in their 30s and in the phone book. They don’t have agents and they don’t read the trades. They are France’s new generation of filmmakers upon whom Gallic hopes for a cinema revival rest.

But as Hollywood pix carve an ever greater slice of the Gallic box office, the question is, can the new kids on the block deliver the goods?

The signs are mixed. When Variety sat down with a dozen directors, there was little evidence of any radically new thinking about how to approach the film business. Indeed there remains a reluctance to see it as a business in the first place.

Nor is there much of a network to help the newcomers. With the notable exceptions of producers like Charles Gassot or Alain Rocca, too many producers have under-funded and under-produced the fledgling filmmakers.

There’s certainly no shortage of wannabe helmers: 152 of the 303 Gallic pix turned out over the past three years have been first or second films. But their box office batting averages are such that most would be hard-pressed to make it in the bush leagues.

“I don’t know the exact figures but I guess that in any year only two or three first films make money and it can’t be many more for the second films,” says Gassot, who had first pic hits with “Life Is a Long Quiet River” and “City of Fear.” If Gassot is right, France’s young directors have notched up at least 140 box office losers since 1992.

Fortunately, there is a hard core of talent, some of which has already achieved box office recognition. Christian Vincent did it with his 10 million franc ($1.9 million) debut pic “La Discrete,” which took $7.8 million at Gallic hardtops. Nevertheless, to underline Gassot’s point, Vincent’s two subsequent films were disappointing with last year’s “La Seperation” costing Renn Prods, a small fortune.

What is surprising about the new generation, which might have been tempted to take a leaf out of Hollywood film practices, is that most of the helmers interviewed by Variety remain as traditional as steak frites, convinced that the way forward is via an auteur-driven approach to filmmaking.

No ‘formula’ films

The Hollywood “formula” film – the standard term these young directors use to describe the likes of “Speed,” “Top Gun” or “Sister Act” – is not for them. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” does not figure high on the list of French movie maker mottos.

Indeed, rather than wishing to emulate the directing exploits of a James Cameron or a Tony Scott, France’s young directors have fixed their sights and affection on the likes of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears.

It’s probably no coincidence that several of the helmers said they liked Luc Besson’s “The Big Blue” but couldn’t stand his more “Americanized” “Leon.” The unavoidable impression was that U.S.-based Besson had betrayed his French filmmaking culture.

Not for them is the power petit-dejeuner with agent, three-page film idea and a brainstorming session to find a thesp who might get producers interested. “I don’t have an agent. I don’t really need one yet,” says Eric Rochant as he takes a break from work on the script for his fourth pic “Crazy Girl.”

In fact, contract negotiations aside, agents appear to play precious little part in the lives of the directors – something of an irony considering that in Artmedia, France has Europe’s largest agency.

Instead of actively hunting out new names, or trying to broker deals on second or third pix, most of the big agencies sit back waiting to be approached by the directors themselves. “There’s really no support system from the agencies,” laments one budding director.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet recalls the shock he got at the Cannes film fest when his film “Delicatessen” came to everyone’s attention. “I was at Cannes for ‘Delicatessen’ and suddenly I had American agents all over me. Not a single call from a French agency. Eventually I rang Artmedia, not the other way around.” In contrast, ICM has sent Jeunet and helming partner Marc Caro several scripts to look at.

Also not for them are the anxious hours perusing the trade papers to compare salaries with other helmers. “I have no idea if I am well-paid or not; I really don’t know that many people in the industry,” says 32-year-old Tran Anh Hung.

At around $98,000 for two years spent scripting and directing the $6.8 million “Cyclo,” Tran is earning par for the course. It’s certainly more than he got selling books for four years in a museum shop.

The majority of the new generation is working in glorious isolation, unsullied by commercial considerations. “I want to have a script finished before I approach anybody. Filmmaking is a one-person operation. The most difficult part is having the idea,” says Jean-Jacques Zilberman, whose debut comedy “Not Everyone Is Lucky Enough to Have Communist Parents” took a respectable $3 million at the box office.

Ironically, Zilbermann might be considered to be ideally placed to carry out his own market research into what audiences like. The former postman is one of the three partners in the Max Linder hardtop, “but I have never been too sure what films will work or not,” he says.

Zilbermann’s approach to scripting may be about to get a shot of modernity. In auteur-driven France, many of the new generation say they would be happy to lense scripts which they had not penned.

“It’s very painful to write; if I could ease that pain I’d take the chance,” says “Nine Months” helmer and former veterinary surgeon Patrick Braoude. “I also think there’s a case to be made for bringing specialist writers for specialist scenes, like the Americans do,” he adds.

Where’s the fizz?

Over the next 12 months, audiences and the industry will be able to judge whether the new generation is anywhere nearer putting the fizz back into French film. Cedric Klapisch is going to lense the successful play “Un Air de Famille” for Gassot. Mathieu Kassovitz’s second pic, “La Haine,” will hit the screens. Braoude will lense his new comedy “Amour, Sexe et Plus… Si Affinite” (“Harceles-Moi”) for Alain Goldman and Tran Anh Hung will unveil the Vietnamese and French versions of “Cyclo.”

In a rare interview, “Delicatessen” co-director Caro, tongue firmly in cheek, revealed his take on the plight of French cinema. “Listen, to understand what’s gone wrong here you only have to understand that for years the CIA has been paying French directors to shoot rubbish. It’s been part of a deliberate and successful American plot to undermine our film industry.”

Great script idea, but perhaps a shade commercial for France?

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