Gallic pix get pricey

French-lingo films test big-budget waters

Bucking industry wisdom that says the international market can’t support expensive French-language movies, Gallic producers are readying a wad of ambitiously budgeted projects.

The move comes in the wake of recent comments by Nicolas Seydoux, chairman of Gallic major Gaumont, indicating that 100 million francs ($17 million) is about the upper limit for investment in a French-lingo film. By contrast, Gaumont put an estimated $80 million into Luc Besson’s English-lingo “The Fifth Element.”

Heading the new pack, at least in terms of cost, is Claude Zidi’s $42 million French-language “Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar,” which is being produced by Claude Berri and sold internationally by President Films.

The pic, based on Goscinny and Uderzo’s internationally famous comic duo of Roman-bashing Gauls, will start lensing Jan. 15 and stars Gerard Depardieu as Obelix and Christian Clavier as Asterix. Casting for Caesar has not been concluded.

“We are currently taking in offers,” President Films head Jacques-Eric Strauss said. “It’s true that Asterix may not be one of the best-known characters in the United States, but worldwide you are talking about 75 million books sold.”

Maintaining the Gallic warrior theme, Jacques Dorfmann will start shooting the $20 million “Vercingetorix” next April, with Max von Sydow attached. Pic is also being sold by President.

But the first of the new slew of ambitious Gallic projects — the average price for France’s 100-pic annual production is about $4 million — to hit the bigscreen will be Philippe de Broca’s $30 million swashbuckler “On Guard,” starring Daniel Auteuil, Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Perez, Philippe Noiret and Marie Gillian.

The film will be released by AMLF in France in December and is produced by Patrick Godeau’s Aliceleo production company, backed by TF1 Films Production and Cecchi Gori. International sales are being handled by TF1 Intl.

Rounding out the big-budget lineup is Patrice Leconte’s $32 million adventure comedy “Half a Chance,” which has just started shooting and which unites two veteran Gallic names, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, along with rising name Vanessa Paradis. Pic is produced by Christian Fechner.

Opinion is divided on whether the crop of pics heralds the latest push by French producers to provide ambitious projects that will attract international audiences, or is simply a shooting sked coincidence.

“I still think there is a feeling that if we want to have a shot at making international projects, then we have to give producers the financial means to fulfill their ambitions,” President Films’ Strauss said.

The downside, hinted at by Seydoux, is that with the linguistic challenge facing French films, big-budget projects are very dependent on hitting locally if they are to recoup costs.

Even projects that do solid international pre-sales will still leave a sizable chunk of the budget uncovered: Estimates are that mighty pre-sales on a $35 million French pic would bring in $17 million.

And as Berri’s recent big-budgeter “Lucie Aubrac” proved, French auds are quite capable of staying away from local fare, no matter what it cost to make.

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