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Ciby courting H’w’d majors

PARIS — Seven-year-old French production company Ciby 2000, which has produced the likes of Cannes Palme d’Or winners “The Piano,” “Underground” and “Secrets & Lies,” has been looking for new shareholders since Cannes last year, and in the past few weeks has turned to the Hollywood majors.

Daily Variety has also learned that French communications group Havas is also looking at the idea of buying Ciby 2000.

The search for a new investor comes as Ciby’s owner, the Bouygues construction group, has turned its attention to massive investment in telephony.

Ciby 2000 president Jean-Francois Fonlupt was meeting with studio execs in Hollywood Wednesday. Fonlupt was not available for comment.

Press speculation in Paris has suggested the Walt Disney Co. might be interested, but Daily Variety has been told that the Mouse House is not in the running; neither is Disney-owned Miramax. In fact, the only possibility among the majors for Ciby is 20th Century Fox. Fonlupt is being advised in the talks by ICM topper Jeff Berg.

Meanwhile, Havas has recently shown an increasing interest in backing film production companies. It already has 20% in Marin Karmitz’s MK2 and is known to be mulling over taking shares in New Line.

One French company that is unlikely to be making a move on Ciby 2000, contrary to speculation in the French media, is Gallic major UGC.

Sources said if all goes according to plan, Fonlupt could have a tacit agreement with a U.S. partner by Friday. He will then have to fly back to Paris and present the offer to the Bouygues execs. The Bouygues group has a board meeting next week and chairman Martin Bouygues is anxious to tell the board what is to happen to Ciby 2000.

In the event that Ciby fails to draw a U.S. backer, one option for Bouygues might be to see if private web TF1 would take over the production company. TF1 chairman Patrick Le Lay is known to have always wanted to head all of Bouygues’ audiovisual subsids and the network’s film specialist, Guillaume de Verges, was instrumental in setting up Ciby.

If TF1 did acquire the company, it would get access to a library of around 100 titles (mostly French-lingo pics) which includes Pedro Almodovar’s “Kika” and “High Heels,” David Lynch’s “Lost Highway,” Robert Altman’s “Kansas City,” P.J. Hogan’s “Muriel’s Wedding,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” and Wim Wenders’ “The End of Violence.”

One question would be over the future of Ciby Sales. Although the sales arm is widely respected, TF1 has its own sales outfit, TF1 Intl., and might not see a need to maintain two sales operations.

With debts reported around 250 million francs ($43 million) and a distribution arm that has struggled to establish itself despite hitting payday with “Secrets & Lies,” some observers say it’s not obvious why a U.S. major would want Ciby.

However, some Hollywood heavies, tired of being endlessly criticized by the French for dominating the box office without supporting local production, have been moving to solve the problem.

Sony has a series of initiatives with Studio Canal Plus to develop pics in Europe. Disney has a major animation studio in the suburbs of Paris and proudly trumpeted the local toon input on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” More recently, Warner Bros. gave new Paris chief Francis Boespflug the greenlight not only to oversee distribution but also to kickstart local Warner-financed film projects.

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