Gauls are big pic spenders

Many new big-budgeters shot in english

This article was corrected on Apr. 30, 2003.

PARIS — The independent film biz may be in a sorry financial state — but you’d never guess it in France, where pre-sales are now a bigger deal than a Prix du Jury.

It seems that every self-respecting French producer has a blockbuster on the go — more often than not in English.

And the bigger the budget, the better. It was once practically unheard of for a Gallic pic to top $40 million: not any more, as pics like EuropaCorp’s $43 million “Danny the Dog” or producer Thomas Langmann’s “Fantomas” testify.

The international scope of these pics blows away the usual budgetary restrictions that apply to a French film, as producers count on rustling up foreign co-production coin. They can also factor in correspondingly bigger presales. That’s the theory, anyway.

But some industryites think the Gallic blockbuster bubble is bound to burst — big time.

Brahim Chioua, the former Studio Canal topper now a partner in the fully independent Wild Bunch, says: “Everyone’s rushing headlong into the breach, but only so many films can sell to Japan or Italy for $3 million. There are bound to be casualties.”

A rapid headcount of the $25 million-plus projects kicking around Gaul right now reveals at least 20 at various stages of gestation, from Jan Kounen’s much awaited “Blueberry” in post production, to “Babylon Babies”, slated to be Mathieu Kassovitz’ next pic with Gallic producer Christophe Rossignon after the helmer finishes shooting “Gothika.”

“If there are a lot of projects out there it proves the good health of the French film industry,” says Rossignon defiantly. “There’s no point in worrying about failure. If you did you’d never get out of bed in the morning.”

Foreign buyers will be confronted with a wave of new projects at the Cannes market next month — including the Thomas Langmann/Ariel Zeïtoun-produced “Blueberry,” “Crimson Rivers 2” and Claude Berri’s next big production, a Gerard Depardieu starrer adapted from the “San Antonio” best seller series.

Acknowledges one sale topper: “The pressure will be on us at Cannes this year. The stakes are getting higher.”

The French are consciously aiming to plug a corner of the market left vacant by American independent production, she says. “We are the alternative to the big American blockbusters right now, which have disappeared. We are making mainstream films that can travel.”

Yet if the business hadn’t been in trouble in the first place, would the American indies have left a gap to plug?

The current Gallic blockbuster drive appears to have a momentum all its own, fuelled by the relatively sound financial health of Gallic film groups like UGC, broadcaster TF1, or Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp. It’s awash with money thanks to the “Taxi” franchise and a series of cheaply produced box office earners like the Jean Reno starrer, “Wasabi” which made a mint in Asia.

Industryites also have vivid memories of the market success of pics like “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and the first “Crimson Rivers,” which made unprecedented pre-sales at Cannes in 2000. “Brotherhood” ended up raking in $20 million in foreign pre-sales and box office.

“In the decade before that,” recalls Chioua, “it used to be very good going to make $3 million outside France, $500,000 was the norm. Then in 2000 suddenly people realized that it was possible to finance a French film with foreign money.”

Many industryites dismiss the notion that there are too many French blockbusters.

“It sounds like there are a lot of projects but they are all at different stages of development so there’s not going to be a glut,” maintains Pathe Intl. sales topper Pascal Diot.

Studio Canal’s distribution chief Michel Schmidt also insists that paradoxically, in the current economic climate big budget films are more attractive to foreign buyers who are looking for a safe bet.

“It’s easier to buy a film where there is less risk, even if it costs more. Video prospects are usually better and the upside is much greater.”

Franck Chorot, Gaumont’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, is of the same opinion — despite the French film group’s disastrous experience with the loss-making English language remake “Just Visiting.” Although Gaumont’s current line-up doesn’t contain any mega-budget pics, such projects are in development at the company.

“It’s often easier to sell a $25 million film than a middle-range one at $10 million,” says Chorot, “But you’ve got to be sure of your ground. There has to be a good reason to do a film in English — you’ve got to have the right subject, the right talent, for it to work.”

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