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Pic financer keeps French bread coming

Coficine provides coin for about 80 pix a year

PARIS — Among the credits on Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning “The Pianist,” a special thank-you went to Coficine, the Gallic film financing bank that advanced a large chunk of the pic’s budget.

The production wasn’t just going through the motions, either; it was blowing a heartfelt kiss to the bank for putting up the cash without the safety net of a completion bond.

“It’s due to the long-term relationship we have with the bank,” says producer Robert Benmussa. “They were extremely supportive and faithful, and allowed Roman to make the film without having a guarantor on the set asking all sorts of impossible questions.”

Such testimonials abound when it comes to what is now officially Natexis Coficine (recently renamed after being taken over by Natexis Banques Populaires three years ago), Europe’s leading private lending bank for the independent film sector.

One year younger than the Cannes Film Festival — which debuted in 1947 — Coficine is an institution in French film circles, providing financing for about 80 films a year — two-thirds of the indie films made in France. That’s almost as many as Gallic paybox Canal Plus takes pay TV rights for — although Coficine, of course, wants its money back.

In film circles, Didier Duverger, Coficine’s managing director and CEO of the past 20 years, is a powerful behind-the-scenes player who has been privy to the triumphs and failures of practically everybody in the Gallic movie world.

In Duverger’s office in Paris’ plush 16th arrondissement, one’s thoughts turn to all those Gallic industryites down the years who have sunk into these same squashy leather armchairs while their projects were considered by this sharp-dressing, sharp-witted Frenchman. “Saying yes is easy, but I always think that the qualities of a banker really show in the way he says no,” says Duverger. Duverger is proud of Coficine’s track record, the total sum of loans exploding from more than $500,000 two decades ago to better than $500 million last year and, incredibly, never reporting a loss-making year.

A bank providing similar services to the indie film sector but on a smaller scale is UGC/Banque OBC’s Cofiloisirs, which tends to concentrate on the bigger French groups.

Although completion bonds are practically unheard of in French production, a state guarantee system covers 50% of the loss on unfinished pics. The rest of the production risk is borne by the bank.

“In France, there are no completion bonds because the auteur decides, not the producer, so you never know how much a film is going to cost at the end. When there are problems, we suffer.”

Duverger plays down the difficulties the Gallic indie sector has had to bear due to the ongoing crisis at Canal Plus.

“People say there is a crisis but this year we will do as much business as last year,” he maintains. “When Canal Plus was created, things were much worse — a whole generation of distributors were wiped out from one year to the next, and when the French channel La Cinq went under, it very nearly dragged a whole load of TV production companies with it,” he recalls.

And although a banker first, by virtue of greenlighting loans to an average of eight films a month, Duverger has acquired a nose for spotting those projects most likely to succeed.

Europacorp’s $40 million “Danny the Dog” is one of the biggest pics to be handled by the bank recently, along with Jan Kounen’s “Blueberry,” produced by Thomas Langmann. Duverger says big-budget action pics are where the market is at now, and adds, “Luc Besson started it all. He’s done a remarkable job for French cinema.”

But while Besson and Langmann clearly have Duverger’s admiration, there are other industryites and projects he wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.

He boasts, for instance, that the bank kept a safe distance from two of French cinema’s biggest financial disasters — Leos Carax’ “Les Amants du Pont Neuf” and “Jeanne La Putain du Roi.”

“Leos Carax building a replica of the Pont Neuf and the banks of the Seine in the Camargue was pure folly,” Duverger recalls.

But knowing whom to trust is getting harder as more and more cash-starved Gallic producers seek out foreign coin, he says.

“Dealing with people here in France, we know who’s who, but with more big-budget films counting on pre-sales to foreign distributors we’ve never heard of, things are getting a lot riskier.”

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