Beaucoup fetes for glitzier Cesars

Sponsors to shell out for various events before Feb. 25 ceremony

PARIS — They may never be the Oscars, but France’s Academy of Cinema Arts & Techniques is busily revamping Gaul’s equivalent, the Cesar Awards.

Traditionally the French kudos fest comes and goes without much prior buzz, while the night itself is a lot less showbizzy than the Hollywood gala its originator Georges Cravenne styled after on some 30 years ago.

Much to the frustration of paparazzi and celeb-watchers, stars in attendance generally hurry across the short red carpet, overcoats hiding their evening garb. The ceremony is more likely to feature speeches about the preservation of French culture than gushing thank-yous from bejeweled stars.

But this year, for the first time, the Feb. 25 event will be preceded by a “season” repping something equivalent to the pre-Oscar buildup.

And the many thousands of Euros that will be splurged on the various events will be coming out of the pockets not of members of the Academy but of wealthy sponsors such as telco Orange and jeweler Chaumet.

The changes have been instigated by Academy prexy, producer and lobbyist Alain Terzian, aided by fellow producer Alain Rocca, its treasurer, and Cannes vet and Acad member Gilles Jacob.

Terzian was elected to head the Academy following the sudden death of Daniel Toscan du Plantier at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003. While the popular and flamboyant Toscan du Plantier had done an admirable job of keeping the Cesars in the public eye — the show draws decent audiences unencrypted on Canal Plus — finances were in a mess.

Events such as the traditional post-ceremony party at posh Parisian haunt Le Fouquet’s were paid for by a private company owned by Toscan du Plantier that was up to its neck in debt.

The Academy has since taken back responsibility for its own ceremony, along with the debt, and restructured its finances with the aid of a bank loan.

It has also re-upped a deal with Canal Plus, which will continue to produce and broadcast the ceremony for the next seven years, including this one.

Rocca says he is only 10% behind a pre-set sponsorship target, having snagged five instead of a hoped-for six major partners. Meanwhile, the Academy’s 3,000 members now have to pay a e50 ($61) membership fee that covers the cost of the vote.

“It was important for the Academy to gain its independence and be able to finance its vote free of outside influences,” says Terzian.

An industryite who amassed a fortune thanks to the hit franchise “The Visitors” (among roughly 100 films to his credit), Terzian is not well-known outside the biz, but is a powerful behind-the-scenes lobbyist who has been known to make French TV bosses quake. He presides over producer’s union UPF and sits on the boards of the Cannes Film Festival and Unifrance.

“I don’t claim to be able to fill Daniel’s shoes; he was irreplaceable. But I think my experience gives me the legitimacy to defend the interests of the Academy,” Terzian says.

Just before Christmas, the Academy sent out DVD screeners to all of its members. Pics in the running this year are likely to include France’s Oscar candidate “Joyeux Noel,” Michael Haneke’s “Cache” (Hidden) and Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.”

All that remains now is for the Academy to stir up the buzz.

Its efforts are focusing on film bizzers, not the general public. Last month, the org hosted its first pre-Cesar shindig; an evening devoted to prize-worthy short films was sponsored by Orange. In January, invites will be dropping through letterboxes for the Soiree des Revelations, an evening devoted to young thesps in the running for newcomer nods.

Next month will see the Soiree des Nommes, a gala dinner in honor of and attended by this year’s nominees.

On the big night, don’t count on the Academy to make obvious choices. The pic that ran away with the top awards last year was “L’Esquive,” a little-seen debut film that beat out Jean Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” and the box office topper “The Chorus.”

“The Cesars are a showcase for French excellence in film, not commercial success, and that’s how it should be,” Terzian says.

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