Deauville Film Fest helps small pics garner big buzz

The Deauville Film Fest may be a bit of a paradox, but it’s one embraced by both the French and American film industries. The French may be fierce protectors of their own cinema, but they’re just as devoted to American films.

The seaside resort has long attracted a glamorous array of talent, with the unabashedly commercial aim of pitching their upcoming releases to the French.

But as the major studios corral more of the specialty film market, the fest has become increasingly important as a venue to get out the word about smaller American films.

To counteract its rep as a publicity pit stop, Deauville launched a 10-title competitive section in 1995. Since then, quirkier pics like “Being John Malkovich,” “Memento” and “The Good Girl” have gotten boosts in France from their Deauville slots. About a dozen higher-profile titles, including “The Black Dahlia” and “The Devil Wears Prada” will bow in the Premieres section.

The publicity impact is felt mostly within the borders of the hexagon, but since French box office brings in well over $200 million a year for American titles, it’s an essential platform.

“Deauville is a great fest for launching movies in the fall in France,” says Lionsgate Intl. prexy Nick Meyer, who brought “Buffalo 66″ and “Secretary” to Deauville. Metropolitan will release Lionsgate’s “Hard Candy,” which competes in Deauville. Pic already has been released in both the U.K. and the U.S., but ideally Lionsgate uses the fest as part of a global campaign.

When “Crash” hit the shores of Deauville last year, there wasn’t much buzz from its summer U.S. release. The pic took home the grand prize for producers the Yari Film Group and opened two weeks later in France, when memory of the kudos was still fresh.

“Deauville has recently become more high profile” says Yari’s David Glasser, who serves as both chief creative officer of Yari Film Group and prexy of foreign sales arm Syndicate Intl.

This year, Yari’s “The Illusionist” opens the festival after preeming at Sundance, and distrib Metropolitan Filmexport plans to move its opening date up to capitalize on the fest spot. Star Ed Norton will be at the festival.

“The smart thing is to release right after the festival,” Glasser says.

Since the Gallic media has a huge appetite for American movies, the fest generates plenty of TV and print press. “You get an unbelievable amount of coverage and not only in France. It flows out,” says Glasser.

French distribs often plan to open pics right afterward, resulting in a fortuitous combo of media attention and calendar timing that capitalizes on la rentree, the return from summer vacation that, as in the United States, kicks off the serious movie season.

That’s certainly the way to maximize the press coverage from Deauville, but it doesn’t always work out. Warners was slated to take Curtis Hanson gambling picture “Lucky You” to Deauville, but when the U.S. release date got pushed back, the domino effect around the world led Warners to pull the movie from the festival rather than promo it too early.

“You want to make sure that you’re not too much in advance because you lose the benefit,” says Warners prexy of international marketing Sue Kroll. “The key thing is to find the best date. You could argue that it’s just after the festival.”

Sometimes it’s better to wait. Pics like Venice fest winner “Brokeback Mountain” occasionally gain enough Oscar buzz to sustain their European releases even though they wait until after the holidays to open.

Kroll says the fest is important for helping launch unusual films and smaller films. “Deauville is a fast-breaking opportunity. You get your clip on the news,” she explains, “and you get an interesting mix of films in a great environment.”

It may be located perilously close to the English Channel, but security concerns aside, everyone’s a fan of Deauville’s gracious and leisurely feel.

“It reminds me of the old days,” Glasser says.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more