After an 11-year career with Canal Plus, John Kochman will soon become the first American to top Unifrance’s New York bureau. The veteran Gallic liaison casts an optimistic eye toward France’s filmic future.
What are the primary objectives for your inaugural year as head of Unifrance?
I’d like to go to Cannes next year representing a Unifrance USA that the French and their American distributors are using every day as a key factor in getting their films more widely seen and talked about in the U.S. Our strategy is to build on existing relationships and create new ones so that we can become an efficient, user-friendly service operation for French film promotion in North America.
How do you reconcile the Stateside perception of French cinema as a closed, protectionist system, with the wide proliferation of co-productions and English-language films?
The French system is set up to allow its filmmakers to exercise their craft freely, with a minimum of outside interference. It’s a notion that’s worked very well for the last 50 years, and it’s created its share of masterpieces. Anyone who loves film applauds the notion, I think.
What distinguishes a Franco-American crossover hit?
As long as French films are made in French and subtitled in English, there will never be more than a niche market for French cinema in America. This is fine. What we’re trying to do is simply maximize the niche.
The markets for bigger budget, mainstream French-language movies are in Europe, Asia, Latin America — in fact, just about everywhere else other than America. This is fine, too. The revenues from these markets are significant.
But then again, “The Fifth Element” and “March of the Penguins” both enjoyed broad American success outside of any niche.
It’s difficult to characterize “Penguins” or “Fifth Element” as typical French productions. Most filmmakers in France have to look for the home market first, and then look elsewhere. But there are entrepreneurs like Luc Besson who want to expand into a more international market, and I, for one, welcome it.
Do you see a trend toward big-budget, Hollywood-style productions?
French directors have always been influenced by Hollywood to some degree. And yet, I think you’ll still find plenty of psychological realism and experimentation in current French cinema. So if it can be said that irony and gloss characterize public taste in our globalized world of today, what could be more natural than its expression in our movies, no matter where we’re from?
As the first American to oversee Unifrance, have you experienced any resentment or hostility?
Everyone in France has been supportive. Yes, I’m an American, but I’ve spent most of my professional life working in the French film industry. So I’m uniquely positioned to understand the French mentality, or at least I try to, while still staying connected to America.