World's oldest film company steps up production

PARIS — It’s been through good times and bad in its 112-year history, but lately Gaumont, the world’s oldest film company, seems to have discovered the secret of eternal youth.

Last year its distribution joint venture with Sony Columbia, which winds down this year, was France’s No. 1 distributor — and Gaumont’s French fare had more to do with that than “The Da Vinci Code.”

A hat-trick of Gallic hits, the hick pic, “You Look so Handsome,” Francis Veber’s “The Valet” and James Bond-style spoof “OSS117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” delivered more than 10 million admissions.

Meanwhile French helmer Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep” boosted international sales.

Spurred on by those successes — and bumper profits up of more than $33 million last year, on revenues up 32% to $171.7 million (bolstered by its stake in the Europalaces theater chain) — the French major is stepping up production, and will finance around a dozen films this year.

Those pics will be released by Gaumont’s solo theatrical distribution arm, which will launch in July when the joint venture with Sony ends.

Currently shooting in Marseilles is the Daniel Auteuil starrer “MR73,” helmer Olivier Marchal’s follow up to “36,” a film that started a trend for Gallic underworld thrillers and has been bought for U.S. remake by Robert DeNiro. 

“We’re advancing year on year and we’re very happy with that,” Sidonie Dumas, Gaumont’s chairman, tells Variety. “But cinema is an uncertain business that is full of surprises. One can’t rest on one’s laurels, and we don’t intend to. We just want to live up to the Gaumont name.”

Dumas’ caution is understandable.

When she took over operational responsibility for the family firm, one of the most resonant names in cinema history, from Nicolas Seydoux, her father and Gaumont’s main shareholder, in 2004 the company was struggling after a series of setbacks culminating with the financially ruinous flop “Les Visiteurs en Amerique.”

An English-language version of a mega-hit French franchise had seemed a good idea at the time. But the fully financed film, which broke Gallic film budget records at the time, blew such a gaping hole in Gaumont’s finances that Seydoux was forced to give up France’s third-biggest chain of movie theaters, merging it with his brother Jerome Seydoux’s Pathe chain into French market leader Europalaces, owned 34% by Gaumont.

But Seydoux, who is now head of Gaumont’s supervisory board, held on to the jewel in the company’s crown — a 900-title strong film catalog chockfull of French classics dating back to such fare as Louis Feuillade’s 1910 “The Vampires” series.

Feeding that catalog with new titles is the company’s principal concern today.

“The catalog is Gaumont’s heritage and we must keep it alive, not let it become a museum piece,” Dumas says.

Gaumont will sink in excess of $131 million into production over the course of 2006 and 2007, either on its own inhouse films or as a co-producer, but with a stake never less than 50%.

Today, as ever, the company’s approach to the film business is informed by its unusually independent — and untouchable — status.

Neither banks nor French broadcasters have a stake in the company, as is often the case in France. And even though it is publicly quoted, like other fortress-like Gallic family firms Gaumont’s statutes make it impossible for an outsider to wrest control from the ultra-wealthy Seydoux family, part of the Schlumberger oil services dynasty. (Nonetheless Vincent Bollore, one of France’s most feared corporate raiders, is a 10% stakeholder in the company.)

In its dealings with others in the biz, Gallic industryites compare Gaumont to a Hollywood studio.

“They like to call the shots when dealing with independent producers. They will pay what it takes, but they want to be charge, like a Hollywood major,” says one Gallic industryite.

“They are more actively involved than other French companies,” agrees an indie producer who has worked with the company recently, “but artistically they give you a lot of freedom.”

And when Gaumont decides it doesn’t want a project it has been co-developing with an independent producer, it is flexible about letting go.

Filmmakers also attest to the “family ambiance” that rules at Gaumont’s Neuilly sur Seine HQ, just outside Paris.

But some things have changed, including the range of projects being greenlit these days — thrillers, comedies, low-budget indie fare and even an animated film, across a range of budgets up to $20 million.

“We are being a lot more diverse,” Dumas says.

In the past Gaumont was best known for its mainstream comedies, many of which were produced inhouse by the prolific and consistently successful Alain Poire in 60 years with the French major. Veber’s “The Closet” was the last film he shepherded before he died in 2000. Gaumont also had a run of hits with Luc Besson before the helmer ankled to create his own movie empire at EuropaCorp.

Throughout Gaumont’s history the company has also plowed coin into less money-making highbrow fare — and even though they were loss makers at the time, happily for Gaumont those titles have proven to have a longer shelf life.

“Today people still want to see Vigo’s ‘L’Atalante’ but no one remembers ‘La Bande a bouboule,’ Gaumont’s big hit of the day back then,” says catalog manager Gille Venhard.

The same holds true of titles such as Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” among films made by a roll call of European directors including Fellini, Fassbinder and Antonioni, when Daniel Toscan du Plantier was in charge of production.

But some of the films on Gaumont’s slate today would not have found favor at the old Gaumont.

Underscoring the company’s newly eclectic tastes, upcoming pics range from “Ain’t Scared” a low-budget comedy with a social message set in a poor Paris suburb, to the pre-production 3-D animated “Noah’s Ark,” with Gallic f/x studio MacGuff Ligne.

Gaumont’s Franck Chorot, producer, describes the pic as “an animated, animal version of ‘Some Like It Hot.’ “

In response to the company’s growing production commitments, Chorot stepped down as co-CEO at the beginning of February to become a full-time inhouse producer. Christophe Riandee, Gaumont’s financial brains, remains as CEO.

“In Hollywood this is usually the first step on the way out, but that’s not the case here,” Chorot made clear. “With the volume of films we are now handling production had already become a full-time job for me.”

A full schedule of releases is on the agenda, including “Chrysalis,” a futuristic thriller starring Albert Dupontel and Melanie Thierry; Djamel Bensalah’s “Big City,” a Western with an all-kid cast that is slated for a Dec. 12 release; and Michel Boujenah’s, “Three Friends,” the thesp-turned-helmer’s follow-up to “Father and Son.”

Company is also co-producing with indie shingle Left Turn Films the English language-thriller “The Broken,” Brit artist Sean Ellis’ psychological thriller follow-up to “Cash Back.” New pic stars Lena Heady, “Festen” thesp Ulrich Thomsen and France’s Melvil Poupaud.

Already slated for release in 2008 are the fantasy film “Two Worlds,” starring popular Belgian comic Benoit Poelvoorde, and “A Widow at Last,” helmer Isabelle Mergault’s follow up to “You Look so Handsome.”

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