Box office sees arthouse take backseat

PARIS — The perennial Gallic laffer notwithstanding, the reward for movie success in France’s auteur-driven film biz used to be a prize at a fest. Not any more.

Arthouse has taken a backseat, and ticket sales have become the goal for a growing army of commercially minded French filmmakers, who are busy churning out the kind of fare that used to be Hollywood’s domain — from musical biopics, romantic comedies and cop thrillers to megabudget 3-D animation.

French cinemagoers are lapping up these audience-friendly local pics — and Hollywood is paying the price.

In the first three months of this year, French cinema’s box office share reached 55% in the country, while U.S. pics trailed with less than 45% .

Before “Spider-Man 3″ came out, Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose” was this year’s French box office topper, grossing north of $40 million. Despite its dark tone, the movie clicked with Gallic auds, while Paramount’s cheerier “Dreamgirls” limped its way to a modest $2.8 million cume.

Meanwhile, “Taxi 4,” the Luc Besson-produced action comedy sequel, cumed $37 million, a boffo score that almost looks disappointing when compared with the $51 million racked up by Besson’s live-action/animated holiday season hit “Arthur and the Invisibles.”

Behind those front-runners, a handful of French releases this year have made a lot more money than anyone expected, including:

  • Claude Berri’s “Hunting and Gathering,” an adaptation of a bestselling novel with Audrey Tautou and Guillaume Canet that grossed $16 million;

  • “Moliere,” a period costumer starring Romain Duris as France’s famed 17th-century playwright, which netted $10 million;

  • “The Price to Pay,” a couples comedy with Nathalie Baye, Christian Clavier, Gerard Lanvin and Geraldine Pailhas, which cumed roughly $9 million; and

  • “Danse avec lui,” a drama about a woman who overcomes her fear of horseback riding, which took in $7.8 million.

Apart from “Spider-Man 3,” the only U.S. pics to have made an impact on the Gallic box office so far this year are “Night at the Museum,” “300” and “Blood Diamond.”

“French films used to have a reputation for being depressing or boring, but that image has changed. Cinemagoers here on the whole now prefer them to most kinds of American film,” says Olivier Snanoudj, managing director of the Federation National des Cinemas Francais exhibitors org.

Francois Hurard, head of the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC), France’s state-run film body, enthuses, “The cinemagoing public is taking an interest not just in a few big-budget blockbusters, but in French films in general, and that’s encouraging.”

France’s powerful broadcasters, a central source of funding for local films, are widely deemed to be responsible for Gallic cinema’s shift toward more commercial fare.

With competition between terrestrial broadcasters increasingly fierce and slots for movies declining, webs are choosing to sink ever-bigger sums in commercial fare, whose cast, director and subject matter have the best chance of delivering primetime auds. Meanwhile, the number of French films made without a cent of TV funding has tripled over the last decade.

Gallic distrib Jean Labadie, a staunch arthouse defender who will release two Cannes competition titles this year — Christophe Honore’s “Les Chansons d’amour” and Mexican helmer Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” — thinks there is cause to worry.

“If we aren’t careful, we are going to turn into Italy, with only commercial films and three auteurs,” he says.

Producer Marc Missonnier, whose indie shingle Fidelite produced Francois Ozon’s films and Emir Kusturica’s Cannes competition title “Promise Me This,” concurs: “It is getting harder to finance auteur films, so we are making more commercial films in France.”

Fidelite, one of a batch of prominent French companies run by younger producers, is also behind mainstream Gallic fare, ranging from the kitch pop-music-themed “Podium” to “Moliere.”

Pascal Caucheteux, the producer of a trio of recent hits — Jean-Francois Richet’s English-language “Assault on Precinct 13,” Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen” — laments that even for an Audiard or Desplechin, the money is there for a E5 million film, but not for a E10 million film.

“Ambitions are being stifled by the lack of money,” says the producer.

But if anyone is going to save French cinema from becoming too standardized, it would be indie shingles like Fidelite and Caucheteux’s Why Not, among others, which seem to have mastered the art of producing both commercial and arthouse fare.

Alain Rocca, whose company Lazennec produced Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine,” has a clutch of upcoming projects including first films by budding auteurs as well as the comedy sequel “Les Randonneurs a St. Tropez.”

“I’m making ‘Les Randonneurs’ so that I can have fun producing the other films,” Rocca says.

Mandarin’s Eric and Nicolas Altmeyer, behind comedy megahits “Jet Set” and “Camping,” recently launched production on intellectual French author Michel Houellebecq’s adaptation of his novel “The Possibility of an Island.”

“It is our duty to make difficult films,” says Missonnier. “Diversity is essential for French cinema.”

While a hefty lineup of U.S. tentpoles — “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Shrek 3″ among them — will surely blow the competition out of the water this summer, French fare will be back with a vengeance in the fall.

A big lineup includes “Intimate Enemies” from SND; ARP’s Alain Corneau remake “Second Breath” (Le deuxieme souffle); Pathe has Jan Kounen’s “99 francs”; and Gaumont’s got “MR73,” Olivier Marchal’s follow-up to “36 Quai des Orfevres.”

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