Rash of local titles will flood theaters

PARIS — French companies used to shy away from pitting their releases against bigger, bolder U.S. blockbusters at the end of the year. But this year, with no big Hollywood franchises on the sked, the coast is clear for a holiday buffet of Gallic fare.

Come December, a rash of Gallic toons, nature docus, actioners and romantic comedies will flood movie theaters, providing some serious competition for Hollywood.

Even the major studios are touting Gallic product to the locals. Both Disney and Warner Bros. have high-profile French pics on their end-of-year release schedule.

Disney’s “Enchanted” bows Nov. 28, but the Mouse House’s Gallic subsid has given an even juicier Dec. 12 slot to “The Fox and the Child,” French helmer Luc Jacquet’s much-awaited follow up to “March of the Penguins.”

“Fox” is about the friendship between a little girl in France’s Jura mountains and a wild fox. Exhibs gathered in Deauville for their annual congress Oct. 4 gave an enthusiastic reception to a promo reel whose stunning nature shots hinted that Jacquet’s first foray into scripted storytelling might be another visual feast, albeit shot in less extreme conditions than “Penguins.”

Warner Bros. has no “Harry Potter” to count on this year, but in addition to Will Smith starrer “I am Legend,” which bows Dec. 19, WB France is planning a wide release Dec. 5 for “L’Auberge Rouge.” Remake of a Claude Autant Lara classic about innkeepers who kill their clients is being pitched as a French “Addams Family,” and stars a number of the Gallic talents who were involved in the hit sequel “Les Bronzes: Friends Forever.”

“Disney’s Christmas hegemony is finished,” says Warner Bros. France topper Francis Boespflug. “The French public knows there are alternatives.”

Top Gallic distribs also are hungry for a slice of the yuletide log.

Gaumont is hoping for a Christmas hit with “Big City,” an all-kids Bugsy Malone-style Western, directed by Djamel Bensallah, bowing Dec 12. Pathe opens “Lucky Luke,” a bigscreen toon adaptation of the bestselling comicbook, Dec. 5. TFM is going back to nature with birds-and-bees docu “Animals in Love,” directed by “Winged Migration” cinematographer Laurent Charbonnier, bowing Dec 19.

Meanwhile both TFM and Studio Canal are hoping for a repeat of last holiday season’s romantic comedy run, which saw a series of Gallic chick pics click with auds, led by the Alain Chabat starrer “I Do.”

On Dec. 12, TFM opens “Un Baiser s’il vous plait,” a wry comedy that has received praise from crix, helmed by and starring Emmanuel Mouret, while a week later, Studio Canal will serve up “My Life’s Not a Romantic Comedy,” with Marie Gillain. The Canal Plus subsid is also banking on “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which it will release Dec. 12.

Despite several choices for femmes, Gallic distribs aren’t neglecting the boys.

In addition to “The Golden Compass,” released by New Line’s French partner Metropolitan on Dec. 5, SND, the theatrical subsid of French broadcaster M6, will unleash thriller “La Clef,” starring Guillaume Canet and Vanessa Paradis.

Artier Gallic releases include Jalil Lespert’s “24 Bars” from MK2; Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light,” being handled by Bac; and Pretty Pictures’ “Diary of a North Korean Girl.”

Wild Bunch has bowed out of the December box office pile-up, releasing its last picture of the year, James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” Nov. 28.

Having reigned over the French box office last year with “Arthur and the Invisibles,” Luc Besson’s Europacorp is waiting until Dec. 26 to release vidgame adaptation “Hit Man.”

“It’s a good date to reach the film’s teenage male target audience,” says Europacorp’s distribution topper Philippe Kaempf.

“There’s a rich lineup of counterprogramming this year, but the calendar is so full, only the strongest will survive,” Kaempf predicts.

Indeed, put off by the December squeeze, some distribs have chosen to bring their releases forward to November or push them back to January — causing bottlenecks in those months, too. “American Gangster” was originally scheduled for a Dec. 19 release, but has been brought forward to Nov. 14.

With no big Disney toon, other studios targeting youngsters include Paramount with “Bee Movie” on Dec. 12 and Fox with “Alvin and the Chipmunks” Dec. 19 — although the Chipmunks aren’t as well known abroad.

“It’s too soon to say if these films will be audience pleasers, or if the sheer number and range of films will confuse the public,” says one exhib, ” but it’s going to be eventful.”

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