France takes art toons seriously

Overseas, mainstream films fail to gain audience

PARIS — If you want to gauge how seriously the French take their animated films, consider that they submitted “Persepolis” over live-action “La Vie en rose” in Oscar’s foreign-language category. While it did not secure the nomination, “Persepolis” went on to earn about $4 million in the U.S. and more than $20 million worldwide, about half of that in France — the perfect model of a successful French toon.

“Persepolis” was made on a relatively small budget ($7.3 million), which meant it could recoup its cost several times over. The story was already familiar to many as it was based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels. And with its monochrome 2-D imagery and elliptical narrative, it didn’t try to mimic the style of Hollywood studios like Pixar or DreamWorks. In short, it was a classic example of what the French refer to as a film d’auteur.

“Auteur animated films like ‘Persepolis’ each have a unique signature,” says Stephane Le Bars, chief exec of SPFA, France’s animated film producers’ union. “They are very different from the kinds of films produced in Hollywood. These kinds of films don’t need a massive marketing push because they’re not trying to target a mass family audience like the American 3-D films.”

Since the mid-1990s, French producer Didier Brunner’s company Les Armateurs has specialized in this type of filmmaking, producing pics such as Michel Ocelot’s “Kirikou and the Sorceress” (1998) and its sequel, “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts” (2005), as well as Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003), which grossed more than $10 million at the U.S. box office. “There’s less of a gamble with smaller, artisanal films with microbudgets,” says Brunner, whose next animated offering is the English-language “Brendan and the Secret of Kells” from Irish helmer Tomm Moore. “If they do well in the U.S., then it’s the cherry on the cake, not the be-all and end-all.”

Where France perpetually struggles, however, is in trying to produce bigger-budgeted animated films for international family audiences. Luc Besson was massively disappointed by the performance of his $80 million “Arthur and the Invisibles” at the U.S. box office, where it earned just over $15 million (compared with about $130 million worldwide, including France). “If we want to start making popular family films like they do in the States, then we need to learn how to share the workload a lot more, both in the conception and writing of a project,” Le Bars says. “We don’t have any kind of track record in that area. When you consider the kind of animated films that come out of France, family comedies do not rate very highly.”

Le Bars points to the recent domestic box office failure of “Go West: A Lucky Luke Adventure,” which halted any substantial international launch. “I think with ‘Lucky Luke,’ the producer (Xilam) did not manage to provide a film that offered something distinct from the television series which is constantly on the air,” Le Bars says. “There’s an animated film version of Titeuf (a popular French cartoon character) in the works at the moment. That’s going to be a real test to see once and for all whether a film adapted from a popular French television series can be a big success. If it doesn’t work, I think there will be a real question mark.”

Meanwhile, Brunner has plans for a couple of medium-budgeted English-language toons he hopes can occupy a middle ground between the arthouse and the mainstream. The most ambitious of these is “Why I Did Not Eat My Father,” a $30 million pic being funded in partnership with French major Pathe. The film, which takes place 3 million years ago, is based on a popular novel by Roy Lewis called “The Evolution Man” and will feature a cartoon composite of French actor Jamel Debbouze.

“We’ve decided to make the film in English because we want to give it the best possible chance on its travels,” Brunner says. “We’re seeking to make a different kind of animated film (than Hollywood), one that is less formatted and less politically correct.”

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