French films turn to comic books

'Largo Winch,' others aim for global success

PARIS — Call it another kind of French paradox: The French love their graphic novels, but the films based on them usually don’t leave much impression.

In Hollywood, on the other hand, both superhero-themed tentpoles and films based on more complex graphic novels like “300” and “Wanted” are among the most successful pics at the box office.

Now, a new crop of Gallic projects hopes to break the country’s middling record for comics-based movies.

Gallic filmmakers have been plowing into comicbook adaptations since 2004, hoping to lure young audiences back into theaters. 

But apart from family-friendly “Asterix,” starring Gerard Depardieu, and its two sequels, French pics based on comicbooks have failed to make a wide impact at the European B.O., in spite of large budgets by Gallic standards.

Budgeted at more than $50 million, “Renegade,” starring Vincent Cassel grossed just $3.9 million, while the $30 million “Immortal” (Ad Vidam), helmed by Enki Bilal, grossed only $4.3 million. Even previous films adapted from wildly popular comicbooks such as Lucky Luke and Iznogood didn’t translate to theatrical success.

French industryites agree that previous comicbook-based pics missed their target audiences not merely because marketing was often ineffective but because they weren’t mainstream enough to compete with their American counterparts.

“These projects seemed more like big-budget arthouse fare aimed at niche audiences and fans,” says Franck Ribiere, co-founder and CEO of production and distribution shingle La Fabrique du Film, along with Verane Frediani. “The most enduring challenges are to keep the elements that make the comicbook successful while updating the plot and transposing the universe.”

Former topper at Glenat, Laurent Muller, who’s launched his own comicbook and Manga publishing house, 12 Bis adds, “Even if they’re based on popular franchises, these films are sometimes too ambitious for French producers, partly because they can’t raise the financing.”

But “Largo Winch” producer Nathalie Gastaldo was up to the challenge.

Paris-based shingle Pan-Europeene released the high-voltage action pic Dec. 17 in Gaul, grossing $10.8 million through Jan. 4.

Distribbed by Wild Bunch and helmed by Jerome Salle, the $33 million budget pic has earned critical support in Gaul.

“Our goal was to make ‘Largo Winch’ an international blockbuster,” says producer Gastaldo. The pic stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Tomer Sisley and was shot partly in English and on location in Hong Kong. “We really poured a lot of money into it to avoid the look of cheap French TV films,” Gastaldo says.

Based on the Belgian graphic novel by artists Jean Van Hamme and Philippe Francq, “Largo Winch” follows a free-spirited man who struggles to maintain ownership of his billionaire father’s empire. Scott Thomas is a cunning businesswoman who hides her greed behind a veil of maternal affection toward Winch.

Gallic shingle Overlook Entertainment, recently launched by Ribiere and Frediani, is developing “La Marque Jaune,” based on the comic “Blake and Mortimer” by Belgian artist Edgar P. Jacobs, to be helmed by Alex de la Iglesia.  “Our film should travel well, since it’s very British,” says Ribiere, who adds that the film will be shot in English.

Other projects include “Lucky Luke,” produced by UGC and helmed by James Huth (“Brice de Nice”), set for an October release.

French movie mogul Luc Besson and publishing exec Jaques Glenat are also developing a pic based on the Belgian detective comicbook “Les Enchaines,” created by Joel Callede et Gihef.

The pic will be Glenat and Besson’s first project together. They’ve recently teamed up and launched the company Europa Glenat to acquire rights from other publishers as well as adapt and sell rights from Glenat’s 5,000-title catalogue of Franco-Belgian graphic novels. Besson says he hopes to produce one film a year via EuropaGlenat.

As Glenat sums it up, “France prides itself for having topnotch animation schools, and Belgium has a prolific comicbook industry, so there is no reason we couldn’t make successful theatrical adaptations in Europe.”

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