From fantasy to romance and zombie actioners

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Although this year’s City of Lights City of Angels fest brings new films from such celebrated French directors as Claude Miller, Christian Carion and Christophe Honore, more than half the lineup are first-time films.

The 14 debut entries run the gamut from comicbook artist Joann Sfar’s biopic “Gainsbourg” to TV vet Pascal Chaumeil’s hit romantic comedy “Heartbreaker” and Gaul’s first zombie movie, “The Horde.”

“Our selection shows a trend toward high-concept, well-written and visually appealing films, which have a more international reach than ever before.” says Colcoa topper Francois Truffart.

The event, which runs April 19-25 in L.A., also reflects the breadth of opportunities for emerging helmers in France. In fact, 2009 saw a record number of first and second films, which made up 62.6% of Gallic film production, a 9% jump from the year before.

“Even in periods of economic recession, first-time French filmmakers benefit from a variety of financial resources, including the CNC’s advance on receipts, local subsidies and TV channels’ minimum guarantees,” explains Benoit Danard, CNC’s head of studies and statistics.

Debuts partly financed with local subsidies and CNC’s coin include Femis grad Lea Fehner’s “Silent Voices,” actor-turned-helmer Pascal Elbe’s thriller “Tete de Turc” and “Round Da Way,” an irreverent toon from Albert Pereira Lazaro and Emmanuel Klotz.

Ironically, it’s the populist debuts — the ones most likely to land their helmers Hollywood careers — that are hardest to get financed in France.

According to Quad Films’ Yann Zenou, who produced “Heartbreaker,” the French system doesn’t value films for broader auds and seems disinclined to trust newcomers with projects costing more than E7 million ($9.4 million).

“Apart from Universal and Orange, the potential financial partners from distribution companies and TV channels told us we were taking too many risks considering the $11 million budget,” Zenou says of the film, which stars Vanessa Paradis and Romain Duris. “They were skeptical about having a first-time director on board and two actors best known in auteurish dramas.”

And yet, in light of “Heartbreaker’s” success at the French B.O. (pic has earned more than $15 million in France since opening March 17), 49-year-old Chaumeil was probably the safest “first-timer” they could find, having directed such popular French TV skeins as “Spiral” and “Desperate Parents.”

“I’ve learned from my long career in TV how to work on tight budgets, shoot fast and use tricks to hike the production value,” asserts Chaumeil.

“The Horde” directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher faced similar challenges. Only Gallic powerhouse Canal Plus (a big backer of first-time talent) was willing to take the risk.

“A genre film like ours requires a certain level of budget to be visually compelling, but it’s extremely difficult to finance in France,” says Rocher. “It’s not yet considered art over here.”

And yet, like “Heartbreaker,” it’s just the sort of calling card that could ensure its helmers a second film, possibly even one in Hollywood.

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