France's companies grow into global movie leaders

Never mind the near-total lockout of French films in competition. In Berlinale biz terms, French companies will make many of the biggest announcements — this year as last.Tip Sheet
What: 60th Berlinale
When: Feb. 11-21
Where: Berlin
Web: berlinale.de/enFRENCH

In part that reflects trade cycles. “The AFM is more for big U.S. independents, Cannes is a big market for everybody. At Berlin, much American focus is on big competition movies,” says EuropaCorp founder Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. That allows art films and select mainstream pics from Europe’s biggest companies — many hailing from France — to make much of the market.

Gaul’s sophistication and strength rolls off one bottom line: France’s deep-seated love for cinema, both homegrown and Hollywood. “French people love going to the cinema for French movies and spectacular Hollywood movies as well,” says Gaumont chairman Sidonie Dumas.

Audience demand in Europe’s biggest theatrical market — with 200.85 million tickets sold last year — has driven money into the industry, attracting topnotch talent and allowing the French industry to bulk up and open out like none other in Europe:

¦ Few French companies are now stand-alones. The deepest-pocketed ones are rolled into corporate goliaths: StudioCanal at Canal Plus, TF1/UGC at TF1 Group, SND at net M6. Or they’re mini-studios mixing production, distribution, even exhibition, such as EuropaCorp, Pathe, Gaumont and even smaller players like Bac, Pyramide, Roissy, Rezo and MK2. Sales are only part of their game.

¦ Gallic shingles are Europe’s finest practitioners of soft money and TV financing, at a time when the first is desperately sought the world over and the second is dwindling. In 2008, paybox Canal Plus alone plowed ?174 million ($246 million) into French film pre-buys.

¦ While other companies talked the talk, France walked the walk, creating pan-European distribution networks in the case of StudioCanal, Wild Bunch and Pathe. France, the U.K. and Germany, where StudioCanal operates direct distribution, equals 45% of U.S. box office.

¦ More than any other nation, France has turned film sales into a global game: Pathe management shuttles between London and Paris; StudioCanal is busy signing up some of the hottest directorial talent worldwide.

Berlin will showcase French companies’ muscle, breadth and reach.

Higher-budget movies range from Luc Besson’s ?68.8 million ($97 million) toon pic “Arthur and the Two Worlds War” to Pathe’s “Oceans” ($70 million); StudioCanal’s $18.4 million costume romancer “The Princess of Montpellier,” directed by Bertrand Tavernier; Kinology’s motion-capture “Prodigies” (with an estimated budget of $54 million); and Kirs-ten Dunst sci-fi romance “Upside Down,” sold at a budget of $50 million.

Wild Bunch’s Berlin slate features films from France, the U.S., the U.K., China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Mexico, Belgium and Spain.

For Europe, many recent French film budgets look high, but that ignores just how much money can be drawn from France.

For instance, EuropaCorp makes films that sell worldwide, such as “Taken” and the “Arthur” trilogy, yet between 2007-09, France repped 71% of EuropaCorp’s revenues.

“French sales companies are largely small structures which don’t necessitate large overheads,” says Bac Films’ Camille Neel. “So they’ve been able to take setbacks and downturns without going under.”

But Gaul’s industry remains challenged, especially abroad.

“TV stations over much of the world are downsizing film acquisition budgets, DVD receipts are decreasing, and an ever smaller number of releases sell most tickets,” says Wild Bunch’s Gael Nouaille. P&A costs are increasing, and new revenue streams, like VOD, don’t compensate for the shortfall, he adds.

The net result: Indie distributors are seeing less revenues on average per film. “Production will have to adjust to demand,” Nouaille concludes.

It’s doing so in several ways, mirroring production trends across Europe.

“During this crisis, you have to find (new) ideas movie-per-movie, adapting film costs to market potential,” Le Pogam says. “When we make a movie like ’22 Bullets,’ we make sure its production levels are up to what buyers expect,” he adds of EuropaCorp’s Jean Reno vengeance drama.

Indeed, one of Wild Bunch’s biggest Berlin bets, actioner “The Burma Conspiracy,” is budgeted at a tight $28 million. It’s set up at France’s Pan-Europeenne and Wild Bunch Germany.

Another tack is for Gallic companies to partner with a Hollywood studio, which takes at least U.S. distribution, sidestepping a significant shortfall these days from a contracting U.S. specialty market.

“American projects are very expensive. We don’t want to take the risk alone. If the project’s good, we should be able to find a studio partner,” says Dumas at Gaumont, which has a brace of English-language pics in development with U.S. producers Nick Wechsler (the Julian Fellowes-scripted “Greek Fire”) and Alexandra Milchan, such as Alexandre Aja’s “The Contractors.”

Also, production-sales combos are turning to European sales or co-production.

“Our strategy is to try to finance part of a project in Europe. European territories can represent 50%-60% on average of what we expect from a film,” says Pathe Intl.’s Muriel Sauzay.

Not all producers look to Europe. “Upside Down” was co-produced with Canada’s Transfilm.

“Canada is an ideal country for co-production because there is a cultural proximity with France and great subsidies,” says “Upside” producer Aton Soumache.

One of Berlin’s most talked-up movies, Roman Polanski’s competition player, “The Ghost Writer,” is a France/U.K./Germany co-prod, tapping $6 million-plus in Teuton subsidy coin.

“France and Germany will be co-producing more and more. Germany has efficiently positioned itself with proactive regional funding bodies, a very pragmatic DFFF federal tax credit and offers strong studio facilities,” says Arsam’s Ilann Girard.

Expect not only French new pic and sales announcements at Berlin but multiple co-prod deals as well.

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