French note foreign film distributors filling pipelines again

The good news at Unifrance’s 12th Paris Rendez-Vous is that the recession is over.

And the bad: Gaul’s sales sector still suffers from the long-term erosion of markets abroad, especially for arthouse pics.

But as the economy heads upward, one question is whether the international sales tide is also turning up.

Some — though not all — sales agents notice an uptick.

Distributors are coming back to the table. They need to replenish stocks to stay in the game,” says Memento Films Intl.’s Nicholas Kaiser, observing he first saw buyers in a purchasing mode at November’s American Film Market.

Bac Films’ Camille Neel agrees: “Buyers are coming back, even if they’re more cautious and selective than before the recession. They need to fill their lineups.”

But recession fallout still stings.

Since mid-2008, Gallic sales agents have slashed minimum guarantees by 70%.

As for markets, countries cut different ways. Currency fluctuation and less competition have devastated Russian sales, though some Russian distribs are back.

U.S. prices have plummeted 50% since Toronto 2008, says Films Distribution’s Brigaud Robert.

There’s a lack of buyers, dollar devaluation against the euro and difficulty in accessing (audiences), so there’s high P&A costs,” he says, though FD made scattered sales largely elsewhere on multiple movies at AFM.

For Gaumont Intl.’s Cecile Gaget, “In Japan, Italy and Spain, pre-sales have become very difficult. Japan is most impacted by recession.”

But “Germany is holding up well,” Gaget adds. “We deal with a wide variety of buyers there.”

Most agents agree the market has contracted.

More than ever we want commercial auteurs, very original projects,” says Kinology’s Gregoire Melin.

Medium-size films are not selling. Buyers are looking for two types of films: genre movies — such as thrillers, crime and horror films — and the smaller, director-driven films,” Gaget adds.

The downturn merely compounds a decadelong decline in arthouse sales.

Over the last seven years, foreign distributors’ minimum guarantees have dropped 30%-40% on normal titles and 75% for Japan, says Pyramide’s Eric Lagesse.

That said, France has ridden out the recession far better than most.

There are 36 sales companies in France. Some have shrunk. But none have closed during the recession,” Neel notes.

Many sales companies also buy for Gaul. “French people are cinephiles, they love movies. That’s a big asset,” Lagesse says.

In France, even small films can sometimes outperform expectations: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Still Walking,” distributed by Pyramide, took in an “absolutely fantastic” 150,000 admissions, Lagesse recalls.

The bigger question now for Gallic sales companies is, which way forward?

People are looking for more mainstream films,” says Kaiser.

We need to develop new distribution channels; for some films, VOD (is appropriate), as in the U.S., or festivals, already a fully integrated part of distribution, might even buy films,” says Rezo’s Sebastien Chesneau,

Neel explains Bac’s strategy is “acquiring films at an earlier stage to have some control over content, and traveling to smaller festivals, like Ventana Sur or San Sebastian, where we can reach buyers who don’t attend bigger markets.”

Many Gallic sales ops form just part of corporate behemoths, allowing them to raise the ante, however cautiously, even in tough times.

At the Canal Plus-owned StudioCanal, “We’ve broadened our range — in types, by moving into genre and animation — and reach, powering up both local and international productions,” says Harold van Lier. StudioCanal has Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s “Oscar and the Lady in Pink” at the RDV.

He adds: “In 2010 we will continue to dramatically strengthen our English-language slate while promoting French productions with stronger international appeal including new films by Bertrand Tavernier, Rachid Bouchareb and Jean Becker.”

Big-budget pics look to be at a premium in the future, however.

We have to stop making too-expensive movies, especially auteur films. Prices have gone down in the vast majority of territories,”says Coach 14′s Pape Boye.

You can still make big, high-concept films, but they’ll be built as European co-productions,” says Muriel Sauzay, at Pathe Intl., which will unspool the international premiere of Claude Berri’s last film, comedy “Tresor,” at the RDV in Paris. ”Otherwise, films will have to reduce budgets. The crisis doesn’t allow big-budget classic French films.”

EuropaCorp founder Pierre-Ange Le Pogam agrees. For example, the Luc Besson mini-major, which will screen Philippe Lefebvre’s Cannes-set double-identity tale “The Whistler” at the Rendez-Vous, aims to produce nine or 10 movies a year, three or four in English, with one of these every two years sporting an ambitious budget. But “the big times are over. Everybody has to focus on getting great quality on reasonable budgets,” Le Pogam says.

Especially on English-speaking movies, we have to deliver large spectacle on the screen for $25 million-$45 million, when these movies could cost 15%- 30% more.”

TIP SHEET

What:
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Where: Grand Hotel Intercontinental, Paris

When:
Jan. 14-18

Web: http://www.unifrance.org”;>
unifrance.org

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more