Films Boutique sees future for world cinema auteurs

BERLIN — Small may be beautiful. In the international film biz, it can also be profitable.

A bevy of boutique international sales companies are finding there’s life, even a business model, working niche markets with modest world cinema features, often from first-time directors.

One case, Berlin’s Films Boutique, was thrown into the limelight Feb. 6 when it won a top Rotterdam Fest VPRO Tiger Award for “Agua fria,” a beach-set femme coming-of-age tale from Costa Rica’s Paz Fabrega.

Like its owner, Paris-based Films Distribution, Film Boutique is solely focused on foreign sales.

But, near two years after its Cannes 2008 launch, it’s seeing new and repeat biz with directors, and is even, says CEO Jean-Christophe Simon, in the black.

Films Boutique had just taken international on Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffmann’s “Dancing Dreams,” a docu about German choreographer Pina Bausch, which is a Berlinale Special player.

Having sold Romanian Radu Jude’s debut, tragicomedy “The Happiest Girl in the World,” it will handle his next, black family comedy “Everybody in Our Family”; it had Darko Lungulov’s “Here and There,” Serbia’s Oscar candidate, and now has his “Monument to Michael Jackson,” a Serbian hamlet-set satire.

Festival prizes help drive interest in their pics, says Simon.

By no coincidence, two of Film Boutique’s best-selling titles are Xiaolu Guo’s “She, a Chinese,” which nabbed Locarno 2009’s top Golden Leopard, and “Happiest,” a Berlinale Forum CICAE Prize winner last year.

“Chinese” has closed Germany (Camino, a 30-print release), U.K. (Optimum Releasing) and Spain (Golem) among to-date 10 territories; “Happiest” found takers, among others, in France (Pyramide), U.K. (Soda) and Spain (Piramide).

Boutique handles a seven or eight films a year, allowing it plenty of time to concentrate on each title. “Films don’t get lost in the market,” Simon avows.

Its trading volume — four-to-five to 12-13 territories per film — may seem low.

But Boutique contains overheads, using invites to fests and co-production and works-in-progress meets. Also, it enjoys economies of scale with Films Distribution’s back office, which handles its materials deliveries (sometimes challenging with films from far-flung places), collections and legal affairs.

Above all, 70% of the films Boutique handles are from first-timers. So it’s not under huge pressure to hit figures on large minimum guarantees. Often it works for commission.

And, Simon insists, “There’s still an audience for director-driven art films.”

Furthermore, many more directors are now emerging from emerging markets. “I really think there’s a big future for world cinema,” Simon says.

“Films Distribution is more established. Films Boutique is picking up more movies from countries we barely explore,” says Films Distribution partner Nicolas Brigaud-Robert.

Boutique will grow with the careers of its directors, says Simon. And by delivering financing solutions to producers.

With an office in Berlin but owned by a Paris-based firm, Films Boutique can take advantage of multiple sources of financing from the public and private sectors.

Many more companies — large and small — look likely to work this Paris-Berlin axis in the future.

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