Venice Film Festival: French Cinema

In the past decade, as the Hollywood majors have pulled back from medium-budget English-language pics for an adult audience, French producers have stepped into the void. Venice has two high-profile examples in competition: Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” which is produced by Said Ben Said of Paris-based SBS Prods., and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” produced by the U.K.’s Working Title but fully financed by France’s StudioCanal. Toronto Gala player “The Lady,” which is helmed by Luc Besson and produced by Virginie Besson-Silla for France’s EuropaCorp, and Andy Harries for the U.K.’s Left Bank Pictures, is another.

While the market is tough, especially in territories like the U.S. and Japan, it is possible to pull together the financing for the right project at an appropriate budget level, Ben Said says.

A U.S. presale may have once been considered de rigueur, now it is possible to greenlight a pic without it.

“The Lady,” which is a biopic of the Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has yet to close a U.S. sale, while “Carnage” closed its Stateside deal with Sony Pictures Classics more than two months after it had started shooting, but both projects had racked up major European territories sales before they started to lense.

“If you have a great filmmaker and a good script you can pre-sell in the major European markets,” Ben Said says.

An advantage French production companies enjoy is that many of them have distribution arms in Gaul, and some own distribs in other European territories as well. StudioCanal, for example, has distribution companies in France, the U.K. and Germany.

Perhaps the biggest plus for these films is that they qualify for the local content quota in France, and so have a better chance of TV sales than an equivalent U.S. pic.

As French pics, the door is also open for a range of soft-money programs through the co-production treaties that the country has signed, and to the generous film support regime in France itself.

“The French system is exceptional. There is no equivalent in the world. We don’t know how lucky we are to have that system,” Ben Said says. “Sometimes I say to American writers and directors: ‘Come to France; become French — marry a French woman and pay your taxes in France — because this country loves filmmakers.’ ”

Many of the French producers have a highly individualistic approach to their projects.

Besson-Silla and Ben Said, who is developing thriller “Passion” with Brian De Palma attached to direct, are drawn to projects that appeal to them on a personal level. “I’m happy to produce these films because they are exactly the kind of movies I enjoy watching,” Ben Said says.

Besson-Silla says with “The Lady” she first fell in love with the story, and marketing issues were secondary. “When I read the script it was just such an amazing story that I thought it had to be told to the world,” she says. StudioCanal has an approach far closer to that of the Hollywood studios. When the company develops an adult-focused film, it also looks for ways to make it attractive for a younger crowd. The company refers to these types of films as “elevated genre.” So “Tinker, Tailor” works as a thriller that can play in the multiplexes, and be intellectually demanding enough to satisfy arthouse auds.

“We try to produce films that reach the broadest possible audience, and we feel that working on clever, intelligent films will not destroy the commercial potential of the film,” says Rodolphe Buet, exec VP of international distribution and business development at StudioCanal.A good run in the awards season is of great importance to these mid-budget films because it can unlock a far larger audience. A high-profile festival berth and a stellar cast helps launch the campaign.

StudioCanal sees “Tinker, Tailor” as a vehicle that can propel Gary Oldman toward kudos.

“From day one we thought that this film was an amazing opportunity for Gary Oldman. We felt that this film could be his film,” says Rodolphe Buet, exec VP of international distribution and business development at StudioCanal. “The Oscar campaign will be part of the marketing strategy of the film.”

“Carnage,” which is an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s hit play, has a top-notch ensemble cast — John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz — and “The Lady” should give both Michelle Yeoh, who plays Aung San Suu Kyi, and David Thewlis, who plays her husband, a shot at nominations.

“It would be amazing, and so helpful for Burma, if the film could do something in the awards because when we decided to do the film it was really to raise awareness of what is happening over there,” Besson-Silla says.

Venice Film Festival: French Cinema
French bullish on mid-range budgets | Risky pics pay off for producer | Venice verve
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