Unifrance Paris Rendez-Vous 2012

At 2008′s Unifrance Paris Rendez-Vous, foreign distributors laughed their heads off watching Pathe’s “Welcome to the Sticks.” But nobody thought of buying it.

That was then. In the meantime, the international biz has suffered credit and Eurozone crises, distributors have become more risk-averse, arthouse auds have contracted — as have TV sales and DVD markets over much of the world.

“Overall, prices have been in freefall since the economic meltdown in 2008, except for Germany, Russia and China, where they’ve gone up,” says EuropaCorp international sales head Marie-Laure Montironi.

Global Gallic B.O. plunged from $549 million in 2008 to $457 million in 2009 and $442 million last year, Unifrance estimates.Judging by these numbers, France’s sales sector should practically be in mourning, but that’s not the case at all.

Whatever their box office, Gallic sales agents’ revenues on French film exports rose a muscular 26.1% in 2010 to $225.2 million, the best result since French CNC film agency began tallying sales in 2004.

Several factors are at play.

Once written off as local product, comedies are now prime export fare. Some say that’s because auds like feel-good films in feel-bad times.

Led by Dany Boon’s “Nothing To Declare,” Fran├žois Ozon’s “Potiche” and Jean Becker’s “My Afternoons With Margueritte,” eight laffers, plus two dramedies, figure among France’s highest-grossing exports (see chart).

Since Boon’s 2008 laffer “Sticks” garnered an eyecatching $53.7 million at the B.O. outside France, Gallic comedies have attracted more buyers, says Pathe Intl.’s co-intl. sales head Muriel Sauzay.

French dramedy “Intouchables,” which garnered $116.4 million in France through Dec. 20, looks set to further goose comedy sales.

Repping combined revenues for sales agents of $15.7 million, Belgium and French-speaking Switzerland, where French comedy stars are huge, ranked together as French films’ third largest export territory in 2010, trailing only the U.S. and Germany.

Often more middle-of-the-road than edgy dramas, comedies can play well on TV, an ever-more important distributor concern, says Other Angle prexy Olivier Albou.

Other key markets have also rallied.

“At Toronto and the AFM, Japan and Korea were buying a little more than in previous years,” says Films Distribution partner Nicolas Brigaud-Robert.

“The U.S. market is more dynamic than a couple years ago,” reports Gaumont International head Cecile Gaget. “New players Open Road and Film District, for instance, have energized the market. The Weinstein Co. and IFC remain very important for European cinema.”

Thrillers and actioners now command “high prices” in Russia, Sauzay adds.

The days when movie revenues depended on theatrical are gone. Genre films may hardly register on B.O. charts but pack good ancillary sales, Brigaud-Robert argues. “Especially for foreign movies in many territories where P&A is extremely high, ancillary is strong and movies are not cast-driven, money isn’t made from theatrical any more.”

“Foreign TV and DVD sales aren’t that disastrous,” adds Camille Neel, Le Pacte’s international sales head. “We’ve been making good catalogue sales on films that worked better in a TV format than theaters.”

Says Gaget: “Small-budget French genre films from emerging directors can sell well if they’ve got a strong concept that’s original enough (and) a great script — and it’s much easier if they’re backed by producers with a track record.”

A new generation of French directors such as Fred Cavaye (“Point Blank”) and Frederic Jardin (“Sleepless Night”) are turning out cost-contained thrillers that, like genre, pack large ancillary potential.

“The market has shrunk for dark, intimate French dramas, whether there’s a cast or not,” Gaget says. “These films can only work in theaters, need top reviews and great festival exposure.”

That said, on art films in general, buyers still buy films they love, which often provokes bidding wars since they tend to love the same films, says Pyramide president Eric Lagesse.

But, it’s the bigger films that usually punch the big sales numbers: Pathe’s $64 million-budgeted “Oceans” and $26 million “Declare” drove up agents’ sales figures in 2010, says Sauzay.

France’s highest-grossing films of 2011 may well turn out to be two major international movies, both French minority co-productions: “The Three Musketeers” and Studiocanal co-produced “Unknown,” with a total $133.1 million gross.

Any $40 million-plus Gallic movie runs the risk of depending on a U.S. sale for recoupment and of its French backers being forced to put up the huge Stateside P&A costs.

Strategies to sidestep over-dependence on the U.S. cut various ways. Plus, many of Gaul’s biggest films — for instance, the $33.3 million “Would I Lie To You? 3″ — are juggernaut comedies that largely recoup from France.

Also, companies are paring budgets and limiting exposure via co-production. “Budgets have gone down considerably for the past two to three years,” one producer says.

“In many cases, we’ve managed to pre-finance films without a U.S. deal, either through pre-sales or international co-productions,” Sauzay adds, citing the $40.5 million toon pic “Why I Did Not Eat My Father,” pre-financed internationally with Italian and Chinese companies.

Revenues are one thing, profits another. And these days everybody has one eye on the bottom line.

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