Gallic shingle digs into pic catalog

While the box office success of “Intouchables” helped Gaumont become Gaul’s top local film distributor last year, the 117-year-old French mini-major is also making waves in TV production, returning to the medium after a decade-long absence, with seasoned partners and an ambitious first slate.

Sidonie Dumas, Gaumont’s chair since 2004, and CEO Christophe Riandee have re-launched a TV division in Paris after having opened a Los Angeles-based smallscreen arm last year.

Gaumont has stepped into the U.S. independent TV landscape with robust allies such as CAA and a staff of well-respected TV execs, notably Katie O’Connell, former exec VP of drama programming for NBC Entertainment, who heads the Los Angeles division, Gaumont Intl. Television (GIT); and Erik Pack, a former exec at British indie Power, who helps secure European presales and scouts co-production opportunities out of Gaumont’s London office.

“This complementary TV activity allows us to build bridges between France and the U.S.,” Dumas says. It also helps Gaumont take advantage of its catalog (Gaul’s second biggest library) in developing smallscreen series.

And the cross-pollination allows the company to attract film directors with whom it already has a relationship to work on TV projects.

French-Tunisian helmer Mabrouk El Mechri, whose French-lingo films have all been produced by Gaumont since his directorial debut, “Virgil,” in 2005, is writing “Superpower,” a fantasy comedy skein developed by Gaumont Television’s Paris office for paybox Canal Plus.

El Mechri most recently helmed Summit Entertainment’s “The Cold Light of Day,” set for a U.S. release in April.

Gaumont Television’s managing director Omar Brahimi says the company also is developing an English-language series with a Canadian co-producer for a French broadcaster; and is collaborating with GIT to find a high-profile showrunner.

GIT already has received a warm welcome from the international marketplace, attracting showrunners Bryan Fuller(“Pushing Daisies”) to write and exec produce “Hannibal,” an hourlong drama based on the character Hannibal Lecter; and Michael Hurst (“The Tudors”) to serve in the same capacity on six-hour miniseries “Madame Tussaud.”

Gaumont Intl. Television is looking to characters, themes and concepts that are relevant in the U.S. and internationally, O’Connell says.

Dumas says GIT will be looking to produce one or two series per year, offering talent a backend on profits. It aims to limit risk by prefinancing most of a project’s budget through broadcasters, without necessarily producing a pilot.

GIT has already pre-sold “Hannibal” to NBC, and O’Connell says her team is having conversations with international partners.

“Madame Tussaud” is still in early development stage, and HBO Canada has already come onboard as a partner. GIT will present the project and material at MIP TV.

Meanwhile, within the French film industry, Gaumont made a giant leap forward in 2011: The company’s French market share skyrocketed 209%, accounting for almost 10% of local ticket sales and grossing €133.5 million ($177 million). “Intouchables” alone has taken €119.2 million in France. In Germany, with $32.8 million, the film ranks as the highest-grossing French film ever.

“The success of ‘Intouchables’ in France and abroad is very important for us,” Dumas says, “because it encourages us to grow and continue taking risks on many other original movies that can catch fire domestically and then expand to other territories.”

Although Gaumont’s firstlook deal with U.S. producer Nick Wechsler, its partner on Massy Tadjedin’s “Last Night,” is no longer in place, Dumas says she’s still looking for original English-lingo material in film as well.

Gaumont recently greenlit two English-language films from popular French directors: Anne Fontaine’s untitled drama romance toplining Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, and Jean Pierre Jeunet’s 3D pic “T.S. Spivet.” It’s also partnering with Wild Bunch to co-produce “Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly anticipated follow-up to “Drive.”

“Today’s market is very flexible,” Dumas says. “There’s room for independent companies like ours to play a role in backing internationally driven films that European distributors are looking for.”

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