French Specialty Players: Lost in Translation?

“Blood Ties” (Guillaume Canet)

A raft of French helmers and producers embarking into English-language projects have failed to meet commercial expectations.

PARIS — The downfall of U.S. specialty divisions in 2008 opened up a whole new range of opportunities for ambitious French producers and helmers to step up to the plate, gaining access to American talent, tapping into wider financing resources, with the hope of reaching worldwide audiences with smart, auteur-driven indie pics.

But five years or so later, while the American independent market has bounced back, driven by resourceful and deep-pocketed players like FilmNation, Exclusive, an amped-up Lionsgate, the Weinstein Co. and Voltage, a wave of disappointing French-helmed English-language feature debuts has left many French producers and filmmakers with a hangover.

Recent examples of cold showers inflicted in France include Guillaume Canet’s 1970s-set drama “Blood Ties,” with Clive Owen, Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis (Wild Bunch, budget: $25 million, French B.O.: €1.5 million); Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s adventure tale “The Young and Prodigious Spivet” with Helena Bonham Carter (Gaumont, budget: $33 million, French B.O.: €4 million); Anne Fontaine’s erotic drama “Two Mothers,” with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright (Gaumont, budget: $16 million, French B.O.: €1.1 million); and Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.,” starring Benicio Del Toro (Wild Bunch, budget: $10 million, French B.O.: €1.6 million).

Some of these films, notably “Mothers,” which is doing well in VOD in the U.K. and the U.S. via Exclusive, might recoup in international and in secondary markets. But other movies with larger budgets, like “Spivet” and “Ties,” are commercial flops even if both pics have pre-sold to all major territories, including to the U.S. with the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate, respectively.

While Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval, who co-produced and repped “Ties,” has spoken about the merits of the U.S. system in which American stars take backend-style remuneration, allowing for smaller budgets, he contends that many pics shot in English and financed with Gallic coin have inflated pricetags.

“French producers export their bad habits when they shoot abroad,” claims Maraval. “There’s often a problem when a foreign producer makes a French movie in the U.S.: French producers don’t know how to get their crews to adapt to U.S. work methods.”

Over the last five years, the long list of casualties include Laurent Cantet’s “Foxfire”; Jean-Paul Salome’s “The Chameleon”; Olivier Dahan’s “My Own Love Song,” with Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker; Jerome Salle’s “Zulu,” with Whitaker and Orlando Bloom; and Juan Solanas’ “Upside Down,” with Kirsten Dunst.

While these films were shot in English for artistic reasons, rather than for commercial prospects, the English-language trend has been bolstered by economic necessities.

Laurent Danielou, managing director of Paris-based Rezo and prexy of ADEF (association of French sales agents), says, “Language itself doesn’t necessarily make a difference, but the cast you have access to increases the chances of pre-selling your film outside of the U.S. (U.S. distributors seldom pre-buy movies) and get it financed.”

Danielou cited Julie Delpy’s “Two Days in New York” as a movie that Rezo pre-sold everywhere.

Yet, Anna Kokourina, VP of production for Fox Intl., who participated in a panel hosted at Les Arcs Film Festival, pointed out, “Shooting a movie in English won’t help you boost box office numbers unless it’s a big arthouse film or a big commercial film.” She added that “Taken” scored because it wasn’t identified as a French movie. “It felt organic, very Hollywood-like.”

Indeed, French-directed actioners/thrillers and genre films are the two types of movies that translate well. Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp and Studiocanal have been highly successful with those types of movies. Among EuropaCorp’s numerous hits, “Taken” and “Taken 2” (budgets: $25 million and $45 million; combined worldwide B.O.: $603 million); Studiocanal, meanwhile, did very well with the Joel Silver-produced “Unknown” (budget: $30 million, worldwide B.O. $130.7 million).

Tightly budgeted genre movies can also click with international auds. Last year, James DeMonaco’s $3 million horror pic “The Purge,” with Ethan Hawke, produced by Blumhouse Prods. and Why Not, grossed $89 million worldwide.

So why can’t French auteurs make profitable specialty films shot in English?

Citing the boffo performances of Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” among others, Maraval says the nationality of directors has nothing to do with their films’ commercial performance.

Indeed, it seems that it all comes down to who’s writing, producing and financing these films. “Now You See Me” and “Gravity” are movies developed in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the flurry of French-directed English-language flops were penned, developed and funded for the most part in France with little or no input from the U.S.

Per Jean-Baptiste Babin, co-founder of financing firm Backup Films, these movies have failed because they’re basically French auteur films disguised as American movies, and therefore fail to score in their domestic market and overseas where they face off with competition from higher-profile U.S. indies with A-list cast.

“Filmmakers looking to benefit from the distribution potential of a U.S. or U.K. film need to not only shoot in English but also respect the format and the codes of Anglo-Saxon cinema. If you want to make a singular auteur-driven film it’s best to stick to the organic language of the story,” adds Babin, pointing out that Backup is financing Gaumont-repped “When Animals Dream,” helmed by Denmark’s Jonas Arnby and shot in Danish.

Renewed interest in foreign-language local movies is shared by other European industryites, notably Peter Aalbaek Jensen at Zentropa. “I lost all my money on Danish-produced English-language films, so now (with the exception of Lars von Trier’s pics) we’re making films as ethnic as possible to have a chance of being different (like Susanne Bier’s ‘A Second Chance’ and Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Commune’) and stand out from all the fantastic U.S. films out there.”

Cecile Gaget, head of Gaumont Intl., concurs. “Sometimes, original director-driven films don’t need to be English-speaking. Stay national to be international.”

Adds Gaget, “When a French director makes a movie in English he must make a film the international or American way, which means that he (or she) has to provide audiences with emotions. That’s sometimes a problem for French directors who can be a bit coy.”

The Gaumont exec acknowledges the necessity to get “U.S. partners more involved in the creative process and at the very early stage.”

Worldview Entertainment financially backed and co-produced “Ties” but didn’t interfere with the film’s artistic decisions.

Like many English-language pics helmed by French directors, “Spivet” and “Ties” were lead-produced in France and driven by auteurs who had the final cut, rather than producers with a U.S. sensibility.

Cast is another limitation. French producers seldom gain access to A-list stars unless they’re fully co-producing with a U.K. or U.S. outfit, as Studiocanal is doing with See-Saw Films on “Macbeth” with Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender; or Backup is doing with Lex Lutzus and James Brown production shingle on Julianne Moore starrer “Still Alice.”

“The same way the French financing system is said to be protectionist, the American system is closed off to some extent because the agents control both talents and financing,” explains Babin.

Even if local producers get over the cast hurdle, they face difficulties in making the most of this cast when marketing the film in France. “A problem we encountered with English-language productions was the unavailability of the cast during the French promotion — that means we weren’t able to adopt the same marketing strategy as for our French releases,” says Gaget. “For instance, on ‘Two Mothers,’ we only had Naomi Watts for one day; on ‘Spivet’ we had no one but Jeunet.”

As Gaget sums it up, “No director or star can guarantee a B.O. success nowadays — that’s the No. 1 lesson we pulled from these experiences.”

Looking ahead, French helmers and producers might think twice about venturing into English-language films budgeted over $10 million unless they are backed by a studio.

“It’s near suicide to produce a French film in English: France only boasts two or three sources of financing for foreign-language films and they must be set up as official European co-productions to tap into this funding — that can be very restrictive,” argues Babin.

This  year will see a few more French-produced English-language pics hit theaters: Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise,” starring Rebecca Hall, and Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco,” produced by Pierre-Ange Le Pogam’s Stone Angels and pre-bought by the Weinstein Co.

(John Hopewell contributed to this report.)

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  1. Rena Moretti says:

    The fallacy of your article is that the US Indie market isn’t dead.

    The few films that you hear about are distributed by major companies with huge budgets and are really studio films.

    The nationality has nothing to do with it.

    The studios have killed theatrical films as a source of profits with the grotesque expense in advertising and the ridiculously low quality. It’s no surprise that indies from everywhere don’t do well in that context, especially given the fact that indie distribution is dominated by companies who routinely don’t pay what they owe to indie producers (here’s an article that Variety wil never write!)

    • elskes says:

      Hi Rena: It’s always a pleasure to read your comments. I didn’t write that the U.S. indie market was in perfect health, but that it had bounced back since 2008. The few films that I hear about may be distributed by major companies, but they’re developed by indies and produced with contained budgets. And as you know many of this awards’ season favorites were developed outside of the studio system.

  2. GKN says:

    Those films got next to no promotion or distribution in France either. (‘Blood Ties”, “Mothers”, “Spivet”..) What was that about?

    • elskes says:

      Actually, “Blood Ties” was released by Mars Distribution on 433 screens, and “Spivet” was released by Gaumont on 520 screens, which for France is pretty wide.
      But as I explained in the story, in many cases the stars of English-language movies aren’t available enough during the promotion in France.

      • GKN says:

        But that release lasted about a week, it seemed! (What I meant by ‘next to no distribution’, etc.) In other words, they zipped by with scarcely a peep, relatively-speaking. I live here, and was watching out for two of them. Which makes me feel other factors were at play. As for promotion, with all the French involved (Canet, Cotillard, Besnehard…) you don’t really need the English-language ones, here at least.

    • Rena Moretti says:

      Hard to tell, but typically, it meant the distributor lost confidence in making their ad money back, something very easy given that the theatrical window is practically designed to lose money these days and nowadays, video doesn’t bring in as much money as it used to.

      I blame the lack of quality of studio films for the death of video BTW, the internet was only an accessory to it.

      It’s a great point you make as Hollywood journalists rarely consider promotion as a factor to box-office…

      But the overall point is that the real indie sector is stone dead, all that remains are studio-affiliated companies that get their money on delivery (and not later as you don’t get anything later unless you have a few hundreds of thousands for a big lawsuit! – see Melrose Investors v. Paramount)

      • GKN says:

        Yes, a very real mafia! I know one indie producer whose top offer for his last $1M film (with at least one well-known star in it) was I think $5000, lock, stock and barrel, for worldwide rights, of course! It’s sickeningly dishonest.

        But for French distribs to snub French films made in English like that is insane, given the state of the market and the NEED to reach broader audiences. I don’t think it was the quality, just jealousy or idiocy (those deep-rooted fears of the French language or culture dying). They sure hype films a lot worse much more in any case.

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