Intl. Film Award: Gaumont's Bets on

Since hitting a nerve with the worldwide B.O. smash hit “The Intouchables” ($426 million), Gaumont has ramped up its commitment to debut features and has turned into Gaul’s film champion for diverse young talents emerging from France’s Web, TV, stage and street culture.

That strategy has delivered: In a gloomy year marked by a wave of big-budget B.O. bombs, Gaumont’s theatrical distribution biz, which is headed by Francois Clerc, managed to generate an estimated $107 million from 12.3 million admissions with 14 Gallic movies.

Among France’s indie distributors, Gaumont outperformed Pathe, Studiocanal, UGC and EuropaCorp, and ranked second to Metropolitan Filmexport, which sold 12.5 million admissions with twice as many films, including Hollywood franchises like “The Hunger Games.”

While the Gallic major released a couple of English-language films — “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” and “Two Mothers” — in France last year with less-than-stellar results, Gaumont has been pulling its best results for the past three years with tightly budgeted local movies reflecting the facets of French society.

These include first-timer Franck Gastambide’s R-rated comedy “Kaira,” based on a Web short; former TV comedian Reem Kherici’s “Paris or Perish”; and Jerome Enrico’s comedy “Paulette.”

“For the past 10 years, multiplexes have been spreading all over the suburbs around Paris, and the film culture of these French communities — many of which are minorities — belongs to Hollywood movies,” says Clerc, who started his career as an exhibitor and later worked as theater programmer for Gaumont. “But as the success of ‘Intouchables’ showed us, these folks who live in underprivileged suburbs have a desire to see their own world onscreen, watch films with characters and stories they can relate to, and Gaumont strives to tap into that rising market.”

Indeed, “The Intouchables,” a real-life friendship between a caretaker from the wrong side of tracks (Omar Sy, in his first leading role) and a rich quadriplegic (Francois Cluzet), underscored the appeal of comedies featuring young minority characters and exploring contempo social themes like immigration, unemployment and race relations in France.

“We’re following an exciting new generation of comedians and creators who are crossing over to the film world and growing together,” says Clerc, not only citing Gastambide (“Kaira”), but also standup comic-turned-thesp/screenwriter Ramzy Bedia; Kyan Khojandi, co-writer/star of Canal Plus’ comedy “Bref”; the producer Simon Istolainen (“The Brats”); Thomas Ngijol and Pascal Eboue, the helmers-writers-stars of “Case Depart”; Amelle Chahbi, the director-star of Gaumont’s upcoming comedy “Takeway Romance,” about a mixed couple; and Nawell Madani, a Belgian comic.

As Clerc points out, many of these talents are minority comedians of Arab or African origins who started on the Jamel Comedy Club, a TV and stage show created and hosted by French-Moroccan thesp Jamel Debbouze.

“The Intouchables” kicked off a new chapter for Gaumont. “It opened the eyes of many people who started seeing us in a different way. We began receiving different kinds of scripts and that led us to expand our cinematographic horizons with arthouse crowdpleasers like (Carine Tardieu’s) ‘The Dandelions,’ (Noemie Lvovsky’s) ‘Camille Rewinds’ and ‘Me, Myself and Mum,’ and gain access to Cannes’ festival circuit,” Clerc says.

Clerc says next up on Gaumont’s radar is the rising generation of twentysomething French comedians who have emerged on the Web, like the stars of Studio Bagel, one of YouTube’s hit channels that was just bought by Canal Plus, as well as Norman Thavaud and Cyprien, whose gag-laden YouTube videos often attract more than 1 million views.

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