PARIS — Sipping on a double espresso, Georges Benayoun, 43, looks remarkably relaxed for an indie producer who has three pics hitting French screens in the space of two months.
It’s mid-April and Moroccan-born Benayoun has just suffered a box office setback. The $11 million kids pic, “Babel,” co-produced by Benayoun’s IMA Films and Allegro Films of Canada and shot in English and French, has bombed in France — and not because the film is bad.
Prelaunch tests and exit surveys after the April 7 release showed an 87% approval rating from the children who saw the film. “The trouble is that there’s virtually no awareness that ‘Babel’ exists,” sighs Benayoun. Hit by a distributor, AFMD, that was going out of business and a reticence among exhibitors to give decent screen space to a non-Disney children’s film, “Babel” can be added to a long list of film industry casualties — at least in France.
Not that Benayoun is discouraged. He’s taken risks before.
The former press and television journalist launched his first production company, IMA Television, in 1986, starting with documentaries before moving into sitcoms. “I produced the first interactive sitcom, ‘Hi Lobster,’ for TF1. At the end of each episode the audience could chose various ways the plot could develop, we took the choices and delivered the next episode one week later. The show ran for two and a half years.”
In 1992, Benayoun produced his first feature, Pavel Lounguine’s second pic, “Luna Park,” following that up with Martine Dugowson’s “Mina Tannenbaum” and Andre Techine’s 1994 “Wild Reeds,” which scooped a wad of Cesar awards including best pic.
“One of the best moments of my life was attending the Cannes Film festival with my parents when ‘Luna Park’ was screened,” smiles Benayoun.
His biggest frustration was the poor performance, in France, of Gilles Mimouni’s “L’Appartement,” released in 1996. “OK, we came out at the same time as ‘Independence Day,’ but nobody got behind the film. In London, the picture did three times more entries than Paris, it was big in Australia and won a BAFTA award for best foreign film. It’s as though there are some French films which our local industry just doesn’t want to know about.” Ironically, U.S. film execs thought enough of “L’Appartement” for Lakeshore to sign up remake rights, with Joel Schumacher set to direct.
Now Benayoun has a wad of English-lingo projects in the works. “The Lost Son,” coproduced with London-based Scala, opened in France late April, while David Caffrey’s “Divorcing Jack,” hits Paris May 26. Benayoun has set up Frames as a London-based production unit and is prepping Benoit Jacquot’s “A Mother’s Recompense” starring Catherine Deneuve. Mimouni is also to shoot in English, with $10 million “The Pretender” and Claire Denis is in pre-prod on the $4 million “Trouble Every Day.”