French adapting to comix environment

Cultural rules adherred to, but more int'l appeal added to pix

PARIS — With the latest version of the “Asterix and Obelix” series having laughed up north of $100 million at the Gallic box office, it has become almost obligatory for any Gallic producer worth his salt to have a comic-strip adaptation — or even two — tucked up his sleeve.

And while French cinema is still careful to maintain its veneer of cultural correctness, the new wave of comics-based projects, helmed by the cream of the younger Gallic crop of directors, have budgets in the $40 million range, are chock full of f/x and are being made in English, with Anglo actors, to improve chances of foreign distribution.

Richard Grandpierre, prexy at Eskwad Prods., ambitiously describes his project, “L’Aventurier,” as a cross between “The Mummy” and “Indiana Jones.” The pic — about the adventures of a globetrotting photojournalist — is being helmed by Christophe Gans, who scored a crossover hit with the kinetic “Brotherhood of the Wolf.”

Slated to start shooting in January 2003, the English language “L’Aventurier” has a budget of around 45 million dollars, put up by Eskwad’s mother company, Canal Plus. The budget makes “L’Aventurier” the priciest Gallic pic ever — just ahead of “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.”

Other comic-strip adaptations in the works include La Petite Reine’s sci-fi western “Blueberry,” which starts shooting this month in Mexico under the direction of Jan Kounen, well known in France for a series of incendiary short films as well as the hyper-violent cops ‘n’ robbers pic “Dobermann.”

The same company, run by Thomas Langmann, son of “Asterix” producer Claude Berri, also has in pre-production a pic based on the cult Fantomas comic strip, which was first filmed in 1913. Jean Reno is set to don the hero’s famous black cape in the adaptation helmed by Frederic Forestier, co-director of “Le Boulet.”

Langmann for one is confident that there is a built-in audience of comic-book fans yearning to see their favorite characters up on the screen. ” ‘Blueberry’ has sold some 30 million copies in French speaking countries, so it’s hardly the biggest gamble making a film based on the character’s adventures,” he says.

At Telema productions, prexy Charles Gassot is equally bullish about the chances of two comic-strip projects he has in the works, giving credit for the uptick to France’s special effects studios, which he says are now making it possible to do justice to futuristic films like “La Femme Piege” (The Woman Trap) directed by comics artist Enki Bilal.

“Here in France, we can now make a film that in the States would cost over $100 million for less than $40 million,” Gassot says. A short clip of the pic — which will be released toward end of next year — created such good buzz at last year’s Cannes festival it scored distribution deals almost everywhere except the U.S. and Britain.

It remains to be seen whether the amazing 3-D effects will result in a better picture than the two previous films, “Tykko Moon” (1996) and “Bunker Palace Hotel” (1989), based on strips by Bilal; both of those under-performed at the French B.O.

The important thing says Gassot is not to stick too closely to the strip. “Take ‘La Marque Jaune,’ ” he says. “We are approaching it very carefully and spending a lot of time on the script so that we don’t alienate those who know nothing about the Blake and Mortimer stories.” That pic, about the adventures of two British sleuths, is due out in early 2004 under James Huth’s (“Serial Lover”) direction.

With rights to at least five other well-known Gallic comic books either bought or renewed over the last few months, and filming due to start on the Luc Besson-produced racing drama “Michel Vaillant” next month, the comic-book trend looks set to continue.

All the activity points to a significant change of direction by French financial partners, Langmann says. “Five years ago you had to have an American partner to raise a $25 million to $40 million budget,” he says. “Now French companies like TF1 and TPS, which are financing ‘Blueberry,’ are willing to back more adventurous films and filmmakers as they understand there is a potential return on their investment.”