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New Gaul draw: France toons up

Le Bars: '. . . there is a huge potential for growth'

PARIS — After ignoring the commercial possibilities of animated films for years, the French have gone back to the drawing board. Five French toons are due out this year, and 15 more are in the works –following an animated draught between 1990 and 1996, when only two French toons were made.

“French producers have woken up to the fact that 10% of tickets sold in France are for animated films and that there is huge potential for growth,” says Stephane Le Bars, chief exec of the Syndicat des Producteurs de Films d’Animation. He adds the animation sector’s market share is growing rapidly.

U.S. and Japanese animated pics currently account for about 80% of that market. Whether that is about to change will depend on the B.O. success of upcoming French animated features, including:

  • “La Legende de Parva” (The Legend of Parva), a fantasy written by “Life Is Beautiful” scribe Vincenzo Cerami and directed by Jean Cubaud, due out Feb. 12;

  • “Les Enfants de la Pluie” (The Rain Children), an ecological fable with Philippe Leclerc at the helm, bowing April 2;

  • “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” also due April 2, a burlesque silent comedy from Sylvain Chaumet, whose “La Vieille Dame et Les Pigeons” (The Old Lady and the Pigeons) was nominated for animated short at the 1998 Oscars;

  • “Kaena: The Prophecy,” due out in June, the first French pic to be made entirely in 3-D;

  • and “La Prophecie des Grenouilles” (The Prophecy of the Frogs), due out in December, a children’s film helmed by Jacques-Remy Girerd and one of the rare animated pics to be produced entirely in France at the Folimage Studio in the southern city of Valence.

All of these pics are being produced by companies that began life making animated series for television. The question is whether they can make a successful transition to the bigscreen.

Positive buzz is building around “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” produced by Les Armateurs. The $9.5 million “Les Triplettes” is a cost-sharing co-production between France, Belgium and Canada.

Widely credited with ushering in the new era of French animation, Les Armateurs was set up as a TV production company in 1993. The company hit the jackpot in 1998 with auteur Michel Ocelot’s Africa-set “Kirikou et la Sorciere” (Kirikou and the Sorceress), which sold just under 1.5 million tickets in France and took almost everybody by surprise.

” ‘Kirikou’ was the catalyst because it showed that French animation as well as American can work on a commercial level in this country,” says Didier Brunner, president of Les Armateurs.

“Les Triplettes” is distributed by Diaphana in France, with French distrib Celluloid Dreams releasing the film abroad.

Next up for Les Armateurs is “Evolution Man,” a 3-D sci-fi project costing about $21 million.

The budget is the same as this year’s sci-fi-themed “Kaena: The Prophecy,” a French (90%)-Canadian (10%) co-prod that’s the first movie to be produced by TV mainstay Xilam.

Xilam’s president Marc du Pontavice is hoping “Kaena” will tap into the kind of audiences that made the similarly 3-D “Shrek” such a huge hit in France. According to Le Bars, about half of “Shrek” moviegoers in France were between 20 and 45 years old.

Although “Kaena” has been sold in about 30 countries, recouping about half its budget, Xilam is awaiting news about distribution in the U.K. and the U.S. Du Pontavice has clearly targeted those markets by calling on Richard Harris (in one of his last roles), Anjelica Huston and Kirsten Dunst to voice the English-lingo version.

Next up for Xilam is another 3-D sci-fi project, “Stupid Invaders,” an adaptation of its TV series “Les Zinzins d’Espace” (Space Ghosts), which aired in the U.S. on Fox.

Also looking into animation is Luc Besson’s Europa Corp., until now exclusively a live-action filmmaker, which has announced two toon projects : “Arthur et les Minimoys” (Arthur and the Minimoys), which mixes live-action and animation, and “Ektor.”

But France’s animation industry has had one or two hiccups of late. Most marked was the rapid collapse at the end of last year of new company Ietis, which was set to produce France’s first major collaboration with Disney. Ietis co-prexy Philippe Grimond tells Variety the deal fell apart because Ietis could not find its share of the funding in Europe.

“The banks said yes, but we could not set up deals with enough foreign distributors,” Grimond says. “We gambled on projects that involved real money. We did not want our films to be a pale imitation of the Americans’, but we could not see it through.”

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