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Pusan festgoers get big French kiss

'Paris je t'aime' gets gala screening

PARIS — The Pusan Intl. Film Festival has fallen in love with French cinema.The Contemporary French Auteurs sidebar’s raison d’etre is to mark the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and Korea.

But it is really about efforts to sell French movies in a part of the world vital to the Gallic film economy: Asia accounted for 14% of Gallic film exports last year, with Japan making up 80% of the business. 

As well as the usual contingent of industryites, a number of French stars will be at Pusan courtesy of Unifrance, France’s film promotional body.

A gala screening of “Paris je t’aime,” it is hoped, will have Asian industryites begging for more films shot in the French capital. But behind the festival glitz, international sales agents complain that business in the region is tough, especially for Gallic arthouse fare. Easier to shift are actioners or nature docus — genres that don’t have an obviously Gallic stamp.

“French auteur films used to be the staple of Japanese arthouses but not any more,” says Vincent Maraval, of Paris-based international sales specialist Wild Bunch. “Local production, first Korean and now Japanese, has taken over. Today Japanese buyers only want French films that are really exceptional.”

Maraval cites Claude Chabrol’s “La comedie du pouvoir” and Zabou Breitman’s “L’homme de sa vie” as examples of solid auteur films that would have found buyers easily in the past.

However, Wild Bunch did secure Japanese deals on Patrice Leconte’s “My Best Friend” starring Daniel Auteuil, and on costumer “Moliere,” starring Romain Duris.

Similarly, TF1 Intl.’s upcoming Edith Piaf biopic “La vie en rose” was snapped up for the Japanese market.

With its penchant for Hollywood-style actioners — and Asian talent — Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp is probably France’s most Asia-orientated company. Limiting its exposure to the vagaries of the market, the company has a minority stake in a Japanese distribution joint venture, which releases 5-7 EuropaCorp titles — two thirds of the company’s output — annually.

Two of them are among the best performing French films in Asia this year: the English-language “The Transporter 2,” garnering 250,000 admissions in Japan, and French actioner “Banlieue 13” notching up 243,000 admissions in South Korea.

Even when the going gets tough, Japan remains a key market for French films.

According to the latest statistics — which reflect deals inked in 2004 — Gallic exports to Japan rose slightly in 2005, to e17.9 million ($22.8 million).

Japan overtook Germany to become the second biggest buyer of French films in monetary terms, after Italy, with rights selling for around 7% of a film’s budget.

Korea, in contrast, repped a mere 4.7% of Gallic exports to Asia while, tellingly, much-hyped China, reckoned to be the next big market on account of its huge population, only accounted for 2% last year.

Although numbers aren’t available for 2006, there may be reason for cautious optimism about French cinema’s place in the Far East. In Japan and Korea the number of French films released in the first half of 2006 was up on the same period last year.

“Banlieue 13” made more ticket sales than all French releases put together in 2004, a year in which Gallic admissions were a dismally low 173,000. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Two Brothers” and Michel Ocelot’s animated “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts” have also made done well in Korea this year, among 15 French releases in the first half of 2006 — twice as many as in the same period last year.

The country’s decision earlier this year to cut the number of days that cinemas must show local films, under pressure from the U.S. “is also an opportunity for French films,” says Valerie-Anne Christen, head of marketing at Unifrance’s Tokyo office.

The Chinese market also could be full of Eastern promise. Earlier this year Unifrance opened a bureau there — its second in Asia — to maintain or improve on French cinema’s substantial 20% share of the country’s foreign film quota.

Gaumont’s actioner “Empire of the Wolves” was Gallic cinema’s biggest hit so far this year, earning $2 million at the box office.

Surprisingly, mainstream comedies, unsaleable elsewhere in Asia, have also found an audience in China. Confounding expectations, “Double Zero,” starring comedy duo Eric and Ramzy, did as well as Jean Reno-starrer “Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse”.

But international sales execs stress the difficulties of working with a country where censorship hampers marketing and distribution. “The White Planet,” out this month, is the only film with a release date and box office returns are relatively hard to pin down.

Meanwhile, French film folk are checking out other Asian territories that might prove fertile ground for Gallic sales. Thailand, which already distributes around 15 French films a year, Indonesia and India are all going to be on the receiving end of a Gallic charm offensive some time in the near future, promises Unifrance.

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