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March of the clones

Oscar-winning doc makes tracks in biz

Forget the Oscar for documentary feature, the $78 million Stateside gross, the parody remake, et al.: What really tickled Gallic producer Emanuel Priou was when he picked up Stephen King’s latest novel “Cell” and found the world’s favorite gore-meister name-checking “March of the Penguins.” For Priou, this zeitgeist-defining moment perfectly encapsulated just how far he and Yves Darondeau and Christophe Lioud, his fellow producers at Bonne Pioche, had come.

“Raising the $3 million that ‘March of the Penguins’ cost was a nightmare that almost killed our company,” Priou tells Variety. “Nobody wanted to give us any money. Now, of course, with our follow-up ‘The Fox and the Child’ it’s exactly the opposite.”

Like its predecessor, “Fox,” about a young girl who tames a fox, is being helmed by Frenchman Luc Jacquet; however, this time around he has more than $13 million to play with.

Priou and his acolytes are not the only ones to benefit from the “Penguins” effect, which was tailored for the U.S. market by Morgan Freeman’s narration. Looming on the horizon are a whole raft of Gallic docus, all of them similarly inspired by mother nature.

Among them: the Arctic-set “La Planete Blanche,” which recently sold for top dollar to Paramount Classics; TFI Intl.’s “The Besieged Forest,” which provides a twist on the disaster flick when tropical rains flood a termite hill; Celluloid Dreams’ “Four Wings and a Prayer,” about the mysterious migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico; and “Ocean,” a hugely ambitious mix of docu and fiction, about man in relation to the sea, produced by Jacques Perrin, who was responsible for “Winged Migration” (2001).

“It’s rather like the current fad for crime films that has taken hold of French cinema: As soon as one works, then everyone wants to make another,” says Perrin, whose credits as a producer of nature docs date back to 1989’s “The Monkey Folk.”

“When there are a lot of films of the same type being made, automatically there are those that stand out because they were made for the right reasons, and then there are those that were made simply out of opportunism. We’ll soon find out which of these films the public wants to see,” he adds.

The French TV networks, whose primetime slots are the perfect match for such family-friendly fare, are banking on their wide appeal. Canal Plus, which ponied up 15% of the budget for “Penguins” and “Planete Blanche,” is doing the same for “Fox,” due out in 2007.

Being sold internationally by Wild Bunch, “Fox” has already nailed down deals in Germany and Japan, with negotiations under way for the U.S.

“We’re interested in nature-based documentaries, be they for movie theaters or TV only, particularly those made for movie theaters that often capture a broader audience,” says Manuel Alduy, head of acquisitions at Canal Plus.

Gaul does not have a grand tradition of making nature documentaries to compare with the U.S. (National Geographic) or the U.K. (BBC, Channel 4), a factor Priou believes worked in favor of “Penguins”.

“It was our first experience as producers of a film about wildlife,” Priou says, “so we didn’t have time to develop any good or bad habits in relation to this kind of film work. We told this story about the penguins the way we wanted, without any built-in preconceptions, and in a way, I think we found a new way of telling an old story.”

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