Glitz takes backseat to hits at Unifrance

Film promo org emphasizes reform, bottom line

PARIS — Don’t expect to see many French film stars partying into the wee small hours in Berlin’s nightclubs this week.

Once Unifrance has finished with them, they’ll be tucked up in their beds and exhausted after a grueling program of photo ops and press interviews. France’s film promotion body used to be famed for its lavish soirees where the champagne never ran out. These days, however, it’s all about the work.

“We are telling the stars we bring to Berlin that they have responsibilities. They have a job to do here,” confides a rep for the outfit.

The crackdown on talent is part of an organizationwide overhaul of Unifrance during the past five years by its no-nonsense topper, vet film producer Margaret Menegoz.

Menegoz, who has announced she will step down later this year, became Unifrance’s president following Daniel Toscan du Plantier’s death from a heart attack at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival.

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For a decade and a half, the flamboyant Toscan du Plantier was the global symbol for Unifrance, his tall frame and shock of white hair standing out on the red carpet at film events around the world. He’d also been an effective advocate for the organization in French political circles, schmoozing his way to a twofold increase in Unifrance’s budget. Today, the org has some E10 million ($14.7 million) a year to play with. German Film, its Teutonic equivalent, has E4.5 million ($6.6 million).

“Daniel didn’t put a case for more funding and then wait to get a bigger budget. He just went ahead and organized events and asked for the money afterward,” says Menegoz.

When she took over, Menegoz wisely didn’t try to follow Toscan du Plantier’s high-profile act.

“I’m not one for the limelight and not much into glitz,” says the producer of dozens of arthouse films, including Michael Haneke’s “Hidden.”

Instead Menegoz concentrated on internal reform, tightening the purse strings and focusing Unifrance on its twin commercial objectives of upping French film sales and overseas box office.

“These days we no longer need to promote French cinema in a general sense,” asserts Menegoz. “We need to support the release of French films in other countries so that they stand the best chance possible at the box office.”

Last year, Gallic movies grossed $369 million in foreign box office (53.7 million admissions), down from the two previous years. The year’s standout pics ranged from Luc Besson’s “Arthur and the Invisibles,” which notched 9 million overseas ticket sales compared with 6.4 million in France, to Marjane Satrapi’s Oscar-nominated “Persepolis.” But it’s a tough marketplace, with the decline of the ancillary European TV landscape and the growing taste for local fare particularly damaging to French arthouse sales.

“It is much harder today than it was a decade ago, when lots of small arthouse films found distribution,” says Roissy Films topper Raphael Berdugo. “Today a film either interests everybody or it doesn’t sell at all.”

In 10 years’ existence, Unifrance’s Paris Rendezvous sales mart, attended by several hundred buyers in January, has grown into a formidable tool for maximizing distribution deals. The mart at Paris’ fancy Grand Hotel gives Gallic exporters a captive audience for their fare — ahead of Berlin and Cannes.

But as a producer and exporter herself, Menegoz saw the value of more widely involving French industryites in decisionmaking at Unifrance, and today Gallic film orgs are consulted on everything from the selection of films for festivals and other promotional events Unifrance organizes to bigger strategic issues.

Meanwhile, the priority has shifted to promoting films that already have distribution deals. Unifrance is keen to work with local distributors, bolstering their marketing efforts by bringing talent along for local preems of French films. The appointment of John Kochman, former international sales exec for StudioCanal, as head of Unifrance’s New York office speaks volumes about the org’s new approach.

Unifrance is thinking of starting up weeklong promotional tours that would see Gallic talent visit several major cities ahead of the release of a French film.

“It’s a bit like the Hollywood majors do,” says Menegoz. “It might be a more efficient way of using an actor’s time than at festivals where the attention is on a French film one moment, and then it has quickly moved on to something else.”

When Menegoz steps down later this year, Unifrance will enter yet another phase in its existence, and the direction it takes next will depend on who gets elected president. Unifrance’s statute dictate that only producers are eligible for the job, but some in the film biz would like to see an actor or a high-profile movie director take on the mantle.

“Now that Unifrance is a well-oiled machine, it would be nice to get some of the glitz back,” muses one exporter. “Cinema needs glamour.”