French sales companies are a dominant force at most festivals. This year, they rep more than 30 films in Venice. But is their rule under threat?

The reasons for the strength of the Gallic contingent (there are 24 film sales companies in the country) are varied. Jerome Paillard, exec director of the Cannes Market, points to the appetite for arthouse cinema in the country, while Celluloid Dreams chief Hengameh Panahi, who reps “Dormant Beauty” and “Outrage Beyond” at Venice, agrees that the French have a passion for movies.

“People are nourished by the art of cinema in this country. It’s part of their lives,” she says.

Last year 595 feature films were theatrically released in France, of which only 24% were American.

“Paris is clearly the place where the most international films are released,” Paillard says.

France leads the world when it comes to the acquisition of arthouse pics, says Philippe Bober, managing director of Coproduction Office, which reps Venice title “Paradise: Faith.” “For us, France is the No. 1 market, and it is an advantage for a sales agent to be located in the prime market,” he says.

Pyramide topper Eric Lagesse, who reps “Gebo and the Shadow” at Venice, says there are films that succeed in France that don’t anywhere else in the world (except in their country of origin), and points to the success of Mohamed Diab’s “678,” about sexual harassment in Egypt, which grossed $1.8 million.

Given that most Gallic sales companies also distribute their films in the country, the strength of the local market benefits them directly.

The supportive atmosphere for film lies behind a high level of state support for the local film biz, including the backing provided by such TV companies as Canal Plus and Arte. Still, sales agents point out that the support for their sector does not match that given to production or distribution. However, since most French sales companies also produce pics, they benefit from production support for their French films.

In Gaul, additional measures support international links. The country has inked 52 co-production pacts, as well as backing foreign films through such programs as the CNC’s World Cinema Support Scheme.

There are 20 French co-productions at Venice, of which only three are directed by Gallic nationals.

Naturally, having one of the world’s leading film festivals, Cannes, in the country helps the situation.

“It is an advantage if you are culturally and geographically close to that festival,” says Bober, adding that of all the international orgs that back the export of national films, he considers Unifrance to be the best and probably the best funded.

More than anything else, it may be the French sector’s adaptability that has ensured its survival as the global movie environment transforms.

Lagesse points to the situation in the 1990s when the sales of French films abroad started to falter, so Gallic sales companies started to sell more non-French films.

“We had the know-how. We knew how to handle arthouse films,” he says.

It has become a virtuous circle, with the French sector gaining a reputation for competence in this field, and creating a critical mass of execs in Paris with such specialized knowledge.

“When you have proven yourself as a good sales company, people trust you and give you their films,” Lagesse says.

The French sales sector has also been helped by the fact that most of the companies are hybrids, producing and distributing films, as well as well selling them.

“French companies are more integrated than other companies and this means they understand the market better,” Bober says.

Despite the global strength of the Gallic sales sector, however, Panahi estimates that since 2008, the revenue generated by arthouse films has declined by 30%-50%. She attributes that decline to what she calls “the three tsunamis”: the recession, the digital revolution and overproduction.

“The main problem for the sales companies today is that the films are not working as well as they used to, and so the (acquisition) prices are going down,” Lagesse says.

He says in a territory such as Japan, the price for a film might be 10% of what it was 10 years ago: A film he could once sell for $500,000 in Japan, might sell today for $50,000.

According to Panahi, the biz must adapt to the new environment and create a different distribution model. It is necessary to collapse the theatrical window for some films, switch to day-and-date releases with video-on-demand, and move from traditional forms of advertising to cheaper and more targeted online forms of promotion, she says.

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