Gallic Indies Struggle to Maintain High

Overseas buyers prefer arthouse titles with marquee names or topics

As much as 2012 crowned French cinema with commercial and critical hits like “The Artist” and “The Intouchables,” which powered international biz, this year’s Berlin and Cannes markets revealed a more contrasted picture for Gaul.

The international sales business has been contracting on two kinds of films: high-profile English-language titles, such as Studiocanal’s Sean Penn starrer “The Gunman,” and smaller-budgeted homegrown laffers like Gaumont’s “Me, Myself and Mum” from first-timer Guillaume Gallienne. Select niche films from well-known helmers that either have a strong topic and/or a prestigious festival pedigree have managed to travel.

More than ever, vertically integrated companies like Wild Bunch, Gaumont, Studiocanal, Pathe, EuropaCorp and SND rule the French export biz.

And while the bulk of indie sellers are facing shrinking opportunities for all-rights deals on smaller arthouse films, midsize companies like Memento, Rezo, Le Pacte, Films Distribution, Bac, Kinology and Urban Distribution Intl. are thriving by snatching up international projects that can compete at major festivals and have a big-name auteur attached, acting in many cases as co-producers and/or French distributors.

“The access to screens for arthouse films that don’t have bankable directors or cast is now extremely limited: it’s basically dead outside of France, Benelux, Scandinavia, the U.K., Germany, Switzerland and Poland,” says Frederic Corvez, founder of Urban Distribution Intl.

Harold van Lier, exec VP of international distribution at Studiocanal, says, “Nowadays a film will sell on its own commercial merits or simply not sell. There is no middle ground, no volume deal, no need for product unless it has a chance to do real business theatrically. And the films that sell do sell very well because there are so few quality commercial films available on the market.”

Among the English-language pics that sold well at Cannes were Guillaume Canet’s stars-packed “Blood Ties” (Wild Bunch), “The Gunman” (Studiocanal), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The Young and Prodigious Spivet” (Gaumont), Paul Walker actioner “Brick Mansions” (EuropaCorp) and Idris Elba starrer “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (Pathe).

Yet high-profile English-language films carry baggage, per Vincent Maraval, co-founder of Wild Bunch, which racked up major pre-sales on Gallic pics: Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and Francois Ozon’s “Young & Beautiful.” “Cast-driven English-language films are expensive and they flop more than they succeed — they were good products when European television was buying, but today the only strong market is the theatrical one, so you have to find exceptions.”

“Buyers still see a well-known director (even a French one) as a guarantee of quality in a very risky pre-buy market.” A strong concept is another prerequisite.

Case in point: Besides Ozon’s “Beautiful” and Kechiche’s “Blue,” the other French-language films that sold well this year were Michel Gondry’s “Mood Indigo,” based on Boris Vian’s novel (from Studiocanal) and Jalil Lespert’s “Yves Saint Laurent” (from SND).

“ ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ is a commercial pic and that’s very rare for a French-language film: A recognizable brand that embodies the best of France,” says Lionel Uzan, head of sales and acquisition at SND. “But overall the market has considerably constricted for French films, which are not feel-good comedies because of the crisis in Southern Europe.”

And even bigger players are experiencing declining minimum guarantees in most markets and on all films.

“At Cannes, we noticed that the decline in minimum guarantee amounts, which was up until now bound to certain markets, is now global. In most territories we have to battle twice as much to obtain reasonable fees,” says Cecile Gaget, topper of Gaumont Intl., whose team comprises deputy head of sales Yohann Comte and sales manager Adeline Falampin. “We’ve become extremely cautious with our estimations for bigger films’ pre-sales, and as a result we’re increasingly looking to limit budgets.”

Indeed, the main game-changer for French sales agents has been the crash of Southern European markets, such as Italy and Spain, and the TV acquisition freeze in Germany.

In order to make deals happen, sales agents have been taking more risks, accepting smaller minimum guarantees from distribs in exchange for a percentage on the B.O. gross of a film, or either seeking straight TV deals or direct distribution.

“Apart from rare exceptions, buyers no longer have the cash or more importantly the access to TV deals to cover some of their risk. So the cap on investment has considerably decreased and we have had to strenghten our relationship with local studios,” says van Lier.

Taking note of the downfall of Southern European markets, declining MG’s and poor perfs of anticipated homegrown comedies at the French B.O., Gallic shingles like EuropaCorp and Gaumont have been focusing on smaller-budgeted French crowd-pleasers boasting remake potential priced in the €6 million to €7 million ($8 million-$9.4 million) range, to complement their slates of higher-bracket mainstream fare.

That strategy has paid off for recent sleeper hits that yielded small MG’s upfront but allowed sellers to seek a lucrative percentage of B.O. revenues. Indeed, Gaumont’s “Paulette,” a comedy about a retiree-turned-drug dealer, and Other Angle’s “On the Other Side of the Tracks” starring Omar Sy, rank as France’s top two local-language exports in 2013, per Unifrance.

At EuropaCorp, international sales topper Marie-Laure Montironi closed pre-sales on “Jamais le premier soir,” a femme-skewed romantic comedy starring Alexandra Lamy.

Balancing out the weakening of Southern European markets, sellers across the board have noted the dynamism and buyers’ appetite in Latin America, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, particularly for the more mainstream films.

“The VOD model has stabilized in Japan, and in Latin America, pay TV is strong,” says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, co-founder of Films Distribution. “Moreover, the Australian market has been energized since Hopscotch has become part of eOne. There’s a greater competition among distributors.”

Looking ahead, French sellers vying for key English-language indies’ acquisitions are bond to face the climbing competition from such powerful U.S. players as The Weinstein Company, Exclusive, Film Nation and Sierra.

But in spite of the challenges at stakes, “France’s sales sector still benefits from its legacy as a top purveyor of upscale world cinema, while it continues to give birth to ambitious new sales companies like Indie Sales and (Wild Bunch-backed outfit) Versatile,” emphasizes Gaumont exec Comte, who is also VP of the French Film Export Org (ADEF).

Created this year by the national film board CNC, a loan dedicated to sales companies, “will serve these newcomers, as well as smaller-, mid-sized outfits and producers (French and foreign ones), allowing them to stay in the race, commit on MG’s and have access to internationally-appealing films,” points out Comte.

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