French films a hit on U.S. cable

On-demand sales make domestic TV a key place for foreign titles

PARIS — The U.S. has emerged as by far the biggest growth market for French film exports, moving distribs in France to declare, “Vive les Etats Unis!”

Gallic sales agents are increasingly bullish on U.S. video-on-demand, which is coming of age not only for U.S. films — “Arbitrage” took in $11 million on VOD, and “Bachelorette” grossed $7.3 million on the platform — but also for select foreign-language titles, too. French sales agents’ revenues out of North America soared 114% to €44.7 million ($58.6 million) in 2011 over what they were in the beginning of the decade. Meanwhile, in that same period, returns from Western Europe edged up just 3%, to $86.7 million.

One of Kino Lorber’s biggest 2012 hits was Jane Fonda later-life dramedy “All Together,” a French-German production lead-produced by Paris-based Les Filmes de la Butte. (The pic is in French, in which Fonda is fluent.) Kino Lorber and Tribeca Films released the pic theatrically in 50 markets and on all U.S. cable systems, grossing about $1 million from VOD.

That’s an excellent return, say Kino-Lorber’s Richard Lorber, noting that French-language specialty distributors are lucky if films gross more than a few hundred thousand dollars theatrically. (Lorber cites as a success “The Well-Digger’s Daughter,” which made $400,000 for the shingle from theatrical in a limited 50-market release.)

EuropaCorp recently sold VOD and DVD rights for Luc Besson’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec” and Bibo Bergeron’s toon “A Monster in Paris” to Shout! Factory.

EuropaCorp’s Marie-Laure Montironi says the company likes to work with U.S. distribs who release films day-and-date, either theatrically or on VOD, in order to optimize revenues from non-linear rights and new media on French-language films.

SND’s Lionel Uzan reports growing revs among the company’s U.S. VOD releases, and says that the sector helps distribs limit marketing costs, which enables more risk-taking, and higher minimum guarantees per pic.

Lorber also cites marketing costs as a theatrical bugbear: “To release a French-language film that will gross $50,000-$500,000 at the box office, most speciality distributors spend about $50,000-$150,000 on P&A. But distributors’ net rentals are about a third of the box office result.”

One industry insider says that major distribs can spend up to $5 million marketing select high-profile French releases that have a large B.O. potential.

Internet VOD also presents a growing opportunity for distribs. According to Richard Cooper at IHS-Screen Digest, U.S. Internet VOD consumer revenue on Netflix, iTunes or Vudu-style subscription systems (as opposed to cable’s pay-per-view model), more than doubled in 2012 to $2.3 billion. And Dave McIntosh, at U.S. distributor Shout! Factory, says digital VOD players like Apple and Neflix are particularly pushing foreign-language titles.

In fact, with the sector’s growing Stateside popularity, the challenge for French films aiming for a U.S. VOD presence is exposure.

“Compared with two years ago, films’ availability on VOD platforms has quadrupled,” says IFC’s Ariana Bocco. “It’s gotten very competitive; films can get lost in the shuffle.”

Lorber says that a big plus for U.S. cable VOD is that it covers 90% of TV markets.

“On-demand programs are constantly being promoted on cable systems. You get push-through exposure,” he says. “You don’t find that on Internet.”

With a promise of potential returns from U.S. VOD that can outstrip their local B.O., French films will continue to find their way across the Pond. Pathe Intl.’s Muriel Sauzay says U.S. VOD has become a significant part of the business.

“It’s growing fast,” Sauzay says. “And it’s a very good market for smaller films.”