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U.S. embraces French films but face challenges

New York Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2013

The U.S. remains the top export market for French films. Over the past three years, Gallic pics’ B.O. grosses have increased significantly: an estimated €75.5 million (about $101 million) in 2010, $160 million in 2011 and $251 million in 2012.

This year, even without the winning trio of “Taken 2,” “The Artist” or “Intouchables,” revenues should still be strong, says Regine Hatchondo, managing director at French promotion org Unifrance, which will host the 18th Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Good 2013 performers should include “Amour,” a Sony Pictures Classics release. It’s made some $3 million and may see an Oscar B.O. bump after Sunday’s kudoscast.

But how long will the growth continue?

U.S. arthouse exhibs and distribs are facing challenges, including the switchover to digital. Smaller cinemas have been struggling to acquire pricey DCI-compliant systems — the industry standard for high-quality projection.

However, per Ed Arentz, managing director at Music Box, arthouse venues are not the most at risk because many of them have been using formats that are less expensive than DCI systems and allow quality projection by other means, including Blu-ray.

Arentz says the larger burden for these distribs is the virtual print fee, a digital-conversion contribution they must make to certain theaters each time they screen a film. “Lower-grossing mainstream venues, particularly from the major theater circuits like AMC, Regal and Cinemark, where we used to be willing to provide them a print on wider releases, have now largely become too expensive to play in,” adds Arentz.

On the upside, new distribs like Cohen Media Group, launched in 2008 by entrepreneur Charles Cohen, have energized the U.S. market, boosting competition. The Weinstein Co., which has been on an acquisition spree of French films since 2011 with “The Artist,” has also helped turn the spotlight back on Gallic pics.

But the competition is also boosting prices, says Arentz. “The success of ‘The Artist’ and ‘Intouchables’ has raised expectations unrealistically for many French films.”

Distributors across the board say that P&A costs to release films Stateside keeps going up because print advertising is still expensive, and with readership declining they must spend more on online marketing to reach their target.

“We try to be creative, flexible and innovative to maximize our P&A spending,” says Cohen, who will host the premiere of Gilles Legrand’s “You Will Be My Son” and Francois Ozon’s “In the House” at the Rendez-Vous. “For instance, on Lorraine Levy’s ‘The Other Son’ we focused on the Jewish-Palestinian community in the U.S. because we knew they would be more receptive to the film’s issues.”

Cohen’s strategy worked. “The Other Son” earned more than $1.2 million in the U.S. “A great performance for a film like this one which doesn’t have any well-known cast and (addresses) a difficult subject,” says Cohen.

Le Pacte’s head of sales, Camille Neel, who will present Guillaume Nicloux’ Berlin-preeming “The Nun,” points out the volume of U.S. deals is stable but minimum guarantees have gone down for smaller films.

“While the VOD market is still developing, it’s opening up a new avenue for smaller French pics that hardly sell for all-rights,” adds Neel. At last year’s Rendez-Vous, Le Pacte bowed Mathieu Amalric starrer “The Screen Illusion,” which had a limited theatrical potential, and unspooled the pic simultaneously across 40 screens via Emerging Pictures. Pic then played on VOD for two months. “Even though we didn’t get an MG, that flexible VOD model enabled us to show the film and generate some revenues.”

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