French Specialty Players: Lost in Translation?

A raft of French helmers and producers embarking into English-language projects have failed to meet commercial expectations.

“Blood Ties” (Guillaume Canet)

PARIS — The downfall of U.S. specialty divisions in 2008 opened up a whole new range of opportunities for ambitious French producers and helmers to step up to the plate, gaining access to American talent, tapping into wider financing resources, with the hope of reaching worldwide audiences with smart, auteur-driven indie pics.

But five years or so later, while the American independent market has bounced back, driven by resourceful and deep-pocketed players like FilmNation, Exclusive, an amped-up Lionsgate, the Weinstein Co. and Voltage, a wave of disappointing French-helmed English-language feature debuts has left many French producers and filmmakers with a hangover.

Recent examples of cold showers inflicted in France include Guillaume Canet’s 1970s-set drama “Blood Ties,” with Clive Owen, Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis (Wild Bunch, budget: $25 million, French B.O.: €1.5 million); Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s adventure tale “The Young and Prodigious Spivet” with Helena Bonham Carter (Gaumont, budget: $33 million, French B.O.: €4 million); Anne Fontaine’s erotic drama “Two Mothers,” with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright (Gaumont, budget: $16 million, French B.O.: €1.1 million); and Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.,” starring Benicio Del Toro (Wild Bunch, budget: $10 million, French B.O.: €1.6 million).

Some of these films, notably “Mothers,” which is doing well in VOD in the U.K. and the U.S. via Exclusive, might recoup in international and in secondary markets. But other movies with larger budgets, like “Spivet” and “Ties,” are commercial flops even if both pics have pre-sold to all major territories, including to the U.S. with the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate, respectively.

While Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval, who co-produced and repped “Ties,” has spoken about the merits of the U.S. system in which American stars take backend-style remuneration, allowing for smaller budgets, he contends that many pics shot in English and financed with Gallic coin have inflated pricetags.

“French producers export their bad habits when they shoot abroad,” claims Maraval. “There’s often a problem when a foreign producer makes a French movie in the U.S.: French producers don’t know how to get their crews to adapt to U.S. work methods.”

Over the last five years, the long list of casualties include Laurent Cantet’s “Foxfire”; Jean-Paul Salome’s “The Chameleon”; Olivier Dahan’s “My Own Love Song,” with Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker; Jerome Salle’s “Zulu,” with Whitaker and Orlando Bloom; and Juan Solanas’ “Upside Down,” with Kirsten Dunst.

While these films were shot in English for artistic reasons, rather than for commercial prospects, the English-language trend has been bolstered by economic necessities.

Laurent Danielou, managing director of Paris-based Rezo and prexy of ADEF (association of French sales agents), says, “Language itself doesn’t necessarily make a difference, but the cast you have access to increases the chances of pre-selling your film outside of the U.S. (U.S. distributors seldom pre-buy movies) and get it financed.”

Danielou cited Julie Delpy’s “Two Days in New York” as a movie that Rezo pre-sold everywhere.

Yet, Anna Kokourina, VP of production for Fox Intl., who participated in a panel hosted at Les Arcs Film Festival, pointed out, “Shooting a movie in English won’t help you boost box office numbers unless it’s a big arthouse film or a big commercial film.” She added that “Taken” scored because it wasn’t identified as a French movie. “It felt organic, very Hollywood-like.”

Indeed, French-directed actioners/thrillers and genre films are the two types of movies that translate well. Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp and Studiocanal have been highly successful with those types of movies. Among EuropaCorp’s numerous hits, “Taken” and “Taken 2” (budgets: $25 million and $45 million; combined worldwide B.O.: $603 million); Studiocanal, meanwhile, did very well with the Joel Silver-produced “Unknown” (budget: $30 million, worldwide B.O. $130.7 million).

Tightly budgeted genre movies can also click with international auds. Last year, James DeMonaco’s $3 million horror pic “The Purge,” with Ethan Hawke, produced by Blumhouse Prods. and Why Not, grossed $89 million worldwide.

So why can’t French auteurs make profitable specialty films shot in English?

Citing the boffo performances of Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” among others, Maraval says the nationality of directors has nothing to do with their films’ commercial performance.

Indeed, it seems that it all comes down to who’s writing, producing and financing these films. “Now You See Me” and “Gravity” are movies developed in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the flurry of French-directed English-language flops were penned, developed and funded for the most part in France with little or no input from the U.S.

Per Jean-Baptiste Babin, co-founder of financing firm Backup Films, these movies have failed because they’re basically French auteur films disguised as American movies, and therefore fail to score in their domestic market and overseas where they face off with competition from higher-profile U.S. indies with A-list cast.

“Filmmakers looking to benefit from the distribution potential of a U.S. or U.K. film need to not only shoot in English but also respect the format and the codes of Anglo-Saxon cinema. If you want to make a singular auteur-driven film it’s best to stick to the organic language of the story,” adds Babin, pointing out that Backup is financing Gaumont-repped “When Animals Dream,” helmed by Denmark’s Jonas Arnby and shot in Danish.

Renewed interest in foreign-language local movies is shared by other European industryites, notably Peter Aalbaek Jensen at Zentropa. “I lost all my money on Danish-produced English-language films, so now (with the exception of Lars von Trier’s pics) we’re making films as ethnic as possible to have a chance of being different (like Susanne Bier’s ‘A Second Chance’ and Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Commune’) and stand out from all the fantastic U.S. films out there.”

Cecile Gaget, head of Gaumont Intl., concurs. “Sometimes, original director-driven films don’t need to be English-speaking. Stay national to be international.”

Adds Gaget, “When a French director makes a movie in English he must make a film the international or American way, which means that he (or she) has to provide audiences with emotions. That’s sometimes a problem for French directors who can be a bit coy.”

The Gaumont exec acknowledges the necessity to get “U.S. partners more involved in the creative process and at the very early stage.”

Worldview Entertainment financially backed and co-produced “Ties” but didn’t interfere with the film’s artistic decisions.

Like many English-language pics helmed by French directors, “Spivet” and “Ties” were lead-produced in France and driven by auteurs who had the final cut, rather than producers with a U.S. sensibility.

Cast is another limitation. French producers seldom gain access to A-list stars unless they’re fully co-producing with a U.K. or U.S. outfit, as Studiocanal is doing with See-Saw Films on “Macbeth” with Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender; or Backup is doing with Lex Lutzus and James Brown production shingle on Julianne Moore starrer “Still Alice.”

“The same way the French financing system is said to be protectionist, the American system is closed off to some extent because the agents control both talents and financing,” explains Babin.

Even if local producers get over the cast hurdle, they face difficulties in making the most of this cast when marketing the film in France. “A problem we encountered with English-language productions was the unavailability of the cast during the French promotion — that means we weren’t able to adopt the same marketing strategy as for our French releases,” says Gaget. “For instance, on ‘Two Mothers,’ we only had Naomi Watts for one day; on ‘Spivet’ we had no one but Jeunet.”

As Gaget sums it up, “No director or star can guarantee a B.O. success nowadays — that’s the No. 1 lesson we pulled from these experiences.”

Looking ahead, French helmers and producers might think twice about venturing into English-language films budgeted over $10 million unless they are backed by a studio.

“It’s near suicide to produce a French film in English: France only boasts two or three sources of financing for foreign-language films and they must be set up as official European co-productions to tap into this funding — that can be very restrictive,” argues Babin.

This  year will see a few more French-produced English-language pics hit theaters: Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise,” starring Rebecca Hall, and Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco,” produced by Pierre-Ange Le Pogam’s Stone Angels and pre-bought by the Weinstein Co.

(John Hopewell contributed to this report.)