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Luc Besson Feted as Man of the Year at Unifrance RDV in Paris

PARIS– Luc Besson, whose latest film “Lucy” was the highest-grossing French export of 2014 and, indeed, of all time, was feted as man of the year at the Unifrance Rendez-Vous’ annual presser.

For the occasion, “Lucy” star Scarlett Johansson recorded a video introduced by Unifrance’s managing director Isabelle Giordano during a packed press conference,  attended by not only Besson but also Oscar-nominated “Timbuktu” producer Sylvie Pialat, France’s minister of culture Fleur Pellerin, CNC president Frederique Bredin, and helmers Michel Gondry, Joachim Lafosse and Nadav Lapid, among many others.

“The qualities that really drew me to work with Luc Besson — and is a huge part of the success of ‘Lucy’ — is his passion to achieve greatness. Luc is a perfectionist, and he has a certain idea of what he wants and won’t stop at anything to get it, and that’s what inspires everyone to strive for their greatest,” Johansson enthused.

Besson was then asked by Giordano to explain what made “Lucy” a French film.

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“What does it mean, a French film?” said Besson. “The official languages of Europe are French and English. A French film isn’t necessarly a film shot in French. I’m French, all the technicians are French, and it happens that we have a Swedish actress, Scarlett Johansson,” quipped Besson, sparking laugher from the audience.

Giordano, a former film journalist with substantial TV and radio experience, pointed out that Besson deserved the Unifrance honor for the thundering B.O. success of “Lucy” (In the U.S.: $126.6 million; worldwide: $458.8 million) and the early performance of “Taken 3,” which opened Jan. 16 Stateside and scored standout weekend results for Fox.

Pellerin delivered a considered speech addressing the recent terrorist attacks. “We must claim loud and clear that nothing and no one can deprive us of our freedom of expression. Culture is our best weapon to fight intolerance,” said the minister, who also noted the cap of the tax rebate for international productions (TRIP) had been raised to 30% and up to 30 million Euros ($36 million) for an individual film.

During the presser, Giordano, Unifrance prexy Jean-Paul Salome and co-managing director Gilles Renouard discussed the figures on French film exports compiled by the org and the national film board CNC.

Besson’s actioners are not the only French movies that manage to lure foreign auds.

“Intenational audiences truly appreciate our brand of biting social comedies, as we’ve seen with the success of ‘Intouchables,’ ‘Paulette’ and ‘Serial (Bad) Weddings’ (‘Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon Dieu’) for instance,” said Giordano.

Renouard said “Lucy” did get beat in some territories, including Italy, where, remarkably, French kids adventure tale “Belle and Sebastien” (released by Notorious) outperformed it. Other surprise territory hits included “Attila Marcel,” which sold 150,000 admissions in Korea.” Renouard added that “Samba,” Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s follow-up to “Intouchables,” sold more tickets abroad than in France.

China was the second biggest foreign market for French movies in 2014, pointed out Renouard, citing “Lucy,” released on 6,000 Chinese screens. “‘Lucy’ was China’s biggest theatrical release ever,” added Renouard.

Renouard also noted that “auteur cinema is suffering a great deal, mainly because of difficult access to multiplexes and the shrinking number of arthouse theaters.”

While digital distribution seems promising, video and TV sales remain crucial for arthouse films and they keep going down, explained the Unifrance exec.

Unifrance also launched an export prize for the best short film producer, which went to Autour de Minuit, Nicolas Schmerkin’s company.

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