The French film industry finds itself in an improbable bind: as domestic box office grows, international receipts are falling, and sometimes for the very same reason.
For more than a decade, broad comedies have fueled the French box office, as significantly less-expensive homegrown productions have held their own against blockbuster imports. The public’s seemingly limitless appetite for comedy sketch shows and stand-up tours has bred several generations of polished comic performers, who in turn have been able to expand TV familiarity into movie star muscle. That strong roster has helped grow box office admissions over the past few years, including a 3% uptick in homemade productions.
Local funnyman Dany Boon — whose 2008 film “Welcome to the Sticks” remains the most successful film in French cinema history, and whose latest entry “Raid, Special Unit” is the year’s top domestic production — has emerged as the industry’s most reliably bankable director and star, while such rising voices as Philippe Lacheau — whose “Alibi.com” is this year’s second-biggest comedy — are quickly gathering buzz.
But the country’s comedic heavyweights have not found similar success in foreign territories. Even when the projects sell, few of the films have made a comparable imprint as they have back home, and it’s not difficult to figure out why.
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“Comedy is very cultural,” says producer Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, who produced Toronto’s closing night film “C’est la vie!” through his Quad Films banner. Those box office sensations “are films that specifically address French culture and are not necessarily relatable in other countries.”
Though there’s a growing demand for specific Gallic comedies in other parts of Europe, for a certain brand of popular, mainstream fare, “the fact that a film is in French can often put a brake on international distribution,” he notes.
For some, the answers lie in meeting the international audience half-way. Quad’s English-language comedy “The Death of Stalin” will premiere in Toronto’s Platform section, and the shingle’s about to launch production on its first Chinese co-production, a family sports film starring footballer Eric Cantona that will be principally filmed in Mandarin.
Duval Adassovsky and associates have also teamed with the Canadian outlet Caramel to develop a remake of their 2012 Dany Boon hit “The Volcano.” “That’s an example where the film was strong enough to export, but the language and casting prevented that,” Duval Adassovsky says. “An English remake could help it access a larger audience.”
Such is not always the case, as seen with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Budgeted at more than $180 million, Luc Besson’s English-language actioner has taken a disappointing haul in the international markets the film was meant to crack, though it recently made a strong opening in China and continues to play well in France, where local audiences are more familiar with the source comic book. Still, the mega-budget project seems unlikely to turn the tide for Gallic production in foreign territories, where ticket sales for French films fell a precipitous 69% between 2015 and 2016.
“There are several factors [why],” says Isabelle Giordano, executive director of UniFrance, the state organization devoted to promoting French cinema. “First, there’s strong competition from Hollywood blockbusters, which have a quasi-monopoly on screens all over the world. Practically eight out of 10 films playing on any screen in any world capital are coming from Hollywood. There’s also piracy, which is a significant enemy.”
The industry’s auteur pics and mid-level dramas get serious play in the Venice, Toronto and New York festivals, but have a tougher time gaining traction outside the circuit. Though more traditional French cinema still attracts a passionate and loyal following, many committed fans have a tough time even getting to see the films.
“Multiplexes and other platforms tend to be more favorable to Hollywood cinema than auteurist French films,” Giordano says. “At one point, you could sell a film just with Belmondo or Alain Delon on the poster. You could just say Godard or Truffaut. Sadly that era is no more.” And how does one solve such a problem?
“I’m betting on digital distribution. French cinema needs to be much more present on digital platforms,” she says. “There are a number of people in the French industry who want to the situation to advance, who want to be able to work [with streaming distributors] in joint confidence, and that’s why we’re fighting to have digital regulation better adapted to the modern world.”
At the same time, a bona fide blockbuster wouldn’t hurt. On that front, “C’est la vie!” co-director Eric Toledano has a bit of advice. “I find that the more you tell your own story, the more you can interest others. … The international market, particularly the American one, is full of sequels. Films that follow one after the other, that are more series than cinema. French cinema should remind of the importance of a simple, contained story.”
And Toledano would know. His 2011 sensation “The Intouchables” was the rare broad comedy to be as successful in foreign territories as it was back home, grossing a staggering $426 million internationally and inspiring three different remakes. The most recent of these — the Weinstein Co.’s “The Upside” — will premiere in Toronto this year.
“I don’t presume to have the full analysis, but [people respond to] the [mix] of drama and comedy … where you’re not fully in one or the other,” says Toledano. “When people pay for a ticket, they want a strong experience. We don’t have the means to compete with the big American machines, so we use more narrative tools.”