At the start of April, a spattering of American and French journalists gathered, Champagne in hand, at the home of French consul general to Los Angeles Christophe Lemoine for the lineup announcement of the 22nd City of Lights, City of Angels film festival, which kicks off tonight with Eric Barbier’s Romain Gary biopic “Promise at Dawn.” It was the perfect setting to announce a film about the French writer, a former Los Angeles consul general himself, who managed to keep one foot in his native land and another in Hollywood, through both his diplomatic appointment and his marriage to Jean Seberg. Colcoa has been striving to strike a similar balance for the past two decades.

Initially commissioned as the flagship project of the Franco-American Cultural Fund — a joint project among the MPAA, DGA, WGA and France’s SACEM — Colcoa provides a week’s worth of French film premieres in the middle of L.A. every year. Though the festival includes plenty of art and auteur cinema, and its panels and introductory speeches reach back to names like Godard, Malle and Rivette, Colcoa is perhaps most remarkable for its embrace of films that are too regionally specific, too genre-focused, or too generally déclassé to attract much attention from the statelier Stateside arthouse crowd.

The broad comedy of Dany Boon has been a regular presence, and he will be on hand this year to present “Family Is Family.” French thrillers and romantic comedies are usually well-represented, and the fest’s director spotlight this year is reserved not for some aging New Wave legend, but rather actress-director Melanie Laurent; a few months after the SXSW debut of her English-language debut, “Galveston,” Colcoa will offer festgoers the chance to acquaint themselves with her earlier French features.

“The diversity of French cinema is the first thing that we want to show in the festival,” says longtime Colcoa executive producer and artistic director Francois Truffart, who bristles against the idea that French film is oftentimes considered something like its own genre in the U.S. “We do all different types of films, and we know that we have different types of audiences going to each, whether it’s film noir, or children’s cinema, comedies or dramas.

“The question is always, when I watch a film in Paris in October, in January, whenever, is will an American audience like this film? What are they going to think? I want to find films that are absolutely unexpected by the American audience. I try to find films that can be really new, original and unique.”

Once again returning to its home base at the DGA Theater, Colcoa from April 23-30 hosts screenings of major French films including Mathieu Amalric’s “Barbara,” Daniel Auteuil’s “The Other Woman,” Yvan Attal’s “Le Brio,” and Cedric Kahn’s “The Prayer” as a closer. First added as a standalone category in 2015, the festival’s TV program will screen seven French series and five TV movies. A shorts program, a classic cinema section and a small sampling of VR experiences round out the 86-project slate.

Though French film in Los Angeles might seem an intensely specialized focus, Colcoa has arguably been the city’s most consistent film festival in recent years. Though smaller than AFI Fest or the Los Angeles Film Festival, Colcoa has seen few of the changes in leadership, location, mission or dates that its two bigger rivals have undergone. Last year saw 25,000 attendees, and thanks to its timing in the weeks before the kickoff of Cannes, Colcoa has seen several success stories in terms of acquisitions.

Cedric Kahn’s “The Prayer,” a drama about drug addiction recovery, will close out Colcoa on April 30.

“Every year you have one or two titles,” Truffart says. “We are just before the Cannes Film Market, and we have a partnership with them, so there are films are that are shown at Colcoa where distributors can use us to test the reaction here, and then when they go to Cannes they negotiate the rights and eventually buy them.”

Indeed, the past few years have seen a number of Colcoa selections acquired for U.S. distribution either out of the festival itself or very shortly thereafter: Boon’s “Superchondriac,” Helier Cisterne’s Colcoa jury prize winner “Vandal,” Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s “Once in a Lifetime,” Lisa Azuelos’ “Quantum Love,” and Clovis Cornillac’s “Blind Date” among them, as well as French TV series “Call My Agent,” which was picked up by Netflix. This year eight competition films arrive at Colcoa with U.S. distribution already in place, from Cohen Media Group’s “My Son” to Kino Lorber’s “Makala” and “Custody” and Music Box Films’ “Memoir of War” and “The Guardians.”

“We have this funny way of describing it, but in France when we talk about film we’re talking about le septième art, and in the U.S. you’re often talking about ‘the industry,’” notes Eglantine Langevin, production manager at both SACEM and the Franco-American Cultural Fund. “But if you put Bollywood aside, America and France are the two major countries of cinema. So having the perspective of the American audience for the French filmmaker is always a great opportunity. And of course, having access to this market is huge. Because of this fund, you then have access to the American industry, which is a great opportunity for a French filmmaker to do a film in the U.S., negotiate a remake, or find a new market for their film.”

Of course, some films will always get lost in translation. Truffart is on a particular mission to evangelize for French comedies, once strong exports, and frequently among the biggest audience hits at the festival, which often go missing among the headier dramas and art films that have easier times securing U.S. distribution.

“There are films I choose which are, I would say, not my cup of tea, because I know that the American audiences might like it,” Truffart says. “But it’s a real joy to program films for American audiences, because I know that American audiences in a way are much more open minded than French audiences. They can appreciate some films much more than we think, particularly in the case of comedies. Americans are also sometimes more respectful of comedy, even the ones that aren’t always so appreciated by critics. We are at least trying with Colcoa to change the opinions of distributors about comedies.

“There used to be a lot of French comedies released in U.S., and there are much less now, I guess because U.S. distributors are much more interested in arthouse films and dramas. It’s interesting to see that at Colcoa comedies are extremely popular, including with the American audiences. I think there’s a market for it.”

“Having the perspective of the American audience for the French filmmaker is always a great opportunity.”
Eglantine Langevin

Truffart points to Boon’s “Family Is Family,” among others, as a comedy he sees having a real shot at connecting with Americans this year.

“In many ways, it’s a very American film that he has made. It also reminds me of the Italian comedy-dramas of the 1970s, a very strange film in a sense, and I honestly think it’s the best film he has made.”

Of course, Colcoa is about much more than just attempting to influence the market. Newly restored versions of 1970s classics “Peppermint Soda,” “The Flesh of the Orchid” and “Get Out Your Handkerchief” will screen at the fest, and director Francois Veber will be on hand to present his 1998 hit “The Dinner Game.” And in an effort to extend its future audience beyond dyed-in-the-wool Francophiles, the fest will once again bring over some three thousand local high school students for special free screenings.

Colcoa is also mindful of heeding some of the hard lessons of Hollywood’s past few years, adding a first-time female filmmaker spotlight and a special Women Make History section dedicated to stories of women’s rights throughout French history. Gender parity was an important factor in the fest’s decision to fete Laurent as well — Truffart was alarmed to realize that the festival’s Focus on a Filmmaker special section had only put one woman director, Julie Delpy, under its spotlight previously. Laurent won the festival’s audience award for her first feature, “The Adopted,” back in 2012, and per Truffart: “It was important to focus on a new generation of filmmakers, and she’s already been so prolific as both an actress and a director.”

Even as he speculates about finding future auteurs, Truffart reflects about the festival’s success exploding some commonly held myths about the narrowness of French cinema and the narrow movie-going habits of Angelenos.

“From the very beginning when I started working for the festival as a programmer, there was always this idea in France, and New York as well, that French cinema only really works in New York,” he says. “That people in L.A. don’t have the right background. And my goal from the very beginning was to prove the contrary. You have people working in Hollywood who are still talking about the New Wave. French cinema is as important here as it is in New York, and every kind of film can be successful in L.A.”