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French Filmmakers Take Hold of Toronto Fest

This year, Toronto will play host to 18 majority French films across its various sections and an eye-popping 39 minority productions.

While that first figure attests to the relative good health of the Gallic film industry, the sizable second one only emphasizes the outsized importance that industry has placed on international co-production.

“Working with international artists is a really a huge part of our culture,” says Isabelle Giordano, executive director of UniFrance. “It’s not an anomaly — it’s a matter of French pride. It’s an official policy, and we pursue it with a number of co-production accords through the CNC. It’s structural. We really have a system, an ecosystem in France that calls for co-production.”

Indeed, with 57 international accords put in place by the CNC, as the publicly funded Centre National du Cinema is known, France holds the world record for co-production treaties.

Films including Naomi Kawase’s “Vision” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Loro” are but some of the beneficiaries of such treaties premiering in Toronto.

In 2012, the CNC further expanded the playing field, launching its Aide aux Cinémas du Monde fund and opening it to countries with existing bilateral agreements and to those without.

With a budget between €5 million and €6 million ($5.8 million and $7 million) and a cap of 50 films a year, the scheme offers up $291,600 in financing to projects along every step of production.

Because of the rigorous selection process — 400 projects are submitted each year for only 50 slots, half of which are reserved for first and second features — and because the program requires no mandate for pre-existing funds, many emerging filmmakers use it as a kind of seal of approval to attract additional interest from financers and sales agents.

The plan has borne fruit. Of the 200 films to benefit from this scheme between 2013 and 2018, 156 have premiered at leading European festivals, with the majority going to Cannes.

Other producers choose co-producing partnerships in order to better access the French market, which remains the largest in Europe for arthouse and auterist fare and which fosters an aging but dedicated public for world cinema.

“If the film gets French nationality, the French distributor gets a higher chance to get subsidies,” says German producer Christoph Friedel. “Nowadays, with so many films around, the distributor is all about lowering the risk of subs tantial release … so it’s easier for a French distributor to decide [to pick up a movie] if they know they don’t have to spend 100% of the P&A budget — they can get at least 30% from subsidies. The risk is much lower.”

Via his Cologne-based Pandora Films, Friedel has produced films for highly regarded French auteurs such as Bertrand Bonello, Benoit Jacquot and Claire Denis, often taking advantage of the co-production funds offered by the Franco-German television network ARTE for films of similar parentage.

For Denis’ film “High Life,” premiering as a Gala Presentation at Toronto, co-producing was a necessary step.

“As an English- speaking film, they could not raise that much money from television in France, so from the beginning it was clear that it could not be a wholly French production,” he explains.

With international stars and advanced technical requirements, the sci-fi picture was able to benefit from different regional subsidies as well as a number of skilled technicians from France, Germany and Poland.

“As a producer you have to protect the director, so you can’t add too many countries, but in general international co-production makes a film better,” he notes.

Putting aside its public and private incentives, France will also remain a dominant co-production partner thanks to the current realities of financing and the sheer number of sales agencies that operate out of Paris.

“As independent movies need international coin to be financed more and more, the position and recognition of international sales agents might shift from the end credits to the front credits,” says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert of the Paris-based agency Playtime.

“They’re involved earlier on, because the engineering around financing independent movies is becoming more complicated, and sales agents have an added value there.”

In 2015, Brigaud-Robert and his partners at Playtime (then known as Films Distribution) helped launch Lászlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul.”

The film would go on to win the Grand Prix in Cannes and the Academy Award for foreign-language film, so it made perfect sense to get onboard early for the Hungarian filmmaker’s follow-up project, “Sunset” (playing as a Special Presentation in Toronto). But doing so made them de facto producers.

“What’s changing is the way movies need to find their financing. There’s a fine line between financing, pre-financing, paying a minimum guarantee and producing,” Brigaud-Robert says. “Because that’s how the market is evolving. Does that mean that the job itself is changing? I’m not sure.”

Whatever the case, Playtime’s early involvement allowed the now Franco-Hungarian production to tap into new pools of European soft money, which can make all the difference for a sweeping period epic.

Or as Isabelle Giordano puts it, “if we want to continue creating audacious, reactive films in the years to come, co-production will play a huge role.”

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