Strong French Films Play Venice Fest but Look to Crack U.S. Market

The three French majority productions playing in competition in Venice are entirely different from one another in style and tone, and even more so in terms of their American distribution strategies.

Both Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” and Olivier Assayas’ “Double Lives” will be released under significantly different conditions, while David Oelhoffen’s “Close Enemies” will hit the Lido still looking for a buyer. Taken all together, however, these three cases offer a reasonable snapshot of the current U.S. market for French cinema.

Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” stands as the outlier, one of the rare French productions to land U.S. distribution before the cameras ever rolled.  L.A.-based production company Annapurna Pictures came on board in May 2017 and announced that it would release the English-language Western through its nascent distribution arm.

Time will no doubt tell, but Annapurna’s interest in the project likely does not prefigure an ongoing stake in French distribution. Though the prestige pic, toplining Jake Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix, may outwardly share little in common with action pics like “Taken” and “Lucy,” all are majority French productions shot in English and positioned to appeal to a wider audience that won’t necessarily view the films as international fare.

Of the 60-70 French films released annually in the U.S., those commercially positioned films do the biggest numbers. In 2015, EuropaCorp’s “The Transporter Refueled” and “Taken 3” generated 88% of all French box-office activity stateside, and though “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and its $41.2 million haul disappointed in terms of blockbuster numbers, the Luc Besson production was the biggest French player of 2017.

Still, most of the roughly 65 works a year that make the journey over the Atlantic more closely resemble Olivier Assayas’ “Double Lives.” IFC Films/Sundance Selects picked up the dramedy while it was still in post, and after taking it to the various fall festivals, the New York-based distributor hopes to bank on Assayas’ critical renown and Juliette Binoche’s star power to launch the film in 2019.

Indeed, in recent years, the need for name recognition has driven international acquisitions for many of the larger distributors. “American audiences are attracted to seeing celebrity,” explains Jonathan Sehring, co-president of IFC Films/Sundance Selects.

His company released Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In” earlier this year, and turned a respectable sum, giving that film a day-and-date release in theaters and on video on demand. Like “Double Lives,” “Sunshine” also stars Binoche, who plays a sophisticated Parisienne, and in Sehring’s view, that hit the sweet spot for upmarket audiences.

“American audiences still have this romanticized version of not only French cinema but French culture and lifestyle. I think that attracts [them] across the board,” he says.

And so IFC Films/Sundance Selects — which also released Assayas’ previous two projects as well as the Isabelle Huppert-led “Things to Come” — will continue to foster its stable of brand-name auteurs and well-loved stars.

“When I see a movie, and I think it could work for American audiences, and it has a star I could sell, a director I could sell or a story I could sell — or better yet, all of the above — that’s what we look for,” says Sehring.

Of course, there are only so many stars and auteurs to go around, and even the biggest names can’t change a market that has grown more difficult for independent film across the board, let alone for foreign language fare.

“A movie that used to do $2 million does $1million [now], a movie that used to do $1 million does $500,000. So I think our distribution partners in the U.S. that are specialized in foreign language have suffered,” says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert of the French sales agency Playtime. “So we’re seeing a market that’s taking less risks and concentrating itself on names.”

Even that comes with risk. Sony Pictures Classics has limited its pickups in recent years and is still sitting on Roman Polanski’s “Based on a True Story,” a tricky sell in the current climate.

Magnolia Pictures has been filling that void, ramping up its slate with films like Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” and “Ismael’s Ghosts” and the foodie doc “The Quest of Alain Ducasse” — though none of them really broke out.

And Cohen Media Group, which has been the most active buyer for the past several years, recently picking up “Girls of the Sun” out of Cannes, has grown quieter in recent months after a few box-office disappointments.

The lower margins have created an opening for smaller distributors like Kino Lorber, First Run Features and the Orchard, many of whom come from the home-video business, and are able to impart whatever exposure they get from theatrical release to revenue streams from the other markets.

For some, the center of gravity has shifted. “Only a few years ago, we would battle with our distribution partners in the U.S. about box-office bumps,” says Brigaud-Robert. “Today, I don’t fight for bumps from theatrical anymore, I fight for my VOD.”

With those new markets come new buyers and new opportunities. The hip upstart Neon recently made its first French acquisition, picking up the horror-thriller “Revenge.” After a well-publicized theatrical push, Neon teamed with streaming service Shudder for a VOD exclusive that pulled in more than $1.1 million — exceeding all expectations and delighting Adeline Monzier, the U.S. representative of French film promotion body UniFrance.

“A lot of films that go day and date don’t get any marketing push and then they disappear. Here with ‘Revenge,’ we had the example of a distributor who put a lot of money in order to promote the theatrical release… and it paid off,” says Monzier. “So hopefully it will give them more desire to buy more,” she says. “I don’t think people, when they go to see these kinds of films, think they’re going to watch a French film. They’re just going to watch a genre film.”

This fact is not lost on Bac Films’ Gilles Sousa, who’s negotiating the sale of gritty urban thriller “Close Enemies.”  Following the film’s Venice premiere, Sousa hopes to position the underworld potboiler in way that capitalizes on the film’s genre aspects. As he explains, playing up such elements in the North American market can only help better connect the noir-ish drama with a dynamic new public — one ready to support French productions across any number of platforms.

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