When Quentin Dupieux’s “Mandibles,” a buddy comedy about two bumbling dolts and a giant CGI bug, premieres out of competition at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 5, the screening could mark a mainstream breakout moment for the idiosyncratic director, and reaffirm French genre filmmaking as a market draw.
Beginning with 2010’s “Rubber,” Dupieux’s absurdist, genre-tinged features have launched out of sidebars in Venice and Cannes, and have played the main slates in Sundance and Toronto; his last film, “Deerskin,” opened the Directors’ Fortnight last year. But his off-kilter style, marked by pitch-black humor and surreal shifts, has thus far limited his commercial footprint, keeping him a cult act both at home and on the international stage.
In France, the filmmaker has burnished and expanded his reputation by touring smaller, regional genre festivals with each new work, returning often to niche events in Sitges, Neuchâtel and Strasbourg. Those events, which are all affiliated members of the Méliès International Festivals Federation, provide structural support to the European scene, bringing together industry professionals, passionate audiences and films that might not otherwise see robust theatrical careers.
“In France, fewer and fewer distributors are buying genre films for theatrical release [and the number of exhibitors who do program them is getting smaller],” says Daniel Cohen, artistic director of the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival. “Some art-house cinemas do take the risk, but even that is rare. They don’t know what public will come, and their main public, who tend to be older and less curious about genre, doesn’t always respond.”
“That’s where festivals like ours play a more important role than before,” he continues. “We’re a moment in time that helps shine light on films when they need it – at the moment when it’s primordial, when people look to the results, to see what impact a film can have.”
While Dupieux’s previous films like “Rubber” and “Wrong Cops” arrived on the genre circuit with distribution secured, festivals like Strasbourg connected the titles with a keyed-in public, reintroducing them on a local level and presenting them to a loyal and vocal fan community looking to support outré fare.
“We play on different scales,” adds Cohen. “For films that will see release, it’s about creating word-of-mouth. We can amplify their spotlight, their attention and visibility. We put films with tougher distribution prospects to screen before the public, and a festival selection can help with future support.”
For producers and sales agents, similar international events have become key destinations for a growing number of French productions, with many of those launching out of Venice.
In 2018, both David Oelhoffen’s cop drama “Close Enemies,” which premiered in competition, and Sébastien Marnier’s psychological thriller “School’s Out,” which played the Sconfini sidebar, made their North American premieres at Austin’s Fantastic Fest. Running less than two weeks after La Mostra’s closing night, the Texas-set event gave the two genre-skewing titles additional exposure within the September festival window, while offering new access to a dynamic and eager public.
UniFrance’s research has confirmed such potential. In recent years, the promotional body has used its My French Film Festival project as a kind of Trojan horse, offering digital platforms a curated selection of Gallic fare and then analyzing audience engagement patterns within particular markets. This year’s study, which included Marnier’s “School’s Out” and the sci-fi thriller “Jessica Forever,” indicated the strong potential for genre fare throughout South-East Asia.
As industry professionals consider a sales landscape upended by the events of the past six months, this kind of actionable data can be very reassuring. And it certainly can lead to a new messaging outreach when positioning local fare.
“I want UniFrance to say, no matter what, we support everything,” says executive director Daniela Elstner. “We need to bring out and reemphasize this diversity of the French industry. When some genre titles are not immediately recognized as French, we need to remind [people] that such films are part of our film body as well.”
“We have to get out and say that we’re rich in diversity, and rich in creativity,” she continues. “We can’t be ashamed to say that these films are the products of an entire network of talent in place.”