Colcoa at 25: Festival Marks a Quarter Century of French Film in Los Angeles

Calcoa Film Festival Titane La Vie en Rose
Titane: Picturehouse/Everett Collection; Rose: Carole Bethuel/Neon

Despite being the world capital of the film and TV industry, Los Angeles has never been a particularly hospitable place to stage a film festival. Which makes it all the more surprising that one of the city’s longest-running, most successful fests happens to be one dedicated entirely to French cinema.

First known as City of Lights, City of Angels, the Colcoa French Film Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, returning to its longtime home at the DGA Theater Complex for a week’s worth of primo Franco fare. Opening with the Juliette Binoche-starrer “Between Two Worlds,” the festival will screen 55 films and series and 19 shorts from Nov. 1-7 — and after taking a gap-year in 2020 due to the pandemic, this year’s fest will be back in-person.

Reliably attracting 20,000 attendees a year in the pre-COVID era, Colcoa’s ability to survive a quarter century has a lot to do with its unusual founding. The festival is the flagship event promoted by the Franco-American Cultural Fund (FCFA) — a joint venture by the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America-West, the Motion Picture Assn. and French performing rights org Sacem —which was established shortly before the festival itself. The organization traces its history all the way back to the early ’90s, a period when, as Jay D. Roth, longtime board member and former national executive director of the DGA, recalls, “there was a great deal of conflict between Americans and Europeans, and particularly the French, about film, about culture, and about access to different forms of audiovisual entertainment.”

Seeking a way to bridge the transatlantic divide, the four organizations took advantage of a relatively obscure source of funding: a French tax levy called “private copy,” which by law had to be re-allocated to cultural events and the promotion of French cinema. Forming the FCFA (the acronym is based on its French name Le Fonds Culturel Franco-Americain), their objectives were twofold: first, to seek greater exposure and distribution possibilities for French films in the United States; and secondly, to increase “person-to-person cultural exchange between French and American writers and directors.” The organization launched the first Colcoa fest not long after.

Quick to credit the late MPAA head Jack Valenti as a key figure in Colcoa’s early days, Roth marvels at how well the two guilds and the MPA have managed to work together on the venture over the years. “It’s a tripartite partnership that has been amazingly blissful, considering who you’re dealing with,” he says.

As for the programming and execution of the festival itself, no two figures have loomed as large as François Truffart, executive producer and artistic director, and Anouchka van Riel, deputy director, both of whom joined Colcoa in 2004 and have been with the fest ever since.

“During the festival François is more the face of Colcoa, and I’m more the machine behind it,” van Riel says with a laugh.

Truffart has indeed cut an omnipresent figure at the festival over the years, and he’s watched as it’s grown from an upstart niche event into a key date on the Los Angeles cinephile calendar. He recalls a key leveling-up moment near the very beginning of his Colcoa tenure, when the festival presented the local premiere of “La Vie en Rose,” which served as the Hollywood debut for the film’s star, and subsequent lead actress Oscar winner, Marion Cotillard.

“She was in Hollywood for the first time, and had her first appearance on stage with an audience here at the festival,” Truffart recalls. “She was really, really scared, and she told me as she was waiting backstage that she felt sick and didn’t think she would ever be able to do that again. And of course we know what happened after that. It was a big change in terms of the perception of the festival.”

Since then, Colcoa has hosted repeat visits from the likes of Claude Lelouch, Costa-Gavras, Jacqueline Bisset and Omar Sy, and over the years one could expect to see major French stars including Dany Boon and the late Johnny Hallyday mingling freely at the fest’s opening night receptions. The last time the festival took place, in 2019, it hosted the U.S. premiere of Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables,” which was chosen as France’s Oscar submission in the international film race; this year the fest will screen 2021’s French Oscar entry, the Cannes-launched succès de scandale “Titane,” as well as Switzerland’s Oscar submission, “Olga.” (Other highlights include the North American premieres of Xavier Giannoli’s “Lost Illusions,” Audrey Estrougo’s “Authentik” and Albert Dupontel’s Cesar-winning “Bye Bye Morons.”)

Despite that pedigree, one of the more unique elements of Colcoa’s programming is its tendency to host films that one wouldn’t normally expect to see in a film festival lineup, or on screens outside of France at all. Alongside art films and edgy debut features, Colcoa is also willing to program broad comedies, family films, romances and historical epics, presenting an unusually comprehensive survey of the entirety of French cinema, from high-bow to low.

Truffart says he always bristled at the way foreign-language films tended to be presented in U.S cinemas as though “there’s just one specific audience for these films.” He adds: “From the very beginning we wanted to show the diversity of French cinema, and we knew that there are all different kinds of audiences for all different kinds of French films.” (He points to the Stateside streaming success of French series like “Lupin” and “Call My Agent” as further validation.)

Screenwriter and FCFA board member Andrea Berloff agrees. “We, in these fancy Hollywood halls, we love all these Oscar-nominated movies, but I’m not so sure that the rest of our society does,” she says. “And I think the same is true in other countries, so to look at France and see that they have these tremendous comedies and Christmas movies — movies that are completely entertaining, that you and I have never heard of because they’re not fancy enough to be the one movie selected by the Oscars — it points to a great cultural similarity.”

Of course, locating and nurturing those similarities was always the second part of Colcoa’s mission. In fact, van Riel says she and Truffart were prepared to present an online-only program last year, but were overruled by the board in the interest of maintaining the sense of cultural commingling that can only occur when groups are physically together.

“Festivals really are there for a reason, because the exchanges go beyond just a pair of eyeballs in front of a screen,” she says. “It’s between audience members, between talent, between American and French directors and writers, there are so many things that happen in person that are so connective.”

And those exchanges go beyond simple cocktail chatter and post-screening Q&As. Per Sacem’s Eglantine Langevin, roughly three-quarters of Colcoa attendees are members of the entertainment industry, and three-quarters are American, offering visiting French filmmakers and writers a valuable opportunity to make U.S. connections and gain insights into Stateside distribution.

For years, Stan McCoy, the MPA’s president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has used Colcoa as an occasion to arrange meetings between visiting French talent and Hollywood execs: “It’s been really productive,” he says.

Meanwhile, the festival hosts plenty of workshops and summits between French and American creatives, and van Riel recalls a particularly revelatory recent screenwriting workshop where showrunners from series including “Sex and the City” and “Friends” talked shop with some of their Parisian counterparts.

“Even though we are seeing content going global, the ways of making content are still so different,” she says. “Watching these conversations with French writers who had no idea how a writers room works in the U.S., they were just like little kids in a candy shop listening to these showrunners, they were totally fascinated. And the [American] showrunners were like, ‘how do you manage to finance all these unique, strange stories in France? We want to know how to do that.’ It’s the encounter of two drastically different ecosystems that generates some weird ferment.”

Not bad for an idea hatched in the ’90s to make use of an obscure French tax provision. “It wasn’t even in our wildest dreams [when we started] that this could become the largest French festival in the world outside of Paris,” Roth says. “It’s something that’s really a treasure to all of us.”