The French box office, hampered by an increasingly rigorous series of COVID health protocols, took a plunge in recent months, resulting in week-to-week falls of up to 41%. But for all their caveats, industry analysts talk about the current landscape in tones of cautious optimism.
In France, a growing number of commercial spaces are prohibited from those without proof of double anti-COVID vaccinations.
“The sanitary passport had a pronounced effect in depressing the market,” says Comscore France’s Eric Marti. “There was a lot of uncertainty this summer, and we saw that once there’s a hint of confusion, the impact is immediate.” But at the same time, those same local audiences disproved the most pessimistic prognoses that came from during the lockdowns. “Viewers have displayed a real willingness” to return to the theaters, Marti says. “Remarkably, the market was able to absorb the [escalating restrictions], and, despite them, to pick back up.” The fact that three of the four titles that dominated the summer box office — Gaumont’s “OSS 117: From Africa With Love,” SND’s “Kaamelott: The First Chapter” and Studiocanal’s “The Stronghold” (alongside Universal’s “F9”) — were domestic productions has those same industry watchers cautiously celebrating.
“These four films represent more than 6 million admissions, with 4.5 of them driven by French titles,” Marti says. “Whereas normally, you tend to have one local comedy that does big numbers, this year we have three local productions leading the field.” Both the adventure comedy “Kaamelott” and the spy spoof “OSS 177” presented substantially budgeted spins on existing franchises, filled with Gallic stars and local references. And if the formula proved fruitful for the home market, it can create slight hiccups for certain foreign buyers.
“[“Kaamelott”] is very French, with references to France and verbal humor that’s very particular,” says SND sales chief Ramy Nahas.
“That makes it complicated to position on the international market.” Both Nahas and Gaumont sales exec Alexis Cassanet — who are still negotiating deals in a number of international territories, North America included — say that the current distribution bottleneck has resulted in narrower openings for titles ready for delivery.
“Distributors are faced with a backlog of films they haven’t been able to release over the past year and a half, which makes it complicated to pick up a film that is ready right now,” says Nahas.
“Buyers are looking for titles to release in 2022 and 2023, not for the coming months. And that works to our disadvantage.” To offset those disadvantages, both sales execs are looking to emphasize their films’ familiar casts (“OSS 117” stars Jean Dujardin, while “Kaamelott” features beloved funnymen Alain Chabat and Christian Clavier, as well as British musician Sting), their high production values and robust box office returns.
They are also looking to play the franchise card to their advantage.
“In order to ensure a healthy export rate for [commercial] French projects, we need to focus on existing IP,” says Nahas, whose fantasy epic is based on a well-loved TV series with two additional sequels due in the coming years.
“You need event films … and for foreign distributors, the promise of a franchise offers the possibility to structure subsequent releases,” he adds.
Indeed, that very strategy already bore fruit for Gaumont’s Cassanet, who sold the most recent “OSS 117” to Italian distributor I Wonder as part of a package deal that also included the series’ previous Dujardin-led entries.
“As [2006’s “Cairo, Nest of Spies” and 2009’s “Lost in Rio”] were never released in Italy, the distributor decided to pick up all three films,” Cassanet says.
“They took on a massive project of adaptation, dubbing all three, adapting certain quips and plays on words for their language and context. They released the first two over the summer in order to eventize the third film’s release, which will come later this fall.” When it comes to international exposition, festivals remain a powerful promotional tool.
While “OSS 117” screened as the closing film at Cannes in July, Gaumont’s €17 million ($20 million) Honoré de Balzac adaptation “Lost Illusions” will screen in competition in Venice, while other French films on the Lido include Audrey Diwan’s “L’événement” and Stéphane Brizé’s “Un autre monde.” “From a business perspective, that’s still important,” says Cassanet. “[Festival slots] shine a spotlight on the film; and once we claim their logo, distributors take all the more notice. [Even] ‘OSS 117’s’ sole closing-night screening helped us close a number of deals.” And if director Xavier Giannoli’s literary adaptation is of a markedly different nature than the spy series, Cassanet wagers that a similar emphasis on cast, familiarity and pedigree can help the film resonate abroad.
“Adapting Balzac, a classic author known around the world, will of course offer additional notoriety,” he says. “But so too will the cast, which includes Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan and Gerard Depardieu, among others. We want to show that we’re not cutting any corners when adapting a major book into an epic film.”