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Why French Cinema Faces an Uncertain Future in America

The U.S. box office returns suggest dire prospects for French films in America, but many filmmakers and producers see potential on the horizon.

Elle Isabelle Huppert

“Elle”

Sony Pictures Classics

As the film distribution landscape keeps evolving, distributors of foreign language fare in the United States are struggling to keep up with a brave new world. French cinema, a niche favorite of American audiences for decades, is struggling to stay in the game — and right now, its future is uncertain.

“Ten years ago, we had more success at the box office,” Isabelle Giordano, the Executive Director of UniFrance, recently told IndieWire. “We have to admit that the situation is not as good as it was then.”

But it’s not for lack of effort. Thanks to a number of initiatives headed up by UniFrance – a government-supported body that operates with the sole aim of promoting French cinema throughout the world – French films are fighting to find new life at the U.S. box office.

Per Deadline, ticket sales in foreign markets for French titles dipped to $35 million in 2016, down 69% from 2015, and the lowest since at least 2000. UniFrance pointed to the lack of major English-language blockbusters – films like “Taken” or “Lucy” – hitting the box office, especially in America. In recent years, some of France’s biggest wins have come care of such blockbuster co-productions, with “Lucy” making a gobsmacking $126.6 million at the U.S. box office alone in 2014, followed by “Taken 3” ($89 million) and “The Transporter Refueled” ($16 million).

Turning Buzz Into Box Office

But while those films have provided more fertile moneymaking ground in the States, they are hardly the kind of titles that fit the tradition cinephile perception of French cinema — the romantic home of the French New Wave, Cahiers du Cinema and Cannes. It’s the latest versions of those films that often struggle to effectively cross over.

“Most of the French movies here get incredible press, but it doesn’t always turn into box office,” Adeline Monzier, UniFrance’s U.S. rep, told IndieWire.

“Dheepan”

Monzier pointed specifically to Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015, and then went on to make less than $250,000 at the U.S. box office. Decades ago, it likely would have been the exact kind of film Francophiles actively sought out. “In the 70s and the 80s, French cinema was more respected, [but] now it’s like a niche,” director Francois Ozon recently told IndieWire. (Ozon’s newest feature, “Frantz,” will hit theaters later this month.)

And niche doesn’t always mean “money.” Sometimes, as in the case with French-language features, it can be a hindrance.

The subtitled French film market hasn’t had a breakout success since “The Intouchables” (which made over $10.1 million when The Weinstein Company released it in 2012) and “Amour” (Sony Picture Classics’ release netted over $6.7 million at the U.S. box office when it was released later that same year). The most recent film to pass the $2 million at the U.S. box office is Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which was bolstered by star Isabelle Huppert’s Oscar nomination and the major awards push that went along with it.

Blame it on competition — and quality.

“I guess there is a downturn, but I think it’s really almost cyclical,” said Jonathan Sehring, co-president of IFC Films and Sundance Selects, whose company released “Dheepan.”  “It depends on what the quality of the films are that are coming out. Obviously, there’s more competition for everyone’s eyeballs, from streaming services to great television to VOD, viewers and consumers have more choices for entertainment, so it might be more that than just the quality of the movies.”

The Alternative Option

Quality, however, can still break through, and Giordano believes that the success of “Elle” is emblematic of the best of French cinema.

“Isabelle Huppert as a competitor in the Oscar race is a good symbol of the situation for French films here in the U.S.,” Giordano said. “It’s different, a kind of alternative. She’s different than Hollywood actresses. [It proves] there are good stories to tell. And it can perform.”

Despite the letdown of 2016’s box office receipts, 2017 has already given some French companies reasons to celebrate the U.S. market. “The Salesman” (released through Amazon and French cinema stalwart Cohen Media Group), which was co-financed by Arté France Cinema, has picked up over $1.7 million at the box office, along with a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Meanwhile, Magnolia’s “I Am Not Your Negro” — directed by Raoul Peck and produced by his Paris-based Velvet Films — is the year’s highest-performing independent feature, with over $5.5 million in returns. But more explicitly French productions are just around the corner.

James Baldwin Raoul Peck I am Not Your Negro

“I Am Not Your Negro”

In the coming weeks, the UniFrance reps are looking forward to Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” starring Kristen Stewart, which they expect to do well. They’re also excited about “Taken” and “Lucy” director Luc Besson’s next offering, the sci-fi feature “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” estimated to have cost nearly $180 million to make.

Giordano points to well-known directors like Besson as good ambassadors for French cinema, the kind who not only have name recognition but also the ability to advance the concept of what “French cinema” means these days.

What I like in French cinema is [that it has] a lot of diversity,” Ozon said. Giordano echoed that sentiment. “The strength of French cinema is that diversity,” she said, noting that French cinema includes not just the usual arthouse fare, but also a robust animation slate and plenty of blockbusters, like Besson’s big winners. “In general, French films in the U.S. are a kind of independent and alternative cinema, versus Hollywood blockbusters,” said Giordano. “And they can sometimes perform.”

But the key to French films thriving – or even surviving – in a competitive and crowded American market has to extend well beyond simply making films from a variety of genres. The crux of the problem is a simple one: how to get those films – any of those films – in front of an audience.

Joining the Digital World

“We’re trying more and more to work with the new players and the VOD platforms,” Monzier explained, citing the recent Netflix acquisition of the Camera d’Or-winning “Divines.” “That was a big step. It meant that French cinema was suddenly part of a big family and they believed in it.”

The online streaming outfit acquired the exclusive U.S. rights to the drama last summer, and recently added other French films as part of their “Netflix Originals” banner, including Sébastien Betbeder’s “Journey to Greenland” and Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama.” That’s a solid start.

Even Ozon, who is a bit bullish about the state of French films in American box offices – “We don’t really understand the American market,” he told us with a laugh – seems at least somewhat enthused by the possibilities of these new streaming deals.

Houda Benyamina's Divines

“Divines”

“Things can change very fast with Netflix and Amazon,” Ozon said. “We don’t know. It’s interesting.”

Other current titles available on Netflix include Ozon’s own “Young & Beautiful,” along with “Stranger By the Lake,” “Yves Saint Laurent,” “Standing Tall,” “Girlhood,” “Valley of Love” and a slew of lighter French rom-coms. Amazon is also interested in what French cinema has to offer, and their success with “The Salesman” has been reflected both in box office returns and award season accolades.

Sehring, however, is less excited about the digital route, especially for more starry offerings.

“I don’t think those platforms are necessarily great on promoting individual films, especially if that’s where a film premieres,” he said. “It might be the wave of the future for the bulk of French films that wouldn’t normally get released, but I’m not certain it’s the wave of the future for high profile French films.”

Sehring is still high on theatrical releases for major titles, and his experience speaks to the appeal of French films in particular.

“I do think that audiences that go to arthouses are pre-disposed to go see French films,” he said. “When we release a French film versus almost any other film in a foreign language, you can see, in its performance on all platforms, [that it will] do that much better.”

Yet, Monzier remains optimistic that some of the country’s biggest films can break through on digital platforms — like a Cannes winner.

“This is a sign that French cinema is included in the new generation of U.S. distributors and players,” Monzier said. “Hopefully, with Netflix showing ‘Divines’ on their platform, you’ll have people watching this movie that have never watched a French movie before.”

Tantalizing a Younger Audience

That inclusion also means that French films may be able to find a new – or, at least, a younger – audience to consume them.

“Our main target and objective in the next few years is to try to renew the audience for French cinema in the U.S,” Monzier explained. “The typical audience is an aging audience, it’s good, we have that base, but what can we do to reach out to younger audiences?”

Sehring believes that it’s possible to join together both the standard arthouse audience and a new generation of French movie lovers through offering films that appeal to both sensibilities — something he imagines that “Personal Shopper,” an IFC Films release, will be able to do.

“I think we’re going to get a younger audience, but I also believe there’s an older arthouse audience that’s still going to come out to see the film,” Sehring said, pointing to the appeal of both Assayas and Stewart, which he believes crosses generations.

But when it comes to snagging a new audience, online platforms may provide the answer, with one small caveat: American audiences typically don’t like subtitles.

“Nocturama”

That might seem like a minor quibble, but it’s a critical one for many French filmmakers and producers. Ozon, for instance, said he believed that his “Swimming Pool” was a stateside hit because marketing didn’t play up the fact that it was half in French and half in English, with occasional subtitles. “There is less and less place for French movies in America,” Ozon said. “There is no tradition from the audience to see films with subtitles. It’s a big problem.”

More than that, “It’s a drawback before you watch the film,” Monzier said of subtitles. “Once you get those people in the room, they forget that they have to read subtitles, and then it works. But how do we get them there?”

Giordino and Monzier are both optimistic that the ready availability of French films – the exact kind provided by Netflix and Amazon – could prove to be the ultimate answer.

“The audience of these platforms wants these kind of European movies,” Giordino said. “Sometimes, they are fed up with blockbusters, or once they have seen all the blockbusters, they need to see something else.”

Once that audience falls in love with French cinema, the hope is they’ll continue to eat it up.

“I think we do films that other people don’t do,” Giordano said. “As a joke, I often say that French cinema is like foie gras. We know how to do it, we are the only one to do it, we do it in a competitive market. We have a specificity and we are very proud of this specificity.”

Rendez-vous with French Cinema, co-presented by Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance is currently playing the Film Society through March 12.

Additional reporting by Tom Brueggemann and Eric Kohn.

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