Bastille Day isn't the only reason the French have to celebrate this coming Saturday. The French film industry has been enjoying a box office resurgence of late, both at home and aboard. During the first quarter of 2007, French films took a robust 58.4% market share in France, well outpacing their own averages of 30%-40% in recent years and U.S. productions (only 38.6%). Popular titles have included the fourth installment of the French action franchise "Taxi" as well as Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf bio-pic "La vie en rose" and Laurent Tirard's "Moliere," the latter of which will also soon be playing in the U.S., which has shown a steady taste for Gallic pictures over the last few months. Even Pixar's summer juggernaut "Ratatouille" has embraced its Parisian setting. Freedom fries, be damned.
"Usually, there's only one or two French language films that pass that $1 to $2 million mark in the U.S.," says John Kochman, executive director of Unifrance USA, the French film promotional organization. "But this year, there are already four," he says, citing ThinkFilm's February release "Avenue Montaigne," which surpassed $2 million, and three films currently playing well, Picturehouse's "La vie en rose" (more than $6 million), First Look Studio's "Paris je t'aime" (more than $4 million), and Sony Picture Classics' "The Valet" (roughly $2 million). Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" is also playing in limited release, and this Friday, IFC Films will launch "My Best Friend," a comedy from prolific French director Patrice Leconte. Laurent Tirard's "Moliere" will open on July 27th.
Kochman says the same films that have performed well in France are also doing well in the U.S. "These are mainstream, commercial movies aimed at a wider audience; they're not art-house films," he says. "This is a recent phenomenon that more mainstream French films are finding an audience in the U.S. I think it has to do with Netflix; it has to do with this culture of seeing movies you wouldn't normally see."
It's also the result of movies tailored for an older art-house crowd, which consistently turn out for traditional French movie viewing. Not coincidentally, both "La vie en rose" and "Paris je t'aime" have played strongly at New York's Paris Theater, the upper-midtown venue long associated with aged 50-and-above audiences.
"Besides the thematic connection, which is fantastic for both films," admits Picturehouse president Bob Berney, regarding The Paris, "you really get a solid older art-house audience where the word of mouth is tremendous. The Paris can run on word of mouth for months."
For "La vie en rose," the key was also booking two prints at theaters like the Angelika in downtown Manhattan. "Because the running time is long, and the audience is generally older," explains Berney, "the 10 o' clock shows are not great. So we do a 7:30pm and an 8:30pm on two screens and that's where 90% of the money comes from."
In an ever-crowded market, where all of the films have been playing against each other, Berney admits they were fortunate to get on two screens. He says timing was everything. "There were not a lot of upscale movies," he says, during the first couple weeks of opening the film before "A Mighty Heart" and "SiCKO" blanketed art-houses.
"I really believe that foreign-language films are better off earlier in the summer, where we had a clear shot in getting established," Berney continues. "I think the fall is just incredibly scary. Opening up in early June and going out in DVD for award season is a good plan," contends Berney, who openly acknowledges the company's scheme to push French sensation Marion Cotillard for a Best Actress Oscar nomination next year.
Both Berney and First Look's executive VP of theatrical sales Andy Gruenberg have also cited increased Los Angeles sales for helping bring their films over the top. While "La vie en rose" was a hit at the Arclight--says Berney, "a lot of times you have doubts about foreign language films in Los Angeles, but the Arclight was almost close to the Paris and continues to hold up" - "Paris je t'aime" reeled them in at the new Landmark West Los Angeles multiplex. "For me, the big surprise was Los Angeles," says Gruenberg. "It never stood up to Manhattan, but here we are in, neck and neck," he notes, saying New York has only edged out L.A. sales by less than $75,000. "There was no question that playing at the Landmark was a big help," he says.
But Gruenberg says there were other surprises: People in cities as diverse as Denver, San Diego, Philadelphia, Santa Barbara and Phoenix all turned out for the omnibus film, made up of some 18 shorts directed by different filmmakers based around Paris' assorted neighborhoods. "We got numbers that are fantastic in the oddest places," he says. "$40,000 in Milwaukee compared to $65,000 in Boston, who would have thought that?"
Gruenberg also credits the film's promotional campaign, pioneered by First Look Pictures senior VP of marketing Brooke Ford. "We focused on both the film's Parisian theme and American stars," says Ford. The film's trailer, for instance, features an array of U.S. celebrities, from Natalie Portman and Maggie Gyllenhaal to Steve Buscemi and Gena Rowlands, and there's not a single subtitle on the screen. "In the print materials especially, we felt the concept of a film comprised of 18 shorts might feel daunting to some viewers, so in an effort to make it accessible, we emphasized the film's well known cast and also the Parisian setting," adds Ford, "knowing there are a lot of Francophiles out there."
Indeed, who knew there were so many Francophiles in Houston, Texas? But Sony Picture Classics' Michael Barker says residents of the Longhorn State's largest city came out for "The Valet," Francis Veber's latest comedy of manners starring familiar French face Daniel Auteuil, also the star of "My Best Friend." "I think it's a big Francophile town," says Barker, who believes the film will eventually reach $3 million.
"Word is getting out on 'The Valet,' because it's a very commercial comedy," says Barker.
As Unifrance's John Kochman says, "Francis Veber has always been successful with American audiences; he makes an audience-pleasing boulevard-tradition comedy."
Barker also credits a funny trailer, Veber's solid track record ("The Dinner Game," "The Closet") and the director's PR skills. "Veber went to a number of cities and he's quite a showman. The public adores him," says Barker. "He was very helpful in doing press and it really helps to have a spokesperson for the film that speaks English and enjoys that kind of publicity."
Above all, Barker says it is the reviews that still make a difference when it comes to foreign-language films. "There is a constant with French films," he says. "Critics do make a difference."
Released in May, for example, Sony Classics's French-language "Angel-A," a black-and-white romantic fantasy directed by Luc Besson, bombed in U.S. theaters as a result of little critical support. And that's not to say critics are the single most important factor. One recent critics' darling "Poison Friends" barely made a dent at the box office.
If French cinema is experiencing a comeback, however, its true test as a breeding ground for superb filmmaking may be a far cry from mainstream movies such as "Le vie en rose," "The Valet," and "Paris je t'aime," but rather, in the potential success of Pascale Ferran's smart, sensual, complex and challenging Cesar-winner "Lady Chatterley." Kino International opened the movie three weeks ago, and while it's made only $107,689, the company is planning to take the film out to 100-120 markets by the end of the year.
But as more mainstream French films satisfy Francophile's tastes, "Lady Chatterley" could be a casualty. Kino's Gary Palmucci notes that the film was pushed out of one New York art-house because there were "literally four other French films also playing that week," he says. "I think it's solidly good," he adds, regarding the sales, "but we were hoping that it would take a certain higher level." Palmucci is targeting a $1 million gross.
If that doesn't happen, it would be another example of the art-house film losing out to more mainstream alternative fare, a trend that's happened across the board in the independent sector.
French publicist Sophie Gluck, who has worked on the publicity for several of the films mentioned in this article, hasn't given up on more artier fare. "I would hope there's an audience for intelligent French film today," she says. "They're used to be. And I don't think 'Lady Chatterley' is just an intelligent French film. It also has sex appeal, a beautiful new star, and audiences always like to discover a new beautiful and talented young actress."