Tough going for auteur filmmakers

Funding, selection process, exhib space often problematic

In 2001, three of France's most respected independent producers — Humbert Balsan, Paolo Branco and Gilles Sandoz — formed a distribution alliance called Pirates.

Five years later, Balsan tragically has committed suicide, his company's financial troubles believed to have contributed to his worries; Branco's company, Gemini Films, filed for bankruptcy protection last November; and Sandoz admits he's finding it increasingly tough to complete financing on projects.

Branco and Sandoz are not the only auteur producers in France finding it tough going. "Producing auteur films is no longer viable," Denis Freyd, who produced the Dardenne brothers' Palme d'Or-winning film "The Child" under his Archipel 35 banner, said at a recent industry confab. "It's a sad certainty that the financing and production of auteur films in France is becoming increasingly difficult," echoes Martine Marignac, veteran producer of auteurs Jacques Rivette, Otar Iosseliani and Jean-Marie Straub.

So who is to blame for the demise of the art house producer in the country that invented the genre?

Branco, who has already launched a new company, Alma Films, is unequivocal: "Today it is channel chiefs and banks who decide which films get made," he said in a candid interview with film review Les Cahiers du Cinema.

Marignac concurs: "While fully respecting their legal obligations (to invest in local movies), the channels think quite logically not in terms of cinema but in terms of primetime. When they read a script, they don't think whether it's a good theatrical film but if it'll be good for their ratings at 8:30 p.m."

On top of this, pay channel Canal Plus has radically reduced the sums it puts into auteur pre-buys. Whereas in the past, the company might have put 15% into a Rivette film, Marignac says, its stake in the veteran helmer's latest offering, "Don't Touch the Ax," is about 5% of the budget.

As a result, France's mainstream networks are concentrating most of their annual film spend on a handful of comedies with well-known stars, leading many to bemoan the uniformization of current Gallic production.

"For a film to interest any channel other than Arte, you have to have a strong script, an attractive known cast and a director who's gained some recognition," says Bertrand Gore, co-chief of Sunday Morning Prods. alongside partner Nathalie Mesuret. "There's also a tendency for networks to put money into low-budget genre films, which takes the place of what could have been first or second auteur films," Sandoz adds.

But Marignac says exhibitors are also to blame in part for the auteur woes, thanks to their "infernal" policy of rapid turnover, which no longer allows word-of-mouth to build. "Even films making perfectly honorable scores are moved off screens where they would have stayed for another four to five weeks in the past," she observes.

"The biggest worry we have is the profound change in the way films are exposed in theaters," Mesuret says. "The life cycle of films is getting shorter and the cost for a distributor to put a film in the marketplace has doubled in the last five years." Poster campaigns are now the exclusive reserve of well-funded films, casting auteur works into a ghetto, she says. "People quite simply don't know that these films exist."

Most agree there is still an international appetite for noncommercial French auteur fare. Sandoz produced Pascale Ferran's D.H. Lawrence adaptation "Lady Chatterley," which just won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc and which has sold to a dozen countries. "Paradoxically, this is the kind of auteur film that is in demand internationally, unlike big comedies," he observes. "So we're in a situation where films with artistic ambitions have strong overseas demand but are struggling to secure financing in France."

Everyone interviewed for this article acknowledges that France already has an enviable array of mechanisms in place to support art house filmmaking. But the system that until now has been the savior of the treasured diversity in Gallic cinema now looks in need of some tweaking.

Branco argues in favor of an overhaul of the subsidy system — notably putting a ceiling on how much a successful movie can receive — and a change in the way channel pre-buys are structured.

Sandoz says changes in the channel obligations could be the answer. "The system has changed a lot in the last three to four years, and those changes have been felt most in the auteur sector, which is the weakest link in terms of short-term profitability but the most important in terms of long-term development. It's what you call the film industry's research and development department," he says. "There has to be some mechanism to push networks into investing in films for the later part of the evening schedule," Sandoz urges. "If solutions aren't progressively put in place, all French films will be made with the same 10 actors."

So is auteur producer a profession with a future? "I say yes, because at the end of the day, there are always people who want to sit in a theater seat and watch something that isn't just a pure product," Gore says.
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