Clermont-Tonnerre takes reins of French biz

2008 was a banner year for Gallic film exports

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BERLIN -- French producer Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, who took over last month as president of Unifrance, which promotes Gallic cinema abroad, comes into the job at a good time.

French film exports have enjoyed their best year in more than two decades, and 2009 has started with a bang after the Liam Neeson starrer "Taken," produced by EuropaCorp, opened at No. 1 in the U.S. with a first-weekend take of nearly $25 million.

"The numbers are pretty good. French films in 2008 drew around 80 million admissions in overseas markets," said Clermont-Tonnerre, who is a producer in his own right through his MACT Prods. banner. "Behind that, you need to break it down a bit. Some of those are French-language films, and then there films made in English, action movies, which contribute to the figure. But I don't make any distinction," said Clermont-Tonnerre, who took over the head of Unifrance from Margaret Menegoz, head of Gallic producer/distributor les Films du Losange.

"What is also interesting in the statistics is that there's a whole series of French films that reflect the diversity of French society, which have performed well abroad," Clermont-Tonnerre said. He cites "Le Fils de L'Epicier" (The Grocer's Son), directed by Eric Guirado. "It's a rural story, on paper not destined for export, but the film has so far been sold to 25 countries," he said. "That's an encouraging situation because it means there's an audience that is interested in good stories which reflect French culture, way of life and diversity of the country."

Clermont-Tonnerre said the immediate priority for Unifrance is defending Gallic cinemas position in established markets. "We have to preserve our share in our traditional markets, such as Europe," he said. "Practically all European countries have created subsidy systems, often based on the French system, which means national cinema in countries like Germany is progressing, and therefore the space for American movies and for films from other European countries is squeezed due to success of local films. So competition in export is tougher all the time."

Gallic cinema also had a strong presence in U.S. market last year with films such as "I Have Loved You So Long" and "Tell No One."

"The big job ahead is to ensure our presence in emerging markets, which is why we're organizing a trip to China in April and another to India later in the year," said the new ambassador for French cinema. "These are markets where you have to fight hard to making inroads."

Clermont-Tonnerre said it is still too early to announce any significant changes in direction, since the organization is run by three committees representing, respectively, producers, exporters and talent. A series of consultations with them are planned post-Berlin ahead of deciding on new policy initiatives. "We'll decide on the priorities together," he said. "By Cannes, things will be much clearer."