Unifrance prepares for 12th annual confab

Rendez-Vous five-day sampling of the best of Gallic cinema

PARIS -- European distributors, French sales agents and international press will break bread and cheese Wednesday as state film promotion organization Unifrance's 12th annual's Rendez-Vous with French cinema kicks off in Paris.

But don't expect to hear any American accents.

More than 400 film distribution execs and 120 journalists from 26 countries will join French sales reps, directors and talent for a five-day sampling of the best of Gallic cinema. U.S. buyers, however, will have to wait until Unifrance's stand-alone event in March in New York in order to sample the latest in Gallic big screen fare due to the Paris event's impossible timing.

"Were it not for Sundance running concurrently with the Paris RDV and Berlin just a few weeks later, we're sure more American buyers would come. From talking with them, we get the strong impression they'd like to -- they're certainly welcome!" Unifrance's stateside executive director John Kochman said in an interview.

But Sundance and Berlin-bound stateside buyers don't need to cross the Atlantic in January since most of the Paris RDV titles will be for sale at the March 11 – 21 NYC event.

This week's Paris RDV will screen 75 films at the market, including 30 premieres. Unifrance's new regime, president Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre and executive director Regine Hatchondo, will preside over this year's RDV which will kick off Jan. 13 with a dip in Pathe's Jacques Perrin documentary "Oceans." After the screening, attendees can sip champagne at the event's HQ, Paris' luxe Grand Hotel before the usually busy market gets into full swing when screenings begin on Thursday morning.

Despite the festive events planned, Unifrance doesn't have much to celebrate as far as the success of French films abroad last year, with boxoffice figures for Gallic titles down more than 20% compared to 2008. However, Unifrance blames the drop on both the global financial crisis and the lack of internationally-appealing blockbusters on offer compared to previous years.

"It's not good news, we have to be realistic. It wasn't a good year but the global film market was in crisis everywhere. Buyers were more prudent. There were problems with credit all over the world," Unifrance president Antoine De Clermont-Tonnerre said in an interview, but added: "The buyers were in crisis, not audiences -- it's a real distribution problem."

Russia, for example, was the second largest market for French films in 2008, but the territory lost 70% of Gallic bo office revenue last year in the wake of the crisis.

De Clermont-Tonnerre also blames the drop on the fact that there were fewer films with major international ambition last year. It's typically 4 or 5 major international hits that are responsible for major box office success and those were fewer and far between in 2009.

"It's not a catastrophe," De Clermont-Tonnerre assured, adding: "We simply went back to normal figures, even though 2008 happened to be an exceptional year at the boxoffice."

Plus, while audiences in other territories may not have been very Franco-friendly last year, U.S. filmgoers flocked to see the few French titles that did make it onto stateside screens.

"There were about 20 French language films released in the U.S. last year, down from 2008 but still far ahead of films from other countries," Kochman said. Pierre Morel's English-language Europacorp-produced thriller "Taken" made more than $150 million across the Atlantic, boosting French productions to a record U.S boxoffice in 2009.

Europacorp will release the director's follow-up film "From Paris With Love," starring John Travolta, on Feb. 5 stateside before it hits Gallic theaters on Feb. 17.

But do French-made films need to be made in English in order to have appeal abroad?

"For action movies like 'Taken' or 'The Transporter,' we find international audiences more easily in English. But with traditional French films, that's not the case. There's still a real demand for French films in French that highlight French culture. Every film has its own nature," De Clermont-Tonnerre said.

"Taken" wasn't the only title to find audiences stateside. Olivier Assayas' "The Summer Hours" was a surprise hit and Cesar-winner "Seraphine" plus Cannes Palme d'Or-winner "The Class" also found homes among American auteur film-lovers.

Organizers have added another day of screenings to respond to the higher demand from Euro buyers that there simply wasn't enough time before.

"There was a real rush last year, so this year we're making things much more relaxed," De Clermont-Tonnerre said.

An extra day of screenings also means an extra day at the market, and organizers are hoping to follow-up last years post financial-crisis drop in sales with a meatier market.

Gaumont is hoping buyers will pick up Karim Dridi's Sahara desert-based romance "The Last Flight," starring international superstar Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet. Gaumont also has high hopes for Holocaust drama "The Roundup" starring "Inglourious Basterds" heroine Melanie Laurent and police thriller "Sphinx" with Cecile de France.

Wild Bunch is hoping somebody will snag "Mr. Nobody," Jaco Van Dormael's fantasy starring Jared Leto and Diane Kruger. The sales agent will also premiere Manuel Pradal's "The Blonde with Bare Breats" and hope to continue sales for Gallic boxoffice hit, children's film "Little Nick."

Studiocanal will screen Marc Dugain's "An Ordinary Execution," which has gotten positive buzz from Gallic film critics over the past few weeks and will be released in the territory in February.

TF1 International is banking on Gerard Depardieu to save the day with the actor's latest role in costume drama "L'Autre Dumas."

Kinology will be selling songbird Serge Gainsbourg biopic "Gainsbourg," a Focus Features International title stateside, plus Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis starrer "Heartbreaker."

Films Distribution is hoping buyers will eat up ensemble comedy "The Wedding Cake" and will also screen Lucas Belvaux thriller "Rapt."

Yet Unifrance isn't banking only on theatrical sales, but is embracing new formats as well.

"The methods for film distribution have really evolved. Buying strategies have changed. Thanks to VOD and the internet, audiences not necessarily on the theatrical art film circuit can now have access to European titles," De Clermont-Tonnerre said, adding that Unifrance is planning a series of initiatives this year to reach out to audiences across different platforms.

The RDV will officially wrap on Monday, but attendees will say au revoir with a send-off soiree on Saturday night at Paris' famous nighclub Les Bains Douches.