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 ...
The U.S. box office returns suggest dire prospects for French films in America, but many filmmakers and producers see potential on the horizon.
As the film distribution landscape keeps evolving, distributors ofÂ foreign language fare in the United States are strugglingÂ to keep up with a brave new world. French cinema, a niche favorite of American audiences for decades, is strugglingÂ to stay in the game â€” and right now, its future is uncertain.
â€œTen years ago, we had more success at the box office,â€ Isabelle Giordano, the Executive Director of UniFrance, recently told IndieWire. â€œWe have to admit that the situation is not as good as it was then.â€
But itâ€™s not for lack of effort. Thanks to a number of initiatives headed up by UniFranceÂ â€“Â a government-supported body that operates with the sole aim of promoting French cinema throughout the worldÂ â€“ French films are fightingÂ to find new life at the U.S. box office.
PerÂ Deadline, ticket sales in foreign markets for French titles dipped to $35 million in 2016, down 69% fromÂ 2015, and the lowest since at least 2000. UniFranceÂ pointed to the lack of major English-language blockbusters â€“ films likeÂ â€œTakenâ€ or â€œLucyâ€ â€“ hitting the box office, especially in America. In recent years, some of Franceâ€™s biggest wins have come care of such blockbuster co-productions, with â€œLucyâ€ making a gobsmacking $126.6 million at the U.S. box office alone in 2014, followed by â€œTaken 3â€ ($89 million) and â€œThe Transporter Refueledâ€ ($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 titlesÂ that fit the tradition cinephile perception ofÂ French cinema â€” the romantic home of the French New Wave, Cahiers du Cinema and Cannes. Itâ€™s the latest versions of thoseÂ films that often struggle to effectively cross over.
â€œMost of the French movies here get incredible press, but it doesnâ€™t always turn into box office,â€ Adeline Monzier, UniFranceâ€™s U.S. rep, told IndieWire.
Monzier pointed specifically to Jacques Audiardâ€™s â€œDheepan,â€ which won the Palme dâ€™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. â€œIn the 70s and the 80s, French cinema was more respected, [but] now itâ€™s like a niche,â€ director Francois Ozon recently told IndieWire. (Ozonâ€™s newest feature, â€œFrantz,â€ will hit theaters later this month.)
And niche doesnâ€™t always mean â€œmoney.â€ Sometimes, as inÂ the case with French-language features, it can be a hindrance.
The subtitled French film market hasnâ€™t had a breakout success since â€œThe Intouchablesâ€ (which made over $10.1 million when The Weinstein Company released it in 2012) and â€œAmourâ€ (Sony Picture Classicsâ€™ 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 Verhoevenâ€™s â€œElle,â€ which was bolstered by star Isabelle Huppertâ€™s Oscar nomination and the major awards push that went along with it.
Blame it on competition â€” and quality.
â€œI guess there is a downturn, but I think itâ€™s really almost cyclical,â€ said Jonathan Sehring, co-president of IFC Films and Sundance Selects, whose company released â€œDheepan.â€ Â â€œIt depends on what the quality of the films are that are coming out. Obviously, thereâ€™s more competition for everyoneâ€™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.â€
The Alternative Option
Quality, however, can still break through, and Giordano believes that the success of â€œElleâ€ is emblematic of the best of French cinema.
â€œIsabelle Huppert as a competitor in the Oscar race is a good symbol of the situation for French films here in the U.S.,â€ Giordano said. â€œItâ€™s different, a kind of alternative. Sheâ€™s different than Hollywood actresses. [It proves] there are good stories to tell. And it can perform.â€
Despite the letdown of 2016â€™s box office receipts, 2017 has already givenÂ some French companies reasons to celebrate the U.S. market.Â â€œThe Salesmanâ€ (released through Amazon and French cinema stalwart Cohen Media Group), which was co-financed by ArtÃ© France Cinema, has picked up over $1.7 million at the box office, along with a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Meanwhile, Magnoliaâ€™s â€œI Am Not Your Negroâ€ â€” directed by Raoul Peck and produced by his Paris-based Velvet Films â€” is the yearâ€™s highest-performing independent feature, with over $5.5 million in returns.Â But more explicitly French productions are just around the corner.
â€œI Am Not Your Negroâ€
In the coming weeks, the UniFrance reps are looking forward to Olivier Assayasâ€™ â€œPersonal Shopper,â€ starring Kristen Stewart, which they expect to do well. Theyâ€™re also excited about â€œTakenâ€ and â€œLucyâ€ director Luc Bessonâ€™s next offering, the sci-fi feature â€œValerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,â€ 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 â€œFrench cinemaâ€ means these days.
â€œWhat I like in French cinema is [that it has] a lot of diversity,â€ Ozon said. Giordano echoed that sentiment. â€œThe strength of French cinema is that diversity,â€ she said, noting that French cinema includes not just the usual arthouse fare, but also a robust animation slate and plenty of blockbusters, like Bessonâ€™s big winners.Â â€œIn general, French films in the U.S. are a kind of independent and alternative cinema, versus Hollywood blockbusters,â€ saidÂ Giordano. â€œAnd they can sometimes perform.â€
But the key to French films thriving â€“ or even surviving â€“ 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 â€“ any of those films â€“ in front of an audience.
Joining the Digital World
â€œWeâ€™re trying more and more to work with the new players and the VOD platforms,â€ Monzier explained, citing the recent Netflix acquisition of the Camera dâ€™Or-winning â€œDivines.â€ â€œThatÂ was a big step. It meant that French cinema was suddenly part of a big family and they believed in it.â€
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 â€œNetflix Originalsâ€ banner, including SÃ©bastien Betbederâ€™sÂ â€œJourney to Greenlandâ€ and Bertrand Bonelloâ€™s â€œNocturama.â€ Thatâ€™s a solid start.
Even Ozon, who is a bit bullish about the state of French films in American box offices â€“ â€œWe donâ€™t really understand the American market,â€ he told us with a laugh â€“ seems at least somewhat enthused by the possibilities of these new streaming deals.
â€œThings can change very fast with Netflix and Amazon,â€ Ozon said. â€œWe donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s interesting.â€
Other current titles available on Netflix include Ozonâ€™s own â€œYoung & Beautiful,â€ along with â€œStranger By the Lake,â€ â€œYves Saint Laurent,â€ â€œStanding Tall,â€ â€œGirlhood,â€ â€œValley of Loveâ€ and a slew of lighter French rom-coms.Â Amazon is also interested in what French cinema has to offer, and their success with â€œThe Salesmanâ€ has been reflected both in box office returns and award season accolades.
Sehring, however,Â is less excited about the digital route, especially forÂ more starryÂ offerings.
â€œIÂ donâ€™t think those platforms are necessarily great on promoting individual films, especially if thatâ€™s where aÂ film premieres,â€ he said. â€œIt might be the wave of theÂ future for the bulk of French films thatÂ wouldnâ€™t normally get released, but Iâ€™m not certain itâ€™s the wave of the future for high profile French films.â€
SehringÂ is still high on theatrical releases for major titles, and his experience speaks to the appeal of French films in particular.
â€œI do think that audiences that go to arthouses are pre-disposed to go see French films,â€ he said. â€œWhen we release a French film versus almost any other film in a foreign language, youÂ can see,Â in its performance on all platforms, [that it will] do that much better.â€
Yet, Monzier remains optimistic that some of the countryâ€™s biggest films can break through on digital platforms â€” like a Cannes winner.
â€œThis is a sign that French cinema is included in the new generation of U.S. distributors and players,â€ Monzier said. â€œHopefully, with Netflix showing â€˜Divinesâ€™ on their platform, youâ€™ll have people watching this movie that have never watched a French movie before.â€
Tantalizing a Younger Audience
That inclusion also means that French films may be able to find a new â€“ or, at least, a younger â€“ audience to consume them.
â€œOur main target and objective in the next few years is to try to renew the audience for French cinema in the U.S,â€ Monzier explained. â€œThe typical audience is an aging audience, itâ€™s good, we have that base, but what can we do to reach out to younger audiences?â€
Sehring believes that itâ€™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 â€” something he imagines that â€œPersonal Shopper,â€ an IFC Films release, will be able to do.
â€œI think weâ€™re going to get a younger audience, but I also believe thereâ€™s an older arthouse audience thatâ€™s still going to come out to see the film,â€ Sehring said, pointing to the appeal of both Assayas and Stewart, which he believesÂ crosses generations.
But when it comes to snagging a new audience, online platforms may provide the answer, with one smallÂ caveat: American audiences typicallyÂ donâ€™t like subtitles.
ThatÂ might seem like a minor quibble, but itâ€™s a critical oneÂ for many French filmmakers and producers. Ozon, for instance, said he believedÂ that his â€œSwimming Poolâ€ was a stateside hit because marketing didnâ€™t play up the fact that it was half in French and half in English, with occasional subtitles.Â â€œThere is less and less place for French movies in America,â€ Ozon said. â€œThere is no tradition from the audience to see filmsÂ with subtitles. Itâ€™s a big problem.â€
More than that, â€œItâ€™s a drawback before you watch the film,â€ Monzier said of subtitles. â€œOnce 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?â€
Giordino and Monzier are both optimistic that the ready availability of French films â€“ the exact kind provided by Netflix and Amazon â€“ could prove to be the ultimate answer.
â€œThe audience of these platforms wants these kind of European movies,â€ Giordino said. â€œSometimes, they are fed up with blockbusters, or once they have seen all the blockbusters, they need to see something else.â€
Once that audience falls in love with French cinema, the hope is theyâ€™ll continue to eat it up.
â€œI think we do films that other people donâ€™t do,â€ Giordano said. â€œAs 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.â€
Rendez-vous with French Cinema, co-presented by Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance is currently playing the Film Society throughÂ March 12.
Additional reporting by Tom Brueggemann and Eric Kohn.
Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.
cinemark cinema cinema cafe cinemark movies cinemagic cinemax cinema box cinema 8 cinemark 16 cinemark 14