Exporting Contemporary French Films

By James Cateridge

One of the biggest challenges for domestic film industries across Europe is to find a balance between making films that are popular at home and that travel well internationally. Occasionally films do both, and such hits can be very profitable. The best recent example from France is Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin dAmélie Poulain) (2001). Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical comedy was made for around $10 million and did very well in France, grossing $44 million. It also performed strongly in the US ($33 million), Germany ($15 million) and Italy ($6 million), finally taking around $174 million worldwide.

Such runaway hits, however, are the exception rather than the rule for European popular cinema. Most films succeed primarily with domestic audiences – or they court the international festival and art-cinema circuit.

The following two recent examples help to explore issues of exportability for French cinema:

  • Il y a longtemps que je taime (Ive Loved You So Long) (2008): An understated psychological drama about a woman’s return to society after spending years in prison. It won prizes at the Berlin and Vancouver Film Festivals and was marketed on the basis of a strong central performance from its bilingual star Kristin Scott Thomas. It received a limited release across Europe and farther afield and played mainly in art cinemas.

  • Bienvenue chez les Chtis (Welcome to the Sticks) (2008): A raucous farce from comedy star Dany Boon. It broke all box office records in France and remains the most successful French film of all time. It also played well in some European countries but wasn’t even released in cinemas in the United States.

    Comparing European admissions for two contemporary French films. [Credit: European Audiovisual Obse
    Credit: European Audiovisual Observatory
    Comparing European admissions for two contemporary French films.

Looking at the cinema admissions for these two films across Europe, as shown in the illustration, an interesting pattern emerges. Il y a longtemps . . . found only half of its audience in its home country and had a wide, if specialised appeal elsewhere. Meanwhile the much larger audience for Bienvenue . . . was almost exclusively French. You can more easily understand the latter’s limited appeal overseas when you consider that the source of its humour is the regional stereotype of people from a part of northern France, Pas de Calais. Not many audiences outside of France or its close neighbour Belgium are aware of these stereotypes, so it is not surprising that it didn’t take off elsewhere. But if you can overcome these reservations, do give it a try, because it is broad and accessible enough to raise a smile regardless.