French Filmmakers Adapt to Change as They Head to Toronto

Faced with a transforming marketplace still spooked by uncertainty, the French exporters accompanying their films to Toronto have looked to past experience, new practices and brand-name identification in order to launch their titles in such highly unpredictable times.

“It’s a day-by-day learning process,” says Alice Lesort, head of international sales at Les Films du Losange. “We always have to adapt, to better work with distributors facing wildly different situations, in a context where the windows that we normally used to launch film, the big festivals and international markets, are not happening in the same way.”

Case in point: This year’s slimmed-down Toronto Intl. Film Festival, which will welcome a significantly reduced number of French productions compared to previous editions, and which has moved its entire industry component online.

Of course, some things stay the same. Though it took a rather different form this go-round, Cannes continues to play an outsized influence on the French the selection and delegation.

A large number of films presented in Toronto this year — including fully local productions “Spring Blossom” and “Summer of 85,” as well as co-productions “Downstream to Kinshasa” and “Beginning” — all received the Cannes 2020 label, while the sales teams representing those projects were able to get a feel for the new market rhythms at the Marché du Film Online this past summer.

“[At the Marché du Film] in June, we learned that we still have a real need to meet, to speak with another, and to connect in the moment created by an online market,” adds Lesort, who brings the Cannes-labeled dramedy “My Best Part” to Toronto’s Industry Selects program.

“The direct interaction isn’t there, [so we have to structure those meetings in different ways, because] talking about a film and talking about a release are two different things.

“We learned to prepare materials that underscore the pitch of the project,” she continues. “Without the buzz of the moment, you have to consider what materials, assets and the ideas you want to put out. Because we don’t travel anymore, we have been able to devote a lot of time to that. We’ve further developed our online and social media components, more than we’ve done in the past, and we’ve shared those materials with distributors, so when we do have our meetings, we can talk about concrete release strategies.”

Because regional distributors face impediments beyond the scope of anticipation or control, sales companies like Playtime, which reps Toronto titles “Summer of 85” from François Ozon and “True Mothers” from Naomi Kawase, have looked to adapt their contractual relationship to better reflect this new degree of opacity.

“Distributors are facing an extremely uncertain situation, not knowing when they’ll even be able to release the film,” says Playtime co-founder Nicolas Brigaud-Robert. “So our job, when dealing with our distributor partners, is to figure how, when and in what manner we can deliver them the film, how and when they can release it, and what that contract might look like.

“We tried to link the theatrical obligation and the payment of the final installments to a percentage of reopened cinemas in a given territory,” he continues. “From the moment where 80% of the cinemas are re-open, we consider the normal distribution conditions to be met. The contract obligations are still firm, but the distribution and payment installment timelines are fixed to specific conditions, not dates.

“I think the fact that we took that uncertainty into consideration did calm nerves,” Brigaud-Robert adds.

Industry figures are still working to resolve the question of impact. Though Toronto will host in-person screenings, the absence of cast, crew and press will almost certainly result in lower levels of buzz and urgency — those hard-to- quantify assets that can help a film sell. Without little resolution in sight, sales agents have sought to amplify their projects as best they can.

For Playtime, that means leaning into Ozon’s reputation as an international auteur by giving his film, which went to market in June, an extended fall-festival tour.
“We’re looking to compensate for the deficit created by a wholly digital launch, with buyers not exactly synchronized in their screenings of the film, and press not all experiencing it at the same moment,” Brigaud-Robert explains.

“We’re in a situation where the films need as much exhibition as possible. While online events can offer some degree of exposure, they offer significantly less than a more traditional physical venue.”

Whereas when positioning the debut feature “My Best Part,” Les Films du Losange has played up director and star Nicolas Maury’s renown from his work on French television, specifically his starring role on the popular series “Call My Agent,” which streams internationally on Netflix.

“For a first film, the challenge is to identify a film by an untested director,” says Lesort. “In this case, Maury’s celebrity is capital. We have to play on that. No matter the context, that’s something we focus on.

“[His fame] helps immediately identify the film,” she continues. “In a normal year, he would be everywhere. He would be an incredible promotional asset. This year, we have to do without all that travel and in-person manifestations. We’ll have to do Zoom interviews, and online encounters with lots of interaction. So it helps to capitalize on that with personalities that already have firm public profiles.”

She adds: “Launching his first film in 2020… I’ll bet he’ll remember that all his life.”

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