Women to Watch: "I am a Real Blond and My Name is Sophie"

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by Sydney Levine
June 19, 2012 7:30 AM
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Maxine Leonard, Sophie Dulac et the team of Not Waving but Drowning
So begins my interview with SOPHIE DULAC, President of the Champs Élysées Film Festival, film distributor, exhibitor and producer. The first edition of the Festival, co-presided by actors Lambert Wilson and Michael Madsen reached an audience of 15,000 people in Paris, June 6 – 12, 2012.

"And I work with another real blond and her name is Isabelle” [Svanda, General Manager], she adds.

Champs Elysees Film Festival

We are sitting in the outdoor restaurant of Fouquet’s Barriere Hotel, Paris. Also with us are Astrid de Beauregard who has handled all the 50 industry-ites converging on the festival to view four well curated U.S. indie films for the second edition of U.S. in Progress. Maxine Leonard, the festival's publicist and Matthew Akers, the director and cinematographer of MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT are also present.  Little did I know he was going to win the Audience Prize for a feature length film from the U.S.

The Festival ended for me with current French resident, with white hair and beard,  Donald Sutherland presenting KLUTE by Alan J. Pakula and starring Jane Fonda, and then giving a A Hollywood Conversation in his American accented but fluent French in a good humored atmosphere.  I could write an entire blog on what that film and all that he and Jane meant to me at the very beginning of my career in the film business, but I won’t do that here. He was subsequently post-film appointed Commandeur des Arts & Lettres by Frédéric Mitterrand.

Ave Montaigne Harry Winston Plaza Athenee
My interview with Sophie is the summit of my experience so far as a "blogger". After all I am not a journalist, nor do I pal around with the glitterati or the “elite” folks in the film business.  I knew I was entering a rare atmosphere strolling everyday along the Rue de Montaigne to the Champs Elysees.  And now, I was going to talk to the granddaughter of one of France's most illustrious citizens.  (and no slouch herself! What a truly lovely, amazing woman!!)

U.S. in Progress

The night before, we, the jury of 9, presented the winners of the 2nd edition of U.S. in Progress with their prizes of post production services.  First Prize went to a film worthy of a Cannes slot in Un Certain Regard or Fortnight or Critics Week, A TEACHER by Hannah Fidell ♀, whose about-to-turn-thirty protagonist is forced to acknowledge her sin of having an affair with a student.  The film's affect upon us women was overwhelmingly cathartic. Receiving an Honorable Mention, I AM I, a Sundance-worthy film, well executed very interesting story, well acted by the extremely professional first-time director Joceyln Towne  with additional casting by Ronnie Yeskel , one of the top indie film casting agents.  Julie Bergeron, one of the nine-member jury loved DESERT CATHEDRAL, a man's quest for peace after an increasing estrangement from his life.  She liked its combination of documentary depiction of the desert and the fictional story about a contemporary and universal dilemma faced by too many people today.  I want to see more of the three actors, Lee Tergesen is a young and handsome William Macy type and Chaske Spencer, a charismatic First Nation descendant of Lakota (Sioux) Nation, and Petra Wright.  The fourth film Michael Bartlett's HOUSE OF LAST THINGS is BONNIE DARKO meets TWIN PEAKS, a paean to the Maestro, David Lynch.  More than 50 distributors and sales agent watched these films with us.

As part of the selection, the winner of U.S. in Progress from the 1st edition in Wroclaw, Poland last November, NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING directed by Devyn Waitt and produced by Nicole Emanuele was also showing and Nicole was accompanied by the star, her boyfriend Steven Farneth from Cinetic, the godmother of the movie and other "family" members. Nicole is now working with Google and YouTube in Content Partnerships, Film/ TV while contemplating her next moves in the business.

Created by Sophie Dulac, the Festival programmed some 50 films enabling Parisian audiences to discover the variety of productions available from France and the United States, in the 5 cinema theaters of the Champs Elysees, the most beautiful avenue in the world: the normally rival cinemas Le Balzac and Le Lincoln, the rivals Gaumont Champs-Elysées and UGC George V, and the Publicis Cinéma.

This success was thanks to an inquiring public which appreciated the simplicity of organization, the fact that projections started on time, and also the quality of programming, with a special heartfelt interest for the 10 independent films from the U.S. in the official selection.

What Makes Sophie Run?

Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet
One night at an extraordinary dinner at the Renault Restaurant on the Champs Elysees, where we sat with Julie Bergeron (of Cannes Marche prominence), Pascal Diot (former Paris based sales agent and now organizer in chief of both Venice and Dubai FF’s Markets), Adeline Monzier (founder of U.S. in Progress and Europa Distribution), and Producer Christophe Bruncher (whose latest film, If We All Lived Together stars Jane Fonda), I learned about Sophie’s grandfather, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet,who founded Publicis in 1926 and in effect, invented modern advertising in much the same way that Lucien Barriere invented the resort and the casino. Today Publicis is a French multinational advertising and communications company, headquartered in Paris, France and one of the world's three largest advertising holding companies holding among others, Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett Worldwide.  The company conducts its operations in over 200 cities in 104 countries and has a strategic alliance with Dentsu, Inc.  He began it as a young man and the Nazis confiscated it as Jewish property.  He fled and fought with The Free French...and worked in the Resistance under the name of Blanchet.  When he returned to France, he got back his advertising agency and continued doing the sort of pioneering work he loved the best.  He also added Blanchet onto his surname.  Publicis' current president is Maurice Lévy  who was just in the news for having called for higher taxes on the wealthy and now objecting to France’s new President's pledging that he would tax the rich 75% of their income.  Read more about the company here.   

One more boast about this family:  One of Bleustein-Blanchet’s daughters was a legislator and is responsible for abolishing capital punishment in France.

Aside from being totally impressed by all I was hearing, I was beginning to see what informed the personality of the festival and of Sophie herself who was there and everywhere, meeting and mixing with us all.  As Maxine said, in effect, Sophie is a mensch. She is the real thing, feet planted firmly on the ground and real.  And yet she seems so idealistic in the choices she makes.  To this remark of mine, she responded, that in fact, she is very pragmatic, but one must take pleasure in life. 

Her grandfather and grandmother raised her and her brother and half brother after their 27 year old mother died in an automobile accident. Sophie was eight years old at the time.

Her grandfather told her that when he began Publicis as a teenager, he never thought about the money he might make.  He did it for pleasure.  He thought of how best to do what he loved to do the most. For her too, life is about innovation and being happy.  She hopes that in ten years the festival and her film business will continue to inspire and motivate her.

Sophie has three children and she tells them to do whatever they want as she would advise everyone:  Do what is inside of you, even if it is not what you end up doing.  It will make you a better person.  Her first son, whom she had when she was 17 and who is now 24, lived one year in Australia and another year in Canada.  He is now working with her at the festival.  Her 22 year old daughter whom she had when she was 19, lives in London, and the 19 year old, following in his brother’s footsteps, is spending a year in Australia, alone and exploring on his own.

If she succeeds in the movie business, it is because she was not born into films. She has been in the business of Arthouse film production, distribution and exhibition for ten years.  Before that she was a practicing psycho graphologist, counseling people from 16 to 60 years old, male and female.  You can know a person totally through the handwriting she says.  She also did a stint in PR which she hated, before going into film.  Her father was a writer and told her to read and so she can talk of many things, not only of business.  At the end of the day, she closes her door and business does not exist (unless of course there is a problem at one of her theaters which she does drop in on on Sundays when she is not expected.)  She has no scripts at home and does not watch movies for work at home.  She has a well rounded education and is proud not to be 100% business.

Today she is also a sort of guardian of Israeli films in France as well.  She even wears a small gold Jewish star. 

Film Career

She began her film career in 2003 producing a documentary DÉCRYPTAGE which examined the French media coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflictand concludes that the media's presentation of the Arab–Israeli conflict in France is consistently skewed against Israel and may be responsible for exacerbating anti-semitism.  That documentary was very successful in France, drawing some 300,000 viewers and it caught the attention of Israeli filmmakers.

Famed Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz, ♀a friend of hers, suggested she help her produce a film she wrote and wanted to direct and she agreed to make RENDRE FEMME (aka TO TAKE A WIFE ♀ produced by Marek Rozenbaum.  When Ronit asked her to produce THE BAND’S VISIT, she did not know what to make of the script.  But when she saw the footage, she recognized its great potential and stepped in as producer.  Unfortunately it could not qualify for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film because it was filmed in Hebrew, Egyptian and English.  She went on to produce MY FATHER MY LORD an implicit critique of ultra-Orthodox dogma by a filmmaker who grew up in a Hasidic community but abandoned it when he was 25 to study film.  

Sophie produces other world films, including her second American film BENNY AND THE KIDS (GO GET SOME ROSEMARY), Argentina’s LITTLE SKY and THE CAMERA OBSCURA both by Maria Victoria Menis ♀ and others including French films like the upcoming film by Jacques Douvenne.

In Cannes this year, she acquired ROOM 514 (ISA: Docs & Film) de Sharon Bar-Ziv ♀ which played in l'ACID in Cannes and LES VOISINS DE DIEU (GOD’S NEIGHBORS) (ISA: Rezo) de Meni Yaesh which played in La Semaine de la Critique in Cannes as well as Directors’ Fortnight entry LE REPENTI and Bence Fliegauf’s Berlin competition entry JUST THE WIND.

She sees festivals as a place where people can discover new films.  Theaters need new ideas, directors, and distributors can take risks only if they own theaters.  The triangle of festivals, distributors and exhibitors are complimentary and she finds that having all three allows her to keep selected films longer in theaters or allows for changing theaters (she owns 5 theaters including the famous St. Germain arthouse Harlequin).  She recognizes that France has so many subsidies for production and distribution – 12 to 15 new films are released every week – and that gives her films more of a chance to succeed as well.

France also has, after 3 years of discussion, finally, in one year made all its theaters digital.  The cost to convert is 1 million Euros.  30% of that is paid by CNC, the government fund made up of a percentage of box office receipts.  The digital norm is 2K and the VPF (Virtual Print Fee is 5,000 Euros.  All distributors must pay this first the first time showing for 4 weeks and then, there are not more VPFs. 

When she asks Americans for DCPs, she is surprised to learn that they don’t have them.  Even Harvey Weinstein who had a retrospective at the Festival did not have digital prints and he said that to use Blu-Ray or HD was all right with him.

Why Harvey?

Everyone loves a good Harvey story.  We had heard that he did not want to travel and I was curious how she had such good luck to get him to Paris.  Apparently he flew in, appeared, and flew out again.

“The opening night, with the tribute paid to American producer Harvey Weinstein who accepted, with modesty and as a film enthusiast, a trophy was presented by Sophie Dulac, in the presence of VIP guests: Virginie Ledoyen, Deborah François, Audrey Dana, Thomas Langmann, Olivier Nackache and Eric Toledan.”

What he said at this opening event was that Sophie’s brother is the godfather of his son.  And when the Godfather makes a request, he cannot refuse to honor it.

So ended my interview with Sophie.  As we all struck out to continue the day, Matthew Akers of Marina Abramovic said, “See you in Sarajevo”.  And Sophie responded, “How chic!”

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