The Grey
The Grey

The French Newer Wave

It may be 20 years since France won the Foreign Language Film Oscar and 50 years since the French New Wave was at its height, but the importance of France in American -- and international -- film has never been greater. Three vastly different French-produced films grossed nearly $1 billion total worldwide, mostly during this year.

For Americans, "The Artist," the first French film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, is the most familiar. And its worldwide gross of $133 million was phenomenal for a black and white, silent film irrespective of its origin. But it is impossible to imagine any American studio ponying up the $15 million production cost, much less for a relatively unknown director. That the money was raised in France reminds that for most films, outside-the-box financing ofen comes from overseas.

"Taken 2," from producer Luc Besson, is nearing $400 million worldwide, 50% better than the initial film. Made in English, most Americans didn't give a second thought to its origin. But the most phenomenal of them all was "The Intouchables," made by a pair of unknown directors. A major subtitled success in the U.S. ($10 million), it grossed over $400 million in the rest of the world, mostly this year, mainly before it was released here, with no ties at all to American studios. The Weinsteins had the sense to acquire it stateside.

Industries and governments around the world, from China to South Africa to Argentina, do appreciate that a variety of globally successful films are being made totally removed from any American production involvement.  That development may provide the biggest challenge to the American industry. (At year's end, Spanish production "The Impossible" received limited release ahead of a wider campaign by Lionsgate, which is pushing for a hoped-for nomination for lead Naomi Watts.)

Healthy market for mid-budget wide releases

Studio production has become increasingly divided between two tiers: hugely expensive would-be tentpoles and less expensive pictures, often aimed for awards season, that are stacked at the end of the year. Recently, the rest of the lower-to-mid-level films have been genre (often horror) or aimed at minority audiences (the latter having ittle market outside the U.S.). This year saw some successes in finding a market for mid-level budgeted mainstream films - $20-40 million in budget - that fall outside those parameters.

Some of these came from the new Open Road Distribution operation co-owned by the two largest exhibitors in the country, Regal and AMC. "The Grey" (which was #1 its opening week) grossed $51 million on a $25 million budget, and the $7 million "End of Watch" grossed $41 million. But the studios also had some real success - "The Vow" (Sony) - $125/$30, "Think Like a Man" (Sony) - $92/$12, "Flight" (Paramount) - $91/$31 million; "Act of Valor" (Relativity) - $70/$12; "Contraband" Universal - $66/$25. Notable also was Universal's "Pitch Perfect"  ($64/$17), which was launched with no certain audience quadrant, without huge review support, relying more on social media than traditional advertising. Released initially on 335 theaters, with a particular emphasis on college towns, it ended up as a profitable film and more importantly as a case study of how to match marketing to movie rather than making a movie based on a pre-set marketing model.

But the biggest success was "Magic Mike," developed by star Channing Tatum and made for $7 million with director Steven Soderbergh. The film was sold after completion to Warner Bros. for the U.S. It ended up grossing $113 million, $167 million world wide after being spurned by all studios while in development. These wins will make it easier for other indies to score financing outside the festival/prestige market- - which could yield a more varied range of strong commercial films in theaters.