French distributors Mars and UGC will go head to head at the box office this September with separate adaptations of Louis Pergaud’s literary classic The War of the Buttons.

The War of the Buttons – it’s this rentrée,” proclaims a small boy at the end of UGC Distribution’s online teaser for Yann Samuell’s adaptation of Louis Pergaud’s 1912 classic novel about the battle between two youthful gangs from rival villages deep in the French countryside. 

The boy’s words ring true on more than one level. 

Samuell’s film is one of two adaptations of The War of the Buttons (La Guerre des Boutons) due to hit French cinema screens during the rentrée period in September, as France returns to work and school after the long summer break.

Produced by Marc de Pontavice of One World Films in association with TF1 and starring Eric Elmosnino, Alain Chabat, Mathilde Seigner and a cast of young, unknown amateurs, Samuell’s version is set in the 1960s and was shot from mid-April to end June in the central region of Limousin.

The second adaptation produced by Thomas Langmann and directed by Christophe Barratier (The Chorus), stars Laetitia Casta, Guillaume Canet, Kad Merad, Gérard Jugnot and another cast of young unknowns. It is set in 1944 and is currently shooting in the neighbouring region of the Auvergne.

Both productions, costing roughly €13 million each, will have to live-up to Yves Robert’s 1962 adaptation of Pergaud’s novel, which is still one of France’s all-time, most popular films some 50 years after its release. 

Ironically, Robert struggled to find a producer or distributor for that film. He ended up financing it himself and shooting it on a tiny budget in his home village, using mainly amateur actors, before it was picked up by Warner Bros.

This time round, the release dates were set long before either film had finished shooting. UGC plans to open Samuell’s version on Sept 14, having announced in June that it was pushing the release date forward from the originally scheduled Nov 23.

Shortly afterwards, Mars Distribution announced a series of pre-screenings starting Sept 21, ahead of its long-announced general release date of Sep 28. Barratier’s production is due to wrap the first week of August, giving some six weeks for post-production.

Other films due to hit local theatre screens in that period include US titles Fright Night, Warrior and Your Highness and French pictures The Fairy, Burning Summer (Un Eté Brulant) and House Of Tolerance(l’Apollondide: Souveniers de la maison close). There are murmurings, that some distributors may put their releases back to avoid The War of the Buttons fray.

“Whoever gets their film out there first will win… That’s what happened in the case of the two Coco Chanel films,” said one independent distributor, referring to the 2009 films Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.

Coco Before Chanel came out way first and mopped up the box office. By the time, Coco and Igor came along audience interest had been exhausted,” he added.

Neither Mars nor UGC wished to comment on the subject of the impending box office contest, when contacted by Screen. 

“I have nothing special to say about this matter,” responded UGC Distribution chief Henri Ernst.

“Stéphane doesn’t want to comment on the release of these two films,” replied the assistant of Mars Films CEO Stéphane Célérier.

The only person to talk publicly on the subject in the French press to date is Bertrand de Labbey, head of powerful talent agency Artmedia.

“The release of two super-productions on the same subject with same title at the same time, it’s unheard of in the history of cinema. It’s amusing because anything could happen, but it is above all a war of egos between two producers which could end in tears,” he recently told Le Figaro newspaper.

The impending box office duel dates back to 2010 when Pontavice announced at Cannes he was planning an adaptation of Pergaud’s novel, coinciding with adaptation rights for the novel falling into the public domain.

A few months later, Langmann revealed he was also planning a production based on the book. Plans for a shoot next year and an October 2012 release were quickly shelved when it became clear that such a schedule would put Pontavice’s production a year ahead.

At Cannes this year, preliminary images from both films were splattered across the Croisette, with the rival productions both taking out cover ads in the Le Film Francais.

“You’d have thought both films were in competition,” commented the independent distributor. 

As the release date approaches both distributors are busy raising awareness on television and the Internet.

UGC released three online teasers at the beginning of July and is also playing a trailer in its cinemas. A set report on Barratier’s production recently featured on TF1’s flagship 8 p.m. evening news programme watched by some six to seven million people every night.

In the backdrop, the Festival Lumière in Lyon announced last week it would hold a special screening of a restored copy of Robert’s original film during its third edition for some 4,000 children on Oct 5, a week after the general release of Barratier’s film.

Could the two new productions end up contending with a revival of Robert’s classic as well?