For French films at the local box office, 2008 will be a hard act to follow. Pathe's juggernaut Welcome To The Sticks saw more than 20 million film-goers pack France's cinemas to help bring admissions for 2008's top 10 local films to more than 41 million, approximately double the admissions for the top 10 local films in 2007.
Internationally, according to Unifrance figures, the US was the biggest market for French films in 2008, followed by Russia, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK.
As French sales companies prepare to introduce international buyers to their 2009 slates at the annual Unifrance Rendez-Vous (January 15-19) in Paris, the industry has yet to identify this year's big comedy. There is also a shift towards less expensive genre fare and a concern the credit crunch may have an impact in the coming months.
Though France's production subsidy system is largely provided for and protected by the government, sales executives fear international distributors will not be able to make good on previously contracted films, and that their future buying power might diminish.
"The cost of releasing and the cash to mobilise are the big problems," says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, co-founder of local sales outfit Films Distribution. "We're finding out slowly our clients are scared that in 2009 they might not be able to finance p&a through local credit, but we'll know soon if that's fantasy or reality."
For French producers, Brigaud-Robert says, it is still too early to tell. "Production is a slow process so most movies were financed a few months ago or at least secured their main investments."
At the Rendez-Vous, Films Distribution's screenings include King Guillaume, a mainstream comedy to be released by Wdsmpi in France at the end of January which is expected to do well locally, and Frederic Balekdjian's Un Monde A Nous, about a father and son, starring Edouard Baer.
Bac Films' sales executive Camille Neel says: "This year if you sell or produce films that are difficult to market, you won't exist." Bac has two new films at the Rendez-Vous: animation Jasper and comedy Silent Wedding from director Horatiu Malaele.
Gaumont is showcasing the premiere of Patrice Leconte's Beauties At War, a comedy about two rival towns, starring Benoit Poelvoorde and Olivia Bonamy. Leconte's last two comedies, Les Bronzes 3: Amis Pour La Vie and My Best Friend, were hits both locally and internationally. My Best Friend was picked up by IFC in the US and Imagine Entertainment is producing an English-language remake. Les Bronzes 3 was the top grossing film in France for 2006. Gaumont is also screening Michel Delgado's Final Arrangements, a comedy set around a funeral home starring Didier Bourdon, Berenice Bejo and Gerard Depardieu.
While not being screened at the Rendez-Vous, Gaumont is also handling what is anticipated to be one of the biggest local titles this year, the next in the OSS 117 series, OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus, starring Jean Dujardin. The first instalment of the spy comedy scored more than 2 million admissions in France.
Of the Rendez-Vous, Gaumont International's executive vice-president Cecile Gaget says: "The event has, like Toronto, become one of the only markets where (international) buyers come to screenings en masse."
Last year more than 500 international distributors attended the event. While there may be few deals concluded over the long weekend, buyers can size up what the French companies have in the pipeline for Berlin, Cannes and the rest of the year.
Wild Bunch is handling Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void, which is hoping to premiere at Cannes. Wild Bunch's screenings include the first promo reel of Laurent Tirard's Le Petit Nicolas, based on the Sempe comic, along with the world premiere of docu-comedy Hollywood: I'm Sleeping Over Tonight from TV director Antoine de Maximy.
Following an invitation-only screening at the AFM, Wild Bunch will also showcase Largo Winch - based on the comic book - directed by Jerome Salle and starring Tomer Sisley.
TF1 International is introducing Francis Veber's L'Emmerdeur, about the unlikely friendship between a suicidal man and a contract killer, starring Richard Berry and Patrick Timsit. It is also showing Giacomo Battiato's Resolution 819, about the disappearance of 8,000 men in Bosnia in 1995. Benoit Magimel stars.
Roissy Films is showcasing Francois Rotger's Story Of Jen, a coming-of-age drama starring Marina Hands; SND has Zabou Breitman's Someone I Loved, a romance starring Daniel Auteuil; StudioCanal is handling Gad Elmaleh's Coco, about a man preparing for his son's Bar Mitzvah; and Coach 14 will world premiere Un Homme Et Son Chien, a remake of Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D.
The big local film from Pathe at the Rendez-Vous is Les Enfants De Timpelbach, in which child actor Raphael Katz stars alongside Depardieu. Depardieu also stars in the thriller Diamant 13 from MK2. Meanwhile, Sophie Marceau and Dany Boon headline Elle Driver's De L'Autre Cote Du Lit, directed by Pascale Pouzadoux.
Celluloid Dreams has a slew of new titles on offer to buyers for the first time: Tomm Moore's Brendan And The Secret Of Kells, an animated adventure about a 12-year-old boy fighting vikings; and Fabienne Godet's My Greatest Escape, a soulful portrait of a former mobster. Not screening but on offer to buyers is Tango Singer, a drama about a man with a broken heart, directed by Diego Martinez Vignatti, Carlos Reygadas' cinematographer, and Jacques Audiard's Cannes hopeful Un Prophete, about a young North African man who becomes the criminal godfather of France's disaffected suburbs.