Caution is the new buzzword in French film financing circles, with challenging fare such as the forthcoming Paris Je T'aime struggling to attract investors who increasingly favour big budget bankable hits.
A challenging series of 20 five minute short stories - each one set in one of Paris' 20 districts - Paris Je T'aime is directed by a roll call of some of the worlds most acclaimed directors: Tom Tykwer, Jean-Luc Godard, Johnny Depp, Spain's Fernando Trueba, Brazil's Walter Salles, Canada's Vincenzo Natali, China's Jiang Wen and Mexico's Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu Iran's Abolfazl Jalili as well as South African film-maker Oliver Schmitz and Japan's Nobuhiro Suwa. The French contingent includes Olivier Dahan, Mathieu Demy, Bernard Werber and Fanny Ardant. Woody Allen and Tom Cruise have also expressed their interest in contributing to two of the remaining stories.
Not so long ago, French financiers might have rushed to be associated with such a prestigious project, which according to producer Emmanuel Benhiby of Paris-based Novem Productions "combines the myth of Paris with the myth of love."
However, although Paris Je T'aime has found a French distributor in Bac Distribution, the project has yet to seduce traditional French film backers such as the national film centre (the CNC) nor any of the French broadcasters.
Fortunately for Novem Productions, the film-makers were so keen on the project that the first three directors decided to help finance their segment. Tykwer has already shot his "falling in love story" segment, True which stars Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon, while two other stories are already in the can: Agnes Varda's The Flighty Lion, which stars Julie Depardieu and David Deciron and Sally Potter's Yes, featuring Fiona Shaw and Simon Abkarian.
The project carries a Euros 8m price tag. Salaries for all directors are a uniform Euros 4,500 and all lead actors are paid Euros 3,000. Olivier Dahan's segment, which will feature Guillaume Canet and a still-to-be-cast Japanese actress, is next on the schedule in late October and the shooting will resume as of early February 2003.
Says Benhiby: "There is an amazing dichotomy between the potential French and the foreign backers' reaction to the project. We lost a year trying to set up the financing with French partners, but we found foreign partners. We are now discussing alternative sources of financing, notably with foreign investors' funds and major sponsors, and, of course, foreign distributors. Shochiku already pre-bought the Japanese rights, paying Euros 60,000 more than for Amelie."
"The CNC argued that Paris Je T'aime was not 'a proper film'," adds Benhiby. "A frequent criticism also was that it was too much of a 'concept movie', which it is not. Neither will it be a juxtaposition of short films."
To help provide continuity, a team made up of US film professionals (a director, two DoPs, and an editor) as well as a French scripwriter and a composer are working on the link-up between the various stories in order to ensure a fluid narrative. Although the exact theme is kept under wraps, it will be, according to Benhiby : "a tribute to both Paris and moviemaking."
Paris Je T'aime's format might be challenging and unique, but it nevertheless is a surprise that a Gallic project with an obvious international appeal was met with such suspicion from French backers.
However, risk-taking is not currently the name of the game in France. Although huge sums of money are spent on financing an increasing number of high-end titles, free-TV channels - which provide a high proportion of film financing - still shy away from daring projects unsuitable for primetime.
Canal Plus' uncertain future adds to the problem. Although the pay-TV player is contractually obliged to remain French cinema's foremost backer, it has adopted a much more cautious attitude: the amount of funding remains the same, but channel is reducing the number of titles it is involved with. Its preferences are also leaning toward to high-profile star-studded event movies, such as last year's Brotherhood Of Wolves and the upcoming sequel to Crimson Rivers.