The volume of English-language films emerging out of France is increasing, reports Elisabeth Lequeret, as a handful of local players ramp up their international ambitions

English is no longer a foreign language in France. Producers have got wise to the fact films made in English for the international marketplace can reap rich rewards when made cost-effectively.

Most French English-language fare is produced by a handful of companies: EuropaCorp, StudioCanal, Gaumont and Pathé, though some high-level producers such as Samuel Hadida (The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus), Alain Goldman (My Own Love Song, Babylon AD) and Alain Sarde (The Ghost Writer) have always worked between French and English.

Of the 10 films EuropaCorp produces annually, three to four are English-language and the company scored a big hit with Liam Neeson action film Taken, which grossed $145m in the US. The company’s latest English-language film, John Travolta actioner From Paris With Love, was released in the US on February 5, grossing more than $23m so far in the territory through Lionsgate. The film is directed by Taken’s Pierre Morel and was shot in Paris by a French team, allowing EuropaCorp to source finance from broadcasters Canal Plus and M6 under their European quotas.

EuropaCorp is working on a sequel to Taken, while other upcoming ­English-language projects include 3D ­sci-fi film Section 8.

“We receive 1,100 projects a year,” says EuropaCorp’s Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. “It makes sense. On the one hand, EuropaCorp releases three or four films a year in the US and we enjoy a good reputation there. On the other, the mini-majors like Focus or Fox Searchlight seem… less eager to commit to audacious projects.”

That is how the script of I Love You Phillip Morris ended up on Luc Besson’s desk, accompanied by a personal letter from star Jim Carrey. The company financed the film and closed a US sale after a Sundance 2009 world premiere to new US distributor Consolidated Pictures Group.

“Now some mini-majors have closed down, money from this source is scarce. That’s why the number of projects coming out way is increasing.”

Francois Invernel, Pathe

Pathé, meanwhile, produces an average of three English-speaking films a year, some originated in France, some through its UK subsidiary. Recent productions have included Neil Marshall’s Centurion and Julian Schnabel’s Cannes-bound Miral from Pathé France. The company is currently shooting Africa United, a Slumdog-style story of three Rwandan children who run away from home to take part in the opening ceremony of the 2010 football World Cup.

According to Francois Ivernel, head of production and distribution at Pathé, French producers are receiving more English-language projects. “A year ago, when you had in your hands a film like The Duchess or Slumdog Millionaire, you could knock at the door of companies like Paramount Vantage, Miramax, New Line. Now that some mini-majors have closed down, money from this source is scarce. That’s why the number of projects coming our way is increasing.”

Gaumont produced three English-speaking films in 2009, including Joel Schumacher’s Twelve and ambitious $28m sci-fi Splice (both pictured), starring Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody. Meanwhile Last Night, starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, is set to premiere on June 16 in France. The latter was co-produced with Nick Wechsler, with whom Gaumont forged a first-look deal in 2009.

“We have several projects with him, including Greek Fire, a biopic of opera diva Maria Callas, and Long Lost, inspired by a Harlan Coben novel,” say Sidonie Dumas and Christophe Riandee, respectively chairman and CEO of Gaumont. “We also have projects with Alexandra Milchan including The Contractor, which is one of Alexandre Aja’s new projects and is a story based on private armies, and [an adaptation of] Paranoia by Joseph Finder.”

English-language locomotives

StudioCanal, meanwhile, is ramping up its English-language film-making activities — locally produced UK pictures through its Optimum Releasing subsidiary and US genre films which it fully finances, as well as big-budget studio-level pictures in partnership with a studio.

All four companies are also prolific producers of French-language films, but all have distribution operations and international sales arms which need English-language locomotives.

“At StudioCanal, we’re a bit of a hybrid,” explains CEO Olivier Courson. “As a French company, we’re very director-oriented but that can also be a weakness in France. Sometimes we’re too focused on directors and let them do everything and some directors are not necessarily good writers. Now we’re working in the Anglo-Saxon production world as well, it is key to have a good script and we are very focused on our development process.”