Women To Watch: Sophie Dulac - Founder of Champs Elysees Film Festival

Posted by Sydney J. Levine

 Women to Watch: Sophie Dulac, Founder of Champs Elysees Film Festival, Producer, Distributor and Theater(s) Owner

For the past five years I have had the honor of interviewing Sophie Dulac three times. She is not only the founder and president of the five-year-old Champs Elysees Film Festival but is also a distributor of eight to ten films a year of which two were in Cannes this year, a theater owner of the Paris mini-chain, Les Ecrans de Paris, a producer, and VP of Publicis, a PR company founded by her grandfather in 1926.

When I first began attending the festival as part of the jury for its US in Progress section in 2012, the first edition of the Festival, co-presided by actors Lambert Wilson and Michael Madsen reached an audience of 15,000 people in Paris and 50 professionals attended.

What is new this year?

This year, while we wait for the numbers, it is very clear that many, many more people are attending and that the screenings and Q&As are drawing more interest in American indies; this is the only place they can be seen together in “toute Paris”. For many filmmakers, it is also their first time in Paris and so it is gratifying for them to see the screening room audiences so appreciative of their work.

It is also the first time this year that, beyond the Audience Prize (sponsored by Titre Films), there is a Jury Prize for one of the eight American Independent Competition films; the festival also shows both French and American recently restored classics, 20 French and American shorts and highlights from Paris’ sister city, Chicago, plus master classes by Nicole Garcia, Abel Ferrara and actors Mia Hansen-Løve and Brady Corbet. The jury, sponsored by Variety, under the presidency of directors Nicole Garcia and Alexandre Aja, includes six members embodying the present and future of French cinema: Déborah François (actor, “L’Enfant”), Félix Moati (actor “Livid”), Sophie Letourneur (Director, “Chicks”) , Vincent Rottiers (Actor, “The Devils”), Zita Hanrot (Actress, “Fatima”) and Philippe Jaenada (Writer, “A+ Pollux”)

It feels it is better for the distributors and sales agents to know the films have a certain label as prize winners bestowed by their peers on the other side of the ocean. It lends greater visibility to the films and brings more attention to the festival itself in a city which has so many things happening at the same time. This year especially, where the strikes, the piling up of garbage are happening along with the Euro Cup, we must do more to show our existence, especially on the Champs Elysees, the largest and most beautiful city in Paris but one beset by tourists who prize shopping and eating (and soccer) over culture. I am very proud of the people loving the festival. People stop me on the street to congratulate me. Maybe next year we will have more theaters than the seven we now have -- Publicis Cinemas, Publicis Club, Le Balzac, UGC George V, Le Lincoln, Gaumont Ambassade and Gaumont Marignan – maybe some theaters beyond the Champs Elysees…

In our Urban Atmosphere Section, Chicago is being honored on the 20th anniversary of our sister city relationship between Paris and Chicago. Andrew Davis, the director of “The Fugitive” is our Guest of Honor from the Windy City.

We are inaugurating a new section: The Experience is Present / New visual languages, in partnership with Thursdays Arty to look at new film languages, including virtual reality.

What other ideas are being considered? 

Next year we may separate the documentaries from the fiction features which are now mixed for the Jury Award. We have such great docs here, like “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” (Amazon), “Kate Plays Christine” (U.S.: Grasshopper) and “Weiner” (U.S. Sundance Selects, Showtime) mixed in with fiction features: the Sundance premiering “White Girl” (U.S. Netflix and Filmrise), “The Loner” which won US in Progress last year in Poland and went on to play Tribeca, another US in Progress winner “The Alchemist Cookbook” which premiered at SXSW and has U.S. distribution with Oscilloscope, “From Nowhere” from SXSW and “Morris From America” (U.S.: A24) coming to us after Sundance and Berlin.

I see festivals as a place where people can discover new films. Theaters need new ideas, directors, and distributors can take risks only if they own theaters. The triangle of festivals, distributors and exhibitors are complimentary and I find that having all three allows me to keep selected films longer in theaters or allows for changing theaters.

France has so many subsidies for production and distribution – 12 to 15 new films are released every week – and that gives my films more of a chance to succeed as well.

I noticed the opening and closing night films (Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” the Focus Feature which just premiered in Cannes and is based on the doc that showed some years ago in Sundance, and the French comedy “Arctic Heart ” by Marie Madinier) are both distributed by Mars.

What films are you distributing this year? 

Sophie Dulac Distribution has the documentaries “Mr. Gaga” and “The Woods Where Dreams are Made” now playing in theaters. The Sundance film, Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” (ISA: Protagonist, U.S.: Amazon) and the Berlinale’s “Soy Nero” (ISA: The Match Factory) are showing in the festival.

In Cannes we had two films: Semaine de la Critique’s “One Week and a Day” (ISA: New Europe Film Sales) and Un Certain Regard’s “Personal Affairs” (ISA: Films Boutique).

Editor: I saw “Personal Affairs” in Cannes. The story of a tired old couple whose wife has grown so weary of her boring if not downright boorish husband that she withdraws mentally from him 100% which awakens and worries him. They live in Nazareth and two of their children, now fully grown with lives and issues of their own, live across the border. Their other son lives in Sweden. The film is about relationships, from parents to the second and third generations. Words are the smallest part of this scenario; the relationships are so well delineated and played out so subtly and sweetly, that by the film’s end, you are totally satisfied and feel resolved, knowing so little is really required in a relationship where love is as engrained in the heart as the sand is engrained in one’s skin.

Sophie Dulac Distribution also has the upcoming film “Le Concours” about la Fémis, France’s most prestigious film school. In all SDD has distributed over 70 films since the 2003 founding of Sophie Dulac Distribution with films of Bela Tarr, Frederick Wiseman, Alexandre Sokourov, Jacques Doillon and Theo Angelopoulos as well as new talents like Katel Quillévéré or Eva Ionesco, from festivals such as Cannes, Locarno, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance or Venice among others.

Read more about Sophie Dulac in Indiewire.

Sophie also owns key theaters in Paris without whose support films would flounder and die. The company, Screens in Paris (Les Ecrans de Paris), is a circuit of five independent cinemas with 13 screens and 2,300 seats on Paris: arthouse Harlequin, the Medici Reflection Panorama El Escorial, the Majestic and Majestic Passy Bastille. When a film shows in some of these, then its success is nearly guaranteed.

Tell us more about your productions.

Coproductions are easier than productions these days and of course we are working against Amazon and Netflix now as well.

Our guests, Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) and Abel Ferrara have both mentioned doing coproductions with my production company….we’ll see…it just came up at this festival. 

We are coproducing a Turkish-German-French coproduction with Kaplan Productions in Turkey by Semih Kaplanoglu called “Grain” whose other films were “Honey”, “Milk” and “Egg”. The Match Factory is the sales agent. 

Your past co-productions include “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe Von Trotta, “Last Days in Jerusalem” by Tawfik Abu-Wael and “The Band’s Visit”. I know you told me you were friends with the Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz who suddenly died this year.

I was shocked! I was having breakfast at 8 in the morning with a friend when I got an email about a “rumor” that Ronit had died. I had just spoken with her 15 days before. She had cancer but did not tell anyone. By the time I googled it, it was all over the internet. Just after Cannes, Harlequin Theater had a retrospective and so many of her friends were there, Amos Gittai, her brother, the producers of the “Band’s Visit”. We met during her first film of the trilogy. We presented “Gett”. The Minster of Culture gave the closing tribute.

We were friends. We met when she suggested I help her produce a film she wrote and wanted to direct and I agreed to make "Rendre Femme” (aka “To Take A Wife” produced by Marek Rozenbaum. This was the first film of the trilogy which continues with “The Seven Days” aka “Shiva” and closes with “Gett”. When Ronit asked me to produce “The Band’s Visit”, I did not know what to make of the script. But when I saw the footage, I recognized its great potential and stepped in as producer. Unfortunately it could not qualify for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film because it was filmed in Hebrew, Egyptian and English. I went on to produce “My Father My Lord” an implicit critique of ultra-Orthodox dogma by a filmmaker who grew up in a Hasidic community but abandoned it when he was 25 to study film.

And last, but hardly least, Sophie is Vice President of Publicis, founded by her grandfather, Marcel Blaustein, in 1926 and abandoned while he fought in the Resistance. After the war he reclaimed after the war and rebuilt into the third largest public relations/ advertising corporation in the world. Marcel Blaustein was first to use radio as a means of advertising.

One night a couple of years ago, at an extraordinary dinner at the Renault Restaurant on the Champs Elysees, we sat with Julie Bergeron (of Cannes Marche prominence), Pascal Diot (former Paris based sales agent and now organizer in chief of both Venice and Dubai FF’s Markets), Adeline Monzier (founder of US in Progress and Europa Distribution and now the US rep for Unifrance), and producer Christophe Bruncher (whose latest film, “Mon nom à Pigalle”is just about done and whose film then,“If We All Lived Together”starred Jane Fonda). There I learned about Sophie’s grandfather, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet,who founded Publicis in 1926 and in effect, invented modern advertising. Today Publicis is a French multinational advertising and communications company, headquartered in Paris, France and one of the world's three largest advertising holding companies holding among others,Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett Worldwide. The company conducts its operations in over 200 cities in 104 countries and has a strategic alliance with Dentsu, Inc. He began it as a young man and the Nazis confiscated it as Jewish property. He fled and fought with The Free French and worked in the Resistance under the name of Blanchet. When he returned to France, he got back his advertising agency and continued doing the sort of pioneering work he loved the best. He also added Blanchet onto his surname. Publicis' current president is Maurice Lévy who was just in the news for having called for higher taxes on the wealthy and now objecting to France’s new President's pledging that he would tax the rich 75% of their income. Read more about the company here.

One more boast about this family: One of Bleustein-Blanchet’s daughters was a legislator and is responsible for abolishing capital punishment in France.

What Makes Sophie Run? 

Aside from being totally impressed by all I was hearing, I was beginning to see what informed the personality of the festival and of Sophie herself who was there and everywhere, meeting and mixing with us all.

Her grandfather and grandmother raised her and her brother and half brother after their 27 year old mother died in an automobile accident. Sophie was eight years old at the time.

Her grandfather told her that when he began Publicis as a teenager, he never thought about the money he might make. He did it for pleasure. He thought of how best to do what he loved to do the most. For her too, life is about innovation and being happy. She hopes that in ten years the festival and her film business will continue to inspire and motivate her.

Sophie has three children and she tells them to do whatever they want as she would advise everyone: Do what is inside of you, even if it is not what you end up doing. It will make you a better person. Her first son, whom she had when she was 17 and who is now around 26, lived one year in Australia and another year in Canada. He is now working with her at the festival. Her 24 year old daughter whom she had when she was 19, lives in London, and the 21 year old, following in his brother’s footsteps, spent a year in Australia, alone and exploring on his own.

If she succeeds in the movie business, it is because she was not born into films. She has been in the business of Arthouse film production, distribution and exhibition for thirteen years. Before that she was a practicing psycho-graphologist, counseling people from 16 to 60 years old, male and female. “You can know a person totally through the handwriting”, she says. She also did a stint in PR which she hated, before going into film. Her father was a writer and told her to read and so she can talk of many things, not only of business. At the end of the day, she closes her door and business does not exist (unless of course there is a problem at one of her theaters which she does drop in on on Sundays when she is not expected.) She has no scripts at home and does not watch movies for work at home. She has a well rounded education and is proud not to be 100% business.

Today she is also a sort of guardian of Israeli films in France as well. She even wears a small gold Jewish star.

Film Career 

She began her film career in 2003 producing a documentary “Décryptage” which examined the French media coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflict and concludes that the media's presentation of the Arab–Israeli conflict in France is consistently skewed against Israel and may be responsible for exacerbating Antisemitism. That documentary was very successful in France, drawing some 300,000 viewers and it caught the attention of Israeli filmmakers. 

Sophie produces other world films, including her second American film “Benny And The Kids” (“Go Get Some Rosemary”), Argentina’s “Little Sky” And “The Camera Obscura” both by Maria Victoria Menis ♀ and others including French films like the upcoming film by Jacques Douvenne.

When I wrote about her in 2012 (Read here) she had just acquired the ACID Cannes film“Room 514”(ISA: Docs & Film) by Sharon Bar-Ziv ♀ and “Les Voisins De Dieu” (“God’s Neighbors”) (ISA: Rezo) by Meni Yaesh which played in La Semaine de la Critique as well as the Directors’ Fortnight film “Le Repenti and Bence Fliegauf’s Berlin competition entry “Just The Wind”.

In 2014, when Bertrand Tavernier and Jacqueline Bisset presided over the festival

whose poster was a cross between movie icon Marilyn Monroe and the icon of French Liberty, Marianne was nicknamed “Marilyanne”, Tommy Oliver’s Audience Award winner at the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival “1982” showed as did Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” which won the Audience Award.

In effect, Sophie is a mensch. She is the real thing, feet planted firmly on the ground and real. And yet she seems so idealistic in the choices she makes. To my remark about that, she responded, that in fact, she is very pragmatic, but one must take pleasure in life. This year, her comment to me about my leaving Indiewire and syndicating my blogs on Medium.com and Stage32.com was “When one door closes, others open” which captured my mood exactly.


About Sydney Levine

Sydney Levine is an executive of longstanding in the international film business. She is a writer of the popular blog on international film business, SydneysBuzz which also has run on Indiewire, IMDbPro and IMDb since 2008 when Amazon acquired her twenty-five year old company FilmFinders. In 1988 Sydney created FilmFinders, the industry’s first database of worldwide features used by distributors, sales agents and festival programmers acquiring features. It became industry standard for organizing and tracking the rights-buying activities of the film business and was adopted by the Cannes Marché and developed into what today is called Cinando.com. She and her partner, Peter Belsito continue to provide consulting and strategic planning for producers, national film organizations and other educational initiatives in international film business at Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Germany's Deutsche Welle Akademie, Talents in Berlin, Sarajevo, and Guadalajara, EICTV the international film school in Los Banos, Cuba, Chapman University, UCLA Extension, Vilnius University, et. al. She organizes, moderates and participates in panel discussions on the international film business, as well as producing white paper research and reports on SydneysBuzz.com. Sydney works with the markets in Cannes and Berlin in administering buyers’ data for North America, Latin America and Asia and gives tours of the market to newcomers. She opens the Cannes Shorts Corner with a presentation on The International Film Circuit for shorts. She has currently completed a book about Latin American Film Financing published in Spanish by the Guadalajara University Press. The English version on the Iberoamerican Film Business will be published in the fall of 2016.

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