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Company Town : French Firm Tests Hollywood Waters

Hachette, the Paris-based publishing giant behind such popular magazines as Elle, Woman’s Day and Metropolitan Home, is in discussions about expanding its presence in Hollywood.

Dominique Bigle, the new chairman of Hachette’s Film Office division, has met with senior executives at Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and other entertainment companies during a 10-day swing through Los Angeles. Bigle said he’s scouting for projects that will help extend Hachette’s reach into the French home video, television, theatrical and merchandising markets.

“We want to make the Film Office more of an entertainment division,” said the 43-year-old Bigle. “It’s my intention to develop the company. If I find something, I will put the money on the table.”

Bigle is specifically discussing film and TV co-productions. While Hachette might commit to broader joint ventures, he said it is not looking to acquire an entire company. Bigle expects to announce the first of his deals, involving family entertainment, soon. He is also in discussions about opening a Los Angeles office.

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Hollywood always welcomes new money, especially from deep-pocketed companies such as Hachette, a division of the Lagardere Group, which had more than $10 billion in sales last year. But those investments carry more than a little risk. Canal Plus, the French pay TV giant, is a major investor in perennially troubled Carolco Pictures. Another French company, CIBY 2000, closed its Los Angeles office after much fanfare, following the failure of its “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”

Based on what he’s observed, Bigle says, it makes better business sense to invest in specific projects than in companies, but he says he also wants to build long-term relationships. As the European Union considers possible barriers to American entertainment imports, Bigle adds, “I’m sure we can find studios that will be happy to have a French partner in Europe.”

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While vast French companies like Hachette have reputations for moving slowly, one executive who specializes in the international market agreed with Bigle’s assessment of the market. “Hollywood is very open to deals, especially after being excluded from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade,” the executive said. “More things will happen between now and next year than ever. You won’t recognize the entertainment map.”

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Sources say Bigle’s first priority is expanding Hachette’s presence in home video, a market that’s underdeveloped in France. One plan calls for putting videos in the kiosks where Hachette’s magazines are sold. The company has a nine-picture deal with Cinergi Pictures, a limited video retailing pact with Disney and an uncompleted deal with Carolco.

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While many of his countrymen are fighting to curtail the pervasive influence of Hollywood films in France, Bigle calls himself a big fan. “You have fantastic product here,” he says.

With the Lagardere Group independently exploring new-media opportunities, Bigle has focused on marketing entertainment with Hachette’s magazines. A third target is merchandising, which helps explain his interest in family entertainment. “It makes sense to control the product from beginning to end,” Bigle said. “That’s how you get the most bang for the buck.”

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People who have worked with Bigle say he’s well qualified to exploit those opportunities. His father, Armand, handled Walt Disney Co. films in France, and the younger Bigle played at Walt Disney’s house and attended the opening of Disneyland. He later became vice president of Walt Disney Co. France before leaving to form his own United Communication.

“Dominique has been dealing with the major studios and leading independents for years,” said Stephen A. Unger, managing director of the worldwide entertainment and communications practice at SpencerStuart, an executive recruiting firm. “He wasn’t wanting for job opportunities. He could have picked his spot at any of the American or European majors.”

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Cinderfella Story: Twentieth Century Fox on Friday quietly purchased the rights to the first screenplay by Antwone Fisher, who until last fall was employed in a vastly different studio capacity--as a security guard at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

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The script, tentatively titled “The Antwone Fisher Story,” is based on the moving life story of the former security guard, who was born in jail without knowing any members of his family and raised in a series of sometimes abusive homes before enlisting in the Navy, where a psychiatrist encouraged him to begin a process of self-discovery.

Fisher, 35, was found by producers Randa Haines and Todd Black while participating in a screenwriting program led by Chris Smith in South-Central Los Angeles, just one month before he would have lost his job as part of Sony’s decision to contract out its security work.

The Fox-based producers set him up in an office, paid him a weekly salary and helped him learn the basic techniques involved in screenwriting. Asked to describe Fisher’s finished product, Haines said: “It’s about hope. It’s about how one person can save themselves.”

Fox declined to discuss the project. But sources say Fisher will receive in the low to mid-six figures if the film is made.

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