Cannes for me is an exercise in chasing big-money movie deals, but I took the opportunity to meet several French companies to get a view of the business from their side of the pond. Compared to the problems I hear from Hollywood, these guys struggle for growth in a French theatrical system that seems completely preposterous to an Americain.
In Hollywood, they whine about how hard it is to get a movie made; about a weekend crowded with three new releases; the inefficiency of big P&A spends to advertise on TV to ensure moviegoers show up opening weekend; and the six-month wait for DVD and VOD. In France, a heavily subsidized system makes getting movies made the easy part. The downside: 15-18 films open week in and week out; TV advertising is outlawed, and the wait for DVD and VOD is an eternity compared to the U.S. Small wonder several of the major French companies are looking outside elsewhere for growth.
For a company like Gaumont, that means supplementing Centrée Français fare by hatching U.S. market TV hits like Hannibal. Wild Bunch’s core business is backing gutsy films like Blue Is The Warmest Color, but at this Cannes, the company created a stir showing a film before its precedent-setting straight-to-VOD release. Welcome To New York is Abel Ferrara’s lurid drama that stars Gerard Depardieu as a crass, horny money man based on former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who cut a decadent swath around the world before being arrested for allegedly mauling a maid in a New York hotel. Because Wild Bunch bypassed theaters, it could spend $1 million on TV ads, creating more awareness than if it had gone theatrical and could not advertise. Success will mean more films with bigger stars test this new market and that could be as disruptive to France’s arcane theatrical machine as the current crop of pay and cable TV series like True Detective feel compared to the derivative product churned out by Hollywood movie studios.
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The biggest gamble by a French company here is the aggressive expansion into Hollywood by EuropaCorp partners Luc Besson and Christophe Lambert. They’ve got two films at Cannes: the French-language Bertrand Bonello-directed Saint Laurent, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, and tonight’s premiere of the Tommy Lee Jones-directed Western The Homesman. More important for the future, Lambert on Friday unveiled a new five-year, $450 million JPMorgan-led credit facility that will fund production and P&A for a slate of eight English-language commercial films released through Red, the pipeline that EuropaCorp bought 50% of from Relativity. They hired a very capable development exec in Lisa Ellzey, and by the start of Toronto, will have a seasoned acquisitions exec in place to bolster the homegrown slate with two to four films per year. The distrib company gets underway with a reboot of the Besson-created Transporter franchise, and Lambert said they expect to have as many as seven films in production by year’s end. While the Besson-directed Lucy will be released by Universal, Besson will from now on direct a movie each year to be released through Red.
Everybody comes to Cannes selling a strategy they say makes them special. Rarely is the pitch as ambitious as the EuropaCorp plan, and they seem to have constructed a pretty good mousetrap. The money is solid, and Lambert said buying a release pipeline gives he and Besson complete control over their U.S. release, key to triggering global deals with the output partners Lambert said covers 80% of the risk on each film they make. The trump card, similar to companies like DreamWorks, Imagine and Bad Robot, is an in-house A-list director who can be a creative godfather. EuropaCorp’s ace card has always been the prolific imagination of Besson and that will be crucial going forward; besides the annual film he’ll direct, Besson will generate the ideas for as many as five other projects on the slate each year.
“When we started, we had no money,” Lambert told me as we had coffee with Ellzey at the Majestic right after he and JPMorgan banker David Shaheen introduced what they called the largest amount of capital raised by an offshore company in the U.S. “We could not buy any expensive book or remake rights. The only free material was our own ideas and imagination, and that became the foundation of a company that produced 145 films in 10 years. Being a creative driven company became our biggest asset. Luc’s initial dream when he founded the company was to build the first non-U.S. major,” Lambert said. “We are not there yet, but we now have everything we need; the projects, talented people working with us, distribution capability and now, money. So, it’s up to us. If we fail, it will be because of us.”
I mention to them that people say if you shake Steven Spielberg, chances are a couple good movie ideas will tumble out. Besson is similar.
“Luc will go on vacation for two weeks, and he always comes back with a fully written script,” Lambert told me. “He writes every morning from 5 AM until noon, longer when he’s on vacation. Sometimes I will say, Luc, go on vacation, we need a script.” Besson grew up the son of diving instructors, and spends part of those vacations exercising his other love, diving. He would have been a competitive deep water diver were it not some pressure issues in his ears, a condition that led him to make The Big Blue and become a director. The filmmaker prefers to do his diving in the Bahamas when he vacations. You might soon seem him in the Pacific, because both he and Lambert are moving their families to Los Angeles in June to prepare for EuropaCorp 2.0.
“It is crucial for us to be there,” Lambert said. “We would never be able to achieve our plan without it. You need to be there to meet people, to take a coffee with an actor, meet a writer, that is the way the business is done. We were producing three big movies a year from Paris, and before we had Lisa in LA, the time difference meant starting our workdays at midnight, so we could talk to writers there. It was crazy. I have my projects, Luc has his, and we felt we had to be available.”
The stepped-up output will mean farming Besson’s ideas out to other writers.
“Luc wrote Lucy alone, but he doesn’t have time for them all,” Lambert said. “So he comes with ideas and concepts, we discuss and decide which to forward with, and then Lisa matches the project to the right writer.”
Said Ellzey: “I put him in the room with some writers, he pitches a very detailed idea of the movie he has running in his head. The writer processes it, absorbs it, comes back, and then, as Luc describes it, they play. It’s a really intense creative session, and you have to bring it, and be able to play with him.”
Attempts to change established protocol in France by EuropaCorp or Wild Bunch for that matter, has the potential to create conflict. At the Cannes press conference, Lambert defended himself when French journalists decried the loss of a major generator of French fare, and they lamented the loss of French dialogue in movies. Lambert was quick to note EuropaCorp would still make four French movies per year like Saint Laurent, but the more important consideration was they would still be infusing the French movie economy with money, since virtually all of these movies will be shot at EuropaCorp’s studio in France.
“In France, they always make the same mistake and say that it’s about protecting the language,” Lambert told me. “The language is the language and it doesn’t need protection. The only thing that really matters is that the industry here continues to have some chops, and that is hard to do when you see 250 French movies released a year. Add that to the best 200 American films, and that’s almost 500 movies a year, with no access to do TV ads to promote them. That’s why only 20-25 of them achieve more than one million admissions per year. We will spend the money here at our studios and create jobs, and that is what is important. The value proposition of our company relies on our ability to produce for less money than U.S. productions. We’ll do that by exerting control over our U.S. releases that trigger our output deals, while benefiting from the French subsidies we qualify for by shooting the films here.”