Darkest Peru may seem an unlikely place to find the inspiration to become a global player. For Studiocanal, however, the jungles of the Latin American country may just have led them to a game-changer in the guise of a lovable bear called Paddington.
Based on Brit author Michael Bond’s much-loved series of books, Paddington the film is, by some margin, Studiocanal’s most ambitious project ever. (See trailer below.) In addition to cementing its position as Europe’s leading film company, Paddington represents a strategic entry into the family space for Studiocanal, which hopes it will consolidate efforts to be the leading provider of studio-quality product to the global marketplace.
Arguably, it also marks the most concerted attempt by a European independent company to launch an international multi-quadrant franchise outside of the studio system. Quite an achievement for a film about a homeless bear, who loves marmalade.
Paddington’s budget of $55M, which the Euro major fully financed, handled international sales on and is releasing in its direct distribution territories, is Studiocanal’s highest-ever single bet on a picture. The UK release today will also be its wider ever in the country at 500 sites. (Studiocanal later releases the film in France December 3; Germany December 4; Australia December; 11 and New Zealand December 18.)
“Paddington is by far the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” says Studiocanal UK chief Danny Perkins. “It’s been a big focus for us these last two years to create a completely coordinated campaign across our own territories as well as providing marketing and distribution support to our international partners the same way that Lionsgate, for example, does with Hunger Games.”
The film’s marketing campaign, particularly in the UK where a specially created trail of 50 Paddington statues designed by the likes of London mayor Boris Johnson and man-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch, were placed across the city, has generated huge publicity and drawn much praise. Just as importantly, it will raise funds for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
“It’s been staggering,” says Paddington producer David Heyman. “The UK team driving it have been really fantastic.”
Studiocanal execs devised ingenious ways to increase awareness for a character who, while beloved in the UK for more than 50 years, is less well-known in other parts of the world. In Liam Neeson-starrer Non-Stop, which Studiocanal also financed, an almost subliminal sight gag with the grizzled action star holding a Paddington soft toy got the ball rolling. Paddington star Hugh Bonneville then set the bar even higher at this year’s Berlin Film Festival when he managed to get the cast of Monuments Men, including George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray, to pose on the red carpet with the cuddly bear.
The film will also benefit from Harvey Weinstein’s coup in getting Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani to record a song tie-in ahead of TWC’s domestic release of Paddington on January 16 next year.
David Heyman knows a thing or two about launching multi-quadrant franchises. As the producer of the Harry Potter films, he is responsible for the highest grossing family-friendly film series in film history. Warner Bros was Heyman’s home for the Potter movies and the producer — who also made Gravity at the studio — retains very close personal and professional ties there.
When Warner put Paddington — which has Brit helmer Paul King writing and directing — into turnaround in 2012 after five years in development, Heyman turned to the independent film world, an experience he describes as “scary and exciting.” Studiocanal moved quickly.
“It was a great opportunity to work with someone like David Heyman and to be involved in a project that was anchored in Europe but could travel everywhere,” says Ron Halpern, Studiocanal’s EVP of international production and acquisition. “It doesn’t make sense for us to make a film about a bunch of kids running around a U.S. city. We don’t add any value there. But with the film set in London, and given the history of films like Mary Poppins, Harry Potter and Narnia, we knew that audiences around the world get British children.”
While both Halpern and Perkins are effusive in their praise of Heyman, who has been completely hands-on with the production to point of collaborating with international distributors over their choice of foreign language voices to play Paddington across territories, the project did bring with it many risks.
Firstly, Studiocanal had never financed a film with such sophisticated VFX before. (The bears in Paddington are spectacularly rendered in CGI thanks to the stellar efforts of London-based post and effects house Framestore). Secondly, Paddington had nowhere the level of global recognition that the Potter books had.
“Potter was absolutely unique,” explains Heyman. “We optioned the book before it had even come out in the U.S. By the time the first film came out, the Potter books were numbers one, two and three on the New York Times Bestseller List.”
Also, Paddington’s writer-director King only had one feature credit to his name — 2009 low budget Brit indie Bunny And The Bull, which was actually released by Studiocanal.
“Looking back, the company had to make some big decisions, some really big calls,” recalls Halpern. “Plus, if you want to get into the family space, there is such a high creative level already, especially in the U.S. with the likes of Pixar, Dreamworks. You need to be sure you can reach those levels before you even show up.”
Ironically, Studiocanal’s indie roots paved the way for an approach that allowed King — a stalwart of the alternative Brit comedy scene through cult series The Mighty Boosh — and Heyman complete creative control.
Even the high profile departure of Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington in May this year — a decision described as “mutual” — to be replaced by Ben Whishaw did not cause any undue panic in the ranks.
The result is a film, completed literally only a fortnight ago, that has been ecstatically reviewed virtually unanimously by the British press.
“It’s probably going to be our best reviewed film of the year,” says Perkins. “The economics for us are completely different than a U.S. studio. When they make a $150 million-plus tentpole, there are certain boxes they need to tick to protect their investment: merchandise, known IP, appeal to all quadrants. With Studiocanal, even with a budget like Paddington, our approach is still to back the filmmaker and support their vision. Our core focus is just to make the best film possible.”
And while Studiocanal has financed, sold and distributed numerous high profile films — Liam Neeson-starrer Non-Stop the most recent example — Paddington is upping the ante significantly in terms both of financial risk as well as potential upside. If it is able to launch a lucrative repeating feature series, the attendant ancillary revenues, from merchandise and the like, could take the company, which is owned by French pay TV giant Vivendi, to a whole new level.
Studiocanal is already planning further moves into the family space, with Aardman-produced Shaun The Sheep set for release in 2015. And discussions continue with both Heyman as well as other regular Studiocanal collaborators, Working Title, about finding other projects in the family space.
While most eyes will be on the film’s box office numbers in the UK this weekend, Paddington himself may be casting an eye back home, where Studiocanal execs decided to open the film in Peru day-and-date with his adopted homeland on 80 prints. Here’s a look again at the trailer: