EXCLUSIVE: Euro giant Studiocanal is doubling down on its family film investments and unveiling ambitious new projects from Aardman’s Nick Park and French director Gilles de Maistre. Fresh from their eye-popping success with Paddington, with global grosses to date in excess of $200 million, and Aardman’s Shaun The Sheep, Studiocanal is re-teaming with Park on Early Man, a caveman comedy that will trace the world’s first game of soccer. Studiocanal aims to release the film in 2018, ahead of the World Cup. The company will unveil visuals from the project to buyers at Cannes.

shaun the sheep

Early Man is a stop-frame feature film that sees Park going behind the camera for the first time since Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. Park also co-directed Chicken Run. Mark Burton and John O’Farrell have written the script. The BFI is also a partner on the film.

Also in the pipelines is de Maistre’s Mia And The White Lion, a live-action epic about the friendship between a young girl and a lion. Galatée Films (Jacques Perrin’s Océans) and Outside Films will produce the project, which is written by William Davies (How To Train Your Dragon) and  de Maistre, Jean-Paul Husson and Prune de Maistre. The cast includes Mélanie Laurent, Langley Kirkwood and Daniah De Villiers. Also on-board as co-producers are M6 Films and Film Afrika.

Speaking to Deadline, Studiocanal chief exec Olivier Courson explained that the company’s family investments were a clear part of his strategy moving forward. “It’s a new adventure for us in this area,” he said. “We’ve been quite happy so far with the quality of both Paddington and Shaun The Sheep and the success. The family film market is very competitive with incredible quality coming from the American studios. I believe we are now the only European company to have invested so heavily and constantly in the family space. I would like to continue this policy with strong ambition. The family space will be a key pillar for us.”

The move comes after Courson bet big on the David Heyman-produced Paddington. The film, based on Michael Bond’s much-loved children’s books, was StudioCanal’s most ambitious to date with a budget of $55 million, which it fully financed, sold and also distributed in its territories in the UK, France. Germany and Australia/New Zealand. That bet paid off big time for the ambitious exec, helping drive Studiocanal to its most successful year year.

Courson is repeating that model with Early Man, which has a budget around the $50 million mark. Studiocanal will fully finance and handle sales. Studiocanal and Aardman are currently gearing for the wide release of Shaun The Sheep in China this summer by China Film Group as well as in the U.S. through Lionsgate.

“This is a very ambitious project, with a lot more characters than Shaun,” added Courson. “The film is not about football but it is an important component. Nick and the Aardman guys will come to Cannes. This is a very ambitious project for the independent market. It’s also extremely funny.”

Studiocanal will not be selling the English language Mia And The White Lion at Cannes this year given the project’s lengthy production. De Maistre will be filming on location in Africa for many years as he follows the real life growth of a lion cub into an older animal. The story follows an 11-year-old girl living in London who relocates with her parents to Africa. There she befriends a baby lion where they become as close as siblings. To her horror, she will discover her father has been selling lions to hunters.

“We see the baby lion grow up and we will follow this story over many years,” says Courson. “It will be a very long process but we have an incredible writer and very talented filmmakers. It has a lot of emotion.

Studiocanal continues to grow ambitiously under the leadership of Courson. The company is currently in advanced Reybauddiscussions with Sebastien Raybaud’s Anton Capital Entertainment to re-up its slate financing in a deal that could exceed the € 150 million ($194 million) pact originally agreed in 2011. That three-year deal, which was itself extended in 2012 to continue until the beginning of 2016, was the first of its kind in Europe and has allowed StudioCanal to emerge as Europe’s dominant film studio, and a genuine global film player.

Studiocanal is also likely to benefit from the expected largesse of parent Vivendi, which owns Canal + and Universal Music Group. Vivendi, under chairman Vincent Bollore, is currently sitting on a war chest of $15 billion to make media and content-related acquisitions and expenditure.