StudioCanal Acquires 30% Of France’s Mars Films; Appoints Didier Lupfer As President

By Ali Jaafar, Nancy Tartaglione

In one of the first expansive film acquisitions of Vivendi chairman Vincent Bollore’s reign, French film giant StudioCanal has acquired 30% of French distributor Mars Films. Mars’ respected Stephane Celerier will become a StudioCanal VP as a result of the deal, and will oversee a development committee made up of industry professionals.

StudioCanal has also appointed Canal Plus’ film division president Didier Lupfer as president at the film unit, too. That move means an exit for Olivier Courson. The shake-up at StudioCanal mirrors the personnel changes at parent Canal Plus, which has seen a revolving door of top execs this summer as Vivendi chairman Vincent Bollore consolidates his grip on the company and begins to shape its future direction.

The biggest exec shake-up in a generation at French pay TV giant Canal Plus saw former head of cinema Nathalie Coste-Cerdan replaced by Didier Lupfer, the former head of production and development at its Ubisoft Motion Pictures arm, barely a fortnight ago. Ubisoft Motion Pictures was set up in 2011 to adapt the likes of Assassin’s Creed for the big screen. Lupfer’s credits also include Joann Sfar’s well-received biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.

The corporate merry-go-round in recent weeks meant that Courson’s exit- unthinkable a few months ago- now comes as little surprise. He is only the latest exec to be shown the door at the venerable Gallic media institution. In recent weeks, French film and TV professionals have looked on in shock as Canal Plus chief exec Rodolphe Belmer, chairman Bertrand Meheut and a number of other execs have left in rapid succession. It is all part of Vivendi Chairman Vincent Bolloré’s consolidation strategy. The billionaire industrialist has spent much of this year tightening his grip on Vivendi and, by extension, Canal Plus. Bolloré emerged victorious at the French media giant’s annual meeting earlier this year, seeing off a shareholder rebellion and winning a battle over double voting rights that will allow him to move forward with his vision of turning Vivendi into a global player. The billionaire businessman, who nearly tripled his stake in the company to 14.5% in the space of less than two months, was presiding over his first annual meeting as chairman. By consolidating, and indeed increasing, his voting control, Bolloré is now poised to move forward with his ambitious plans for the company.  Bolloré has now been named chairman of the Canal Plus Group supervisory board.

Courson’s time at StudioCanal is generally credited with being a success. The European studio enjoyed its most successful year to date last year, with the likes of Liam Neeson-starrer Non-Stop, The Imitation Game, Shaun The Sheep and, most spectacularly, Paddington. The latter film, based on Michael Bond’s much-loved book series and produced by Harry Potter producer David Heyman, was StudioCanal’s most ambitious to date with a budget of $55 million. StudioCanal fully financed the film, which has been a bona fide hit worldwide with grosses to date in excess of $270 million, setting up a lucrative family friendly franchise for the company.

Those kind of numbers have been carried on by the company’s UK operations, under the well-respected and much-liked stewardship of UK chief exec Danny Perkins. The company is riding high at the box office thanks to the spectacular performance of Tom Hardy gangster epic Legend. Perkins has been at the forefront of aligning StudioCanal with A-list producers Working Title- who produced Legend– and Heyman. Legend enjoyed the biggest ever opening for a film in September and is on the verge of breaking the $20 million barrier.

One major misfire was Sean Penn-starrer The Gunman, which lost the company millions and is believed to have earned the ire of the Vivendi board.  The tie-up with Mars will give StudioCanal more depth in the French market. Mars releases both local French films and indie titles such as An Irrational Man, Amy and Foxcatcher.

Jean-Christophe Thiery, president of the Canal Plus board, said, “We are thrilled to associate ourselves with Mars Films… This is part of a content investment strategy which is at the heart of our editorial line now more than ever.”

Maxime Saada, chief exec of the Canal Plus Group, said “Canal Plus and Studiocanal welcomed the opportunity to combine their already widely recognized know-how in movies with the experience and expertise of Stéphane Célérier.”

“Under his leadership, Mars has become a key distributor of some of the greatest names in cinema, including Woody Allen, as well as critically-acclaimed and popular movies. Mars recently and successfully launched into production with La Famille Bélier. Having him among us will be a real asset.”

To get a sense of the importance of StudioCanal to the local market, one need only bear in mind that parent Canal Plus accounts for some 15% of France’s annual film production spend between $230m to $300m, repping a major pillar of the filmmaking community.

The Mars’ stake acquisition is unlikely to be the last. Parent Vivendi is sitting on a war chest of up to $15 billion following a campaign of asset divestment by billionaire chairman Bolloré that has left the company re-focused on media through its two main assets: Canal Plus and Universal Music Group.

High on the agenda is believed to be an attempt to create a pan-European on-demand platform across France, Italy, Spain and Germany- and possibly the UK- that would not only rival but potentially surpass Netflix’s ambitions in there.

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