Playing Hollywood’s game

LONDON — While Europe’s national film cultures buckle before the industrial might of Hollywood, European money and talent nonetheless are carving out an increasingly prominent role in the international movie business.

A wide range of commercially minded European companies, such as Neue Constantin, Polygram, Ciby, Island World and RCS, Lumiere and WMG, are working inside and outside the Hollywood system — often with directors and actors who started their careers in Euro arthouses — to create movies fit for worldwide audiences.

At the same time, American filmmakers are finding ways to tap into previously untouched wells of European co-finance, both for major studio product and for low-budget indie fare.

One intriguing question, especially for Euro politicos and filmmakers worried about Hollywood’s influence on their local cultures, is whether Euro financing will bring any flavor of Europe to the films they back. Or will these new ventures simply try to replicate Hollywood’s winning recipe?

The answer differs from company to company. While some are seeking to buy into American formula product, others are trying to discover the right creative and financial blend for a viable European alternative. Given the huge risks in producing big-budget films, it’s unclear whether the new Euro pics can ultimately be any less formulaic than expensive Hollywood fare.

And ironically, three of the biggest producers of high-budget Hollywood films — Arnon Milchan, Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna — are themselves European.

Big-budget Euro films like Bille August’s “The House of the Spirits,” produced by Bernd Eichinger’s Neue Constantin from Isabel Allende’s complex Chilean political novel, or Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha,” produced by Jeremy Thomas for France’s Ciby 2000, mark an attempt to combine Europe’s tradition of personal movie-making on serious artistic subjects with Hollywood’s production gloss and marketing savvy.

But the commercial case for such filmmaking remains decidedly unproven. “The House of the Spirits” has opened strongly in Germany and France but has yet to be tested in the U.S., while early indications are that the mixed critical reception for “Little Buddha” will be mirrored in its box office performance, although Ciby itself will not lose money.

The danger is that such ambitious artistic movies are simply too expensive for their potential market. In the mid-’80s, Eichinger’s “Name of the Rose” and Thomas’ “The Last Emperor” offered a tantalizing glimpse of the worldwide audience for non-Hollywood epics, but in the intervening years those hits have proved the exception, not the rule.

Given the choice, international distribs still prefer to risk their pre-buy coin on more reliable product from Hollywood’s mass-production line. That, rather than any filmmaking agenda of their own, is the primary motivation behind the increasingly common financing deals between foreign distribs and Hollywood producers.

Dawn Steel and her husband Charles Roven are poised to become the latest big-name L.A. producers to line up international backers, following the likes of Trilogy and the Scott brothers with Italy’s RCS; Interscope with Dutch music giant Polygram; David Begelman and Jonathan Taplin with U.K. distrib Rank, and Martin Bregman with Germany’s Capella.

“All these European companies are just trying to make hit movies,” says Nigel Sinclair of the L.A.-based legal firm Sinclair Tenenbaum, which brokered the marriage of RCS with Ridley and Tony Scott. “I don’t think they have any artistic purpose independent of that goal. They may be drawn personally to small movies of great class and taste, but they want to invest in big American films.”

Without Hollywood partners, says Gary Levinsohn of Classico Entertainment, the Euros find themselves at the end of the queue for scripts, living on leftovers, and at sea when it comes to integrating the filmmaking process with marketing expertise.

Nonetheless, unwilling or unable to take on Hollywood at its own game, several European companies are playing to their traditional strengths by attempting to unlock the elusive but potentially lucrative arthouse crossover market — which only Merchant-Ivory has cracked with any consistency.

Polygram is trying to make it work both ways. It has invested in Interscope for mainstream Hollywood pix, but its own subsids, Propaganda and Working Title, produce more unusual — titles like “Romeo Is Bleeding,” the black western “Posse” and the British social comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

It is tempting to see those films, more than Interscope’s Hollywood product, as examples of a European filmmaking sensibility at work. Yet sources close to the company suggest that the predominance of such films is part of Polygram’s learning curve, rather than its ultimate design.

The ultimate ambition, according to Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, is not to make auteur movies on Hollywood budgets. “If Bille August came to us with a $ 30 million film, we’d refuse,” says Bevan. “We would love to have done ‘In the Line of Fire,’ but I think we’re still a year away from that,” adds Fellner.

The Working Title pair are determined to turn their European roots into a strength, not a weakness. After a year making themselves at home in L.A., they are now shifting their balance back to London, drawing on European talent to develop big-screen entertainment in the true Hollywood tradition.

Meanwhile, Ciby seems to have stepped back from the $ 35 million extravagance of “Little Buddha,” which served as a fanfare announcing its arrival in the film business. The French company is now developing its stable of auteurist directors within tighter and more realistic commercial limits.

At the same time, with foreign markets becoming ever more lucrative for American movies, the best place to look for European cultural influences in big-budget movies is in the films produced by the major studios themselves.

“There is a trend, one that may increase, of much more interest in Hollywood about the vastness of the world market,” observes L.A.-based Brit director Michael Apted, who is about to start shooting “Nell” for Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, with backing from Fox and Polygram. “There is a lot of financing coming to bear, a lot of European talent here, and slowly and surely we seem to be seeing a kind of European-izing of Hollywood.”

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