Franco TF1 gambles on ‘Casino’ and H’wood

France’s leading terrestrial television network, TF1, has taken a giant step into Hollywood. The network, part of the massive Bouygues construction and communications group, has teamed up with Universal Pictures and Alain Goldman’s Legende Enterprises to co-produce Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.”

TP1 president Patrick Le Lay confirmed the deal to Variety and indicated that he intends to make further forays into Hollywood in the near future. “This is a first experience for us, but I expect others to follow soon.”

TF1 is putting up 25% of the budget, which is believed to be in the region of $45 million to $50 million. Pic stars Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci.

This is the first time TF1 has invested as a co-producer in a Hollywood project, although the web has a longstanding relationship with Universal from acquiring TV rights to the studio’s movies.

The network’s debut Gallic co-production was the comedy hit “Un Indien dans la ville,” which has grossed more than $45 million in France. Traditionally, the web has invested coin simply to get broadcast rights.

TF1 is among several foreign investors in Turner-based Atlas Entertainment, formed in March 1994 by Dawn Steel, Charles Roven and Bob Cavallo.

TF1’s partnership with Goldman and its commitment to “Casino” underlines that the French still have an appetite for doing business with Hollywood, despite pay TV web Canal Plus’ virtual divorce from cash-strapped Carolco and Credit Lyonnais’ less than happy ownership of MGM.

It is also a clear sign that Le Lay intends to gradually shape the web into a key player in the international film business. The network topper has made no secret of the fact that he intends to diversify TF1 to include cinema investment, mainly through his relationship with Goldman. TF1 and Goldman already have a joint film acquisition company, Legende Distribution.

Goldman, the Gallic producer who brokered the deal and brought Le Lay together with Tom Pollock, chairman of the MCA motion picture group, also will have a co-production credit via his Legende Enterprises. The TF1 president said his relationship with Pollock is “extremely good,” adding that he would like to develop links with Universal. Pollock is known to be eager to continue his relationship with TF1.

The structure of the deal is relatively unusual and is likely to boost Goldman’s reputation as a bridge-builder between France and Hollywood. TF1 actually committed to financing “Casino” after the pic had started shooting, according to U insiders.

European investment in Hollywood pix has normally been either in the form of an equity stake in return for a percentage of net profits or in the form of a standard rights deal, which the European company then sells in various territories. Goldman has conceived a hybrid version of the two approaches.

In return for investing about $13 million, TF1’s sales and rights subsidiary Syalis receives first dollar on revenues generated in Europe. Theatrical distribution will be handled in Europe by UIP, with CIC distributing European video except in France, where TF1 Video will release the film. Syalis will control European TV distribution.

According to sources close to the deal, after distribution commissions and costs have been recouped, European revenues will go to Syalis until the $13 million is recovered. After that, revenues will be split, with Universal getting a small percentage of European receipts and Syalis taking a small percentage from the rest of the world.

In return for conceiving the agreement, Goldman’s Legende Enterprises will get a cut of profits from TF1 after Syalis has recouped its initial investment.

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