The British film industry’s attitude toward Europe used to run along the lines of the famous Fleet Street headline: “Fog Over the Channel, Continent Cut Off.”

The fog has lifted, and the new year is finding a growing number of British producers doing business with European players. Indeed, some go so far as to suggest that the recent opening of the Channel Tunnel parallels the genesis of a true pan-European film industry.

The timing of the two events may be more than mere coincidence; although the trip is no faster than a plane, the knowledge that one can now ride a train from Waterloo Station to the Gare du Nord is compressing the sense of distance from the Continent that British producers traditionally felt.

No one knows exactly who the major players will be in the new Euro order, nor is it clear whether any one city will emerge as the nerve center. Indeed, one measure of the change now afoot in Europe is that location seems to matter far less than it used to.

That in itself is important because the U.K. entertainment sector-from films to rock music to the theater-traditionally has turned its eyes to the U.S. and its back to Europe.

But film producers say the timing is right for a Continental shift because the Europeans have the cash and a highly developed public support system, while the Brits speak the right language.

That formula could be the basis for a genuine European production community, as opposed to Europe’s collection of national production industries. It’s an industry that might, in the words of one London-based film veteran, turn out international films that “refresh the parts Hollywood doesn’t reach.”

The French, Germans and Italians have been co-producing films for years, partly as a way of pooling subsidies, without setting the international box office alight. But the entry into the equation of Britain, which has scant subsidy coin, changes everything.

For one thing, the recent run of commercially successful arthouse titles from the U.K., including “Orlando,” “The Crying Game,” “Howards End” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” is convincing potential Euro partners that a cheaper and safer way of attacking the international market is to deal with London rather than Hollywood.

And although Hollywood’s interest in the U.K. is high-nobody expects the trans-Atlantic biz to dry up-the new round of European courtships serves as an extra insurance policy for Britain’s resurgent production industry against the ebb and flow of U.S. financing.

The Euros look back fondly on the 1960s and ‘ 70s, when Americans flocked to see their films and U.S. distributors lined up to buy rights. But they also bear the scars of more recent failed attempts to produce hit international films and stars. Even the U.K. film industry has a Dickensian history of occasional highs and abject lows in the international arena.

Simon Perry, chief exec of the semi-public funding body British Screen, says, “In the mid to late ‘ 80s there was a big romance with American money. The standard way (for a British producer) to finance a film was a U.S. partner, U.K. TV and British Screen. This went bad when many of our erstwhile partners in the U.S. either got disaffected with British pictures because the films they had backed didn’t work, or else went bust.

“Producers realized that American patronage is quite nice when you can get it, but you can’t count on it and it’s cyclical. That’s when the British started thinking that the dark continent of Europe might be less scary than they had previously thought,” he says.

Hitch the Brits

Leading the way, big Gallic entities such as UGC, Chargeurs, Lumiere, Ciby 2000 and Pandora, have opened offices in London. Cash-rich Euro companies have hitched themselves-with varying degrees of success-to Brit producers like Jake Eberts, Jeremy Thomas and Timothy Burrill. And European production coin has started finding its way into U.K. projects.

And it’s not just the French who are looking to London. Italy’s RCS already owns most of U.K. financing and sales outfit Majestic, while Holland’s Hungry Eye Entertainment Group recently pacted with British film and TV production company Trijbits Worrell to jointly develop English-lingo projects.

The figures speak for themselves. Of those films in which British Screen is financially involved (about 25% of U.K. pix each year), in 1987 European Union investment was a paltry $374,400, or 1.6% of total investments. Last year the Europeans contributed $24 million, representing 40% of the total. (See chart, page 8.)

Lacking local finance, Brit producers have always had to think hard about the pre-sales market and international potential of their pix. With some exceptions, including Paris-based Arnon Milchan, European producers haven’t been forced down that track. But Gallic companies that have rarely had to enter the presales market are now learning the ropes from their British partners. It’s no coincidence that the most active pre-seller from France, Ciby 2000, has its sales team in London.

Polygram’s new acquisitions exec in London, San Fun Maltha, came from the group’s Benelux distribbery. Cameron McCracken, Euro legal expert at law firm Simon Olswang & Co., previously worked in Paris and Rome. Brit indie distribution Guild is headed by a Frenchman Alexis Lloyd, formerly of French indie distribber AMLF; Studio Canal Plus honcho Olivier Granier is about to move to London to join Milchan’s growing Regency empire.

“In the last few weeks I have met three Euro producers-one Italian, one German, one Spanish-who said they were planning to move to London, because they think London is where it’s happening,” says British Screen’s Perry.

Meanwhile, some industry names more commonly associated with London have begun pitching their tents on French soil. Polygram has two Gallic production companies, Cinea and Noe, and its French distribution subsid Pan Europeenne is producing Maurice Pialat’s “LeGarcu.”

And from his old-world offices in the trendy Les Halles district, Ismail Merchant has just added Paris to the list of Merchant Ivory outposts. “As a French company, we will get access to all the (public funding) benefits available. France has a passion for the film industry and we want to be at the heart of that passion,” Merchant says.

While these new European marriages are still in the honeymoon stage, all partners are trying to consummate them as quickly as possible.

* UGC has a three-year development deal with Jeremy Thomas that is meant to turn out about two pix every 18 months. Thomas has moved to new offices and has half a dozen producers working under him. Mark Peploe’s “Victory,” “Blood and Wine” from Bob Rafelson, “Crash” from David Cronenberg and Mike Figgis’ “Hammer of the Gods” (working title) are the first fruits of the alliance. Thomas brought U.K. coin (mainly from British Screen) into Regis Wargnier’s “La Femme Francaise.”

* Timothy Burrill is heading the recently formed London-based Chargeurs Prods, but has yet to commit to a debut project.

* Chargeurs also is bankrolling Jake Eberts and has a stake in Eberts’ Allied Filmmakers.

* Lumiere is looking to get two or three films a year made in the U.K., although its slowness to get anything off the ground so far has frustrated president Jean Cazes and led to a management shuffle in London recently. Lewis Gilbert has lensed “Haunted” for the company. Lumiere’s London operation also is going to co-produce Brit comedies with the Samuel Goldwyn Co. in a sign that biz between the Americans and Brits is still alive and kicking.

* Cinea topper Philippe Carcassone is expected to mainly produce Gallic fare for Polygram but has already been involved in two English-lingo projects, “Carrington” and “Halcyon Days.” Carcassone also has a French comedy he wants to remake in English and is talking to Polygram subsid Working Title.

* Merchant Ivory will be seeking Gallic partners for the two pictures it expects to produce out of France each year. Jeanne Moreau is signed to star in “La Proprietaire,” which shoots in Paris and New York starting this spring. James Ivory will lense the $15 million Anthony Hopkins starrer “Picasso” in France next August, and the script is finished on a third project, “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” which Ivory also will helm.

* Paris-based finance and foreign sales company Pandora has invested in “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” “Blue Juice,” “Frankie Starlight,” “Someone Else’s America,” “Lucky Break” and “Of Love and Shadows.” Pandora has just bought a Stuart Hazeldine script for a $25 million action movie, “Under London Ground” (working title), to be produced by Paul Trijbits and Jeremy Bolt.

Cultural differences

Despite the rapid increase in cross-border activity, bringing the Europeans and Brits together is not without its difficulties. Culture clashes abound.

One that is proving difficult to overcome is the different approach to legal work, particularly between the British and the French.

“We got quite a shock when it came to contracts,” admits UGC production topper Yves Marmion. “Traditionally the French sign a contract on a piece of paper and that’s it. The British come to the table armed with huge quantities of documents; it’s a little daunting.”

The gap may be narrowing. Lawyer McCracken says the Anglo-Saxon idea of “clarity of contracts” is filtering through Europe, and he’s now being asked to give legal advice on co-prod contracts that don’t involve U.K. partners.

In an attempt to boost cooperation, London and Paris have agreed to modify their film co-production treaty. Traditionally, in order for a co-produced pic to get access to public funding-the vast majority of which is found in France-co-production partners had to respect minimum artistic and technical input from both sides.

The comfort factor

When the revised treaty is ratified next year, co-productions that are purely financial will be acceptable. Initially that change is expected to favor U.K. producers, as the French groups have the means to invest. “We want to get involved in international English-language films,” says UGC’s Marmion.

Perry believes that the onceisolated British producers are now beginning to feel more comfortable with European partners. Burrill agrees. He is the U.K. rep to Eurimages, the Strasbourg-based European fund, which provides a maximum 5 million francs per film for co-productions with three partners or more.

To join Eurimages, countries must sign a co-production treaty; the U.K., which had avoided signing the treaty until recently, was always a missing link in Eurimages. Now the Brits have embraced the concept. “The U.K’s involvement in Eurimages has probably done more to encourage insular British producers to break out in Europe than anything else,” Burrill says.

In addition to Eurimages, the European Co-Production Fund-the £ 2 million-a-year U.K. fund administered by Perry to invest in European co-productions-has helped create a nexus of relationships. Perry is consciously using the fund to create that elusive European production community.

Perry committed ECPF coin to Flemish-lingo Dutch pic “Antonia’s Line” in return for a commitment from the Dutch film fund to back a totally British project in 1995.

“We’re in a time we’re going to look back on nostalgically,” says Perry. “There’s tremendous willingness to help each other at the moment. I think as people become more successful they’ll get more jealous. If we’re lucky, it will be as unpleasant as Hollywood before long.”

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