Studios speaking Euro lingos again

Europe finds itself in the midst of a majors invasion. At the 50th Cannes Film Festival, the studios sent firm but deliberately understated signals of their fervent attempts to become important factors in Euro filmmaking after a generation-long absence.

The majors’ specific tactics vary sharply, but the objectives are the same: to dip into fast-growing foreign revenues, to find co-financing partners for their pricey pics and to tap into overseas talent.

To this end, Sony Pictures is establishing an overseas subsid called the Bridge in concert with Le Studio Canal Plus to develop and co-finance English-language pics. Universal is stepping up co-productions and acquisitions overseas to such a degree that it may triple the number of its releases to as many as 50 a year. Fox is hammering out first-look deals with Brit filmmakers and, together with Rupert Murdoch-owned BSkyB, is launching a film production arm.

Meanwhile, Warners’ newly launched French-language production effort through its Gallic distrib signals similar efforts in Germany and other Euro territories. Disney’s venture with Gaumont in France and its successful co-productions in Germany have also added fuel to the fire.

The upshot: Hollywood is charging back into Europe with a vigor reminiscent of the late ’60s.A generation ago, Hollywood’s Euro fervor triggered a glut of pics that were as pricey as they were commercially marginal. After jacking up the prices of Euro talent, the majors finally shuttered offices and beat a retreat.

This time, the economic underpinnings of the invasion seem sounder.

European revenues from locally produced fare have not previously been attractive to the majors because, for years, Europe has been underscreened. That’s beginning to change, thanks to multiplexing. The opening of new TV and theatrical channels is creating an ever wider pipeline for product.Hollywood is also eyeing the fat purses of emerging Euro-majors, especially in the TV sector, such as France’s Canal Plus and TF1. Gaumont’s 50-50 partnership with Sony on “The Fifth Element” is the model of a U.S.-Euro co-production.

But Hollywood money is not without its price. An injection of studio coin into Euro production could again create a price spiral. And there is always the danger of a Hollywoodization of Euro pics — a prospect that especially intimidates the French.

The charge back into Europe is underscored most dramatically by the change in Universal’s world view.

“The international marketplace is growing twice as quickly as the domestic,” Universal chairman Casey Silver said. “Local territories have the ability to make fine products for those markets. It’s about opportunistically pursuing that as a revenue source.”

In past years, U has had foreign partners on only two of its major releases: “Casino” with France’s TF1, and “12 Monkeys” with distribs in Japan, Germany, France and the U.K. The fact that the studio is co-financing J&M’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is evidence that partnering with overseas companies can work both ways.

The scent of Euro-dollars and the tinkle of Asian co-production coin that is attracting the attention of other U.S. majors has apparently moved Universal to revise production upward, thanks to the combination of aggressive acquisitions efforts and the addition of October Films to the Universal fold.

Silver and chief operating officer Chris McGurk revealed the strategy shift at Cannes, hosting a luncheon at the posh Hotel Carlton for about 100 distribs from Europe, Australia and Asia.

The affair was U’s formal announcement of its own New World Order: In addition to splitting rights on films, the studio is seeking foreign co-financing from territorial distribs such as Daewoo in Korea.

But some veteran foreign sales execs are skeptical of any studio getting into what has long been a game played by independents. The films U is offering for risk-sharing deals include “The Blues Brothers” sequel and other risky mid-budget pics on which several foreign sales companies have already passed.

“This is a business built on relationships,” said one indie sales exec. “You have to give them some good stuff if you want them to keep coming back.”

At the same time, Universal is looking to buy regional rights to regionally produced films.

Universal has tapped a number of senior executives to work on co-financing deals. They include Silver; McGurk; John Gumper, exec VP of the motion picture group; Jim Burke, senior vice prexy of international operations; Matt Wall, director of acquisitions; and Nadia Bronson, exec veep of international marketing.

Meanwhile, Sony and Canal Plus’ the Bridge is designed to produce English-language Euro pics. It is currently doling out development money to a number of Brit scribes and to top U.K. producers such as Simon Relph.

But no one seems to know who will greenlight them. The operation has producer Jonathan Darby at the helm and ex-BBC exec Kevin Loader as his second. However, Darby is busy on a film of his own and has yet to take up the reins of the French-U.S.-Japan co-venture full time.

Sony has declined to formally announce the 3-month-old program or to reveal its precise workings. But it appears that Sony execs Gareth Wigan and Lucy Fisher will be responsible, along with somebody from Le Studio Canal Plus, the Gallic major’s film production arm.

“We’ll take a collegial approach,” said Columbia TriStar Intl. prexy Duncan Clark, who is on the joint-venture board along with Col TriStar Motion Picture Group prexy Kenneth Lemberger.

Through its Columbia TriStar Home Video division, the studio has been active on the international scene, buying film rights for specific territories. It recently bought Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” from Rysher for Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Disney, through its international distrib arm, Buena Vista Intl., has been busy buying and selling overseas rights to regionally produced pics for years. In Cannes, BVI’s U.K. arm picked up the Irish pic “I Went Down” for the U.K. and Ireland.

Disney is also shopping for hit Euro movies to turn into hit U.S. movies. French filmmakers are ambivalent, however, about the fact that Disney has liked Gallic hits such as “Three Men and a Baby” and TF1’s “Indian in the City” (remade Stateside as “Jungle 2 Jungle”) enough to remake them as co-productions — but not enough to give the originals a U.S. theatrical release on a par with the remakes.

The last time Warner Bros. came near to investing in French production was in the early 1990s with “Le Brassier,” a coal-mining film which died at the Gallic box office. WB had French distrib rights.

Now, led by WB’s top exec in France, Francis Boespflug, the studio is kicking off a Gallic production and co-financing effort as well as an acquisition drive to pick up as many as four pics per year.

First up is “La Classe de Neige,” a thriller co-produced with Les Film de la Boissiere. WB has French distrib rights and will put up some of the money along with a Gallic TV company.

WB is also ramping up co-prods in Spain, the U.K. and Germany, where it has a three-picture deal with German helmer Thomas Jahn (“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”).

contributor:Adam Dawtrey and Michael Williams

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