Gallic giant Canal Plus sows co-finance coin

PARIS — France’s media powerhouse Canal Plus is fast becoming Hollywood’s best friend, sinking millions into co-financing deals on some of the town’s major films.

But the Gallic giant is also poised to become a major competitor. Even as it invests in Hollywood product, it is trying to start a vast production and distribution machine in Europe that inevitably will grab a slice of box office market share on the continent.

And the principal reason Canal Plus plans to funnel some $320 million into production and acquisition is to build a product base for that bold new venture.

When the studio is up and running, Canal Plus intends to invest in 15 international pics per year, all of which will be budgeted at more than $20 million, and most of which will come from Hollywood.

The Canal Plus initiative comes at a time when studios like Sony, Disney and Warner Bros. are ramping up investment in Euro-based films, which means they’ll be chasing the same pic projects as Canal Plus.

Emissaries from Canal Plus are signing a flood of co-production, first-look and output agreements in Hollywood, with the likes of Bel Air, Phoenix, Mandalay and Spyglass. At least two more deals are in the pipeline, and the cash-infusion will help Hollywood majors, which are increasingly eager to share pics’ funding.

The French won’t be developing pics on their own — they’re in L.A. to tap into the existing system, rather than to create a rival system of their own.

Sperry posted

Canal Plus is so serious about its L.A. inroads that exec Stephane Sperry, 45, is about to become a permanent fixture in Hollywood, heading an expanded Canal Plus U.S. team.

“The Canal Plus guys are the smartest Euros in town. They’re increasingly active in the hunt for good projects and partners,” Adam Platnick, president of Mandalay Pictures, told Daily Variety.

Canal Plus clearly believes it needs a string of major Hollywood pics to add to local films for local markets and Euro fare with cross-border potential.

Mandalay prexy Platnick is just one of the Hollywood names to have dealt with the affable and well-respected Sperry.

Mandalay has a 12-picture deal giving Canal Plus and Pathe’s film acquisition joint venture, C+P, French and U.K. rights to such films as “Sleepy Hollow” and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Stalingrad war pic “Enemy at the Gate,” which starts shooting Nov. 29.

Pic partnership

The French group is partnered with WB in Steve Reuther’s Bel Air Entertainment. That means Canal Plus is involved in such Bel Air projects as “Chain of Fools,” starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, Howard Deutch’s “The Replacements,” and forthcoming “Collateral Damage.” The deal includes Canal Plus getting French and German rights to Bel Air pics.

Sperry also has inked all rights for France and Belgium and pay TV for Scandinavia to the first five pics to come from Spyglass, including “The Sixth Sense.” Talks continue on the next five Spyglass projects.

The French also have a first-look deal with Phoenix for European TV rights, excluding Germany.

Although nothing is signed, discussions are taking place for Canal Plus to back films from Jersey Films and Mark Johnson Prods. — a strategy akin to Eureka’s alliance with Robert Redford and other filmmakers. The French have also picked up rights outside the U.S. to Universal’s big-budget submarine pic “U-571.”

Gaining Title

In addition, Canal Plus has pacted with U to back leading Euro producer Working Title. The French get Continental TV rights to Working Title pics as well as all rights in France to every second film from the British production outfit. The all-rights agreement expands to Europe after three years.

Titles involved include the Coen brothers’ $33 million “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” toplining George Clooney, and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” the $30 million project from “Notting Hill” director Roger Michell to star Nicolas Cage.

With so many deals in place, some skeptics wonder whether the French can get it right this time around. Adding to this is Canal Plus’ own previous experiences in Hollywood.

In the early 1990s, Canal Plus paid a fortune to Arnon Milchan’s New Regency (and basically secured only French pay TV rights to Regency’s pics) and lost a packet in Carolco (and then paid again to buy the indie’s library).

Measure of experience

The signs are more auspicious this time.

For one thing, Canal Plus’ mega-studio already has its foundation in place: The Canal Plus Image division, headed by senior exec VP Vincent Grimond, combines a 5,300-title film library, film and TV production, merchandising and an international sales business.

And, within 14 months, the complicated mix of Canal Plus’ existing distribution deals in Europe are likely to change, making way for a clearly identifiable Canal Plus film distribution system.

Grimond, who joined Canal Plus in 1996, told Daily Variety:

“When we first went to Los Angeles, we really only had French pay TV to offer as an outlet. Now we have pay television across Europe. We are also a strong player in a European market which has become increasingly important for theatrical revenues, and this at a time when the Hollywood studios want to share financing risks by splitting rights. Oh yes … we’re hopefully a bit wiser.”

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