Indies dial wrong number for StudioCanal

Unease develops between studio and indie film world

PARIS — The $23 million English-language “The Pretender,” one of the most ambitious French projects announced at the Cannes Intl. Film Festival this year, has been ditched by StudioCanal in a litigious clash with its producer, Georges Benayoun.

At the height of the buzz about the film, Sean Penn was tipped to star alongside two of France’s hottest actors, Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz. Gilles Mimouni, helmer of the acclaimed first pic, “The Apartment,” would direct.

But having blown 7.3 million francs ($1 million) between them on development, StudioCanal and Benayoun, a long-standing associate, are now reduced to squabbling over unpaid bills of $245,000.

The row illustrates a continuing unease between the Euro studio, launched just a few months prior to the merger that led to Vivendi Universal, and some in France’s indie film world.

Coin overestimated

StudioCanal’s bullish talk about moviemaking and the raising of $200 million on the Paris stock market a few months before the merger with Universal did much to whet French filmmakers’ appetites.

When the studio boldly went ahead with “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” co-produced by StudioCanal’s Richard Grandpierre and Metropolitan’s Samuel Hadida, which cost $31 million, others thought they, too, could set their sights on big-budget fare.

Benayoun isn’t the only producer to have gotten it wrong. Last year, Thomas Langmann, the son of Claude Berri, saw StudioCanal pull out of two big budget action films it had helped develop with him — “Le Boulet” (Dead Weight), which went on to be co-produced by Warner France, and “Blueberry,” an actioner to be helmed by Jan Kounen (“Doberman”).

Differing views

Says Langmann: “The budgets were very high, and when StudioCanal didn’t want to commit, I think it was to do with the fact that the company was in a state of flux because of the merger.”

But StudioCanal’s French production topper Brahim Chioua says his company’s policy on French films hasn’t changed since the creation of Vivendi Universal, and that when it has pulled out of projects, it had good reasons for doing so.

“To blame those decisions on Vivendi Universal is utter nonsense,” says the exec.

In terms of big-budget movies, Chioua points out that projects being developed right now include the $26 million English-language “Bob Morane,” helmed by Christophe Gans. It won’t go ahead, he says, without a U.S. distribution deal.

Where French movies are concerned, Gans’ “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” which cost more than was ever intended but which went on to notch 10 million admissions worldwide, was a “lucky” exception says Chioua.

“One mustn’t be blinded by the current box office success of French films,” concludes the French exec. “Like American studios, we have to calculate what we can get back before we start spending.”

Meanwhile, in an Oct. 5 ruling in favor of Benayoun, a French court ordered StudioCanal to stump up the cash for “The Pretender.”

But Vivendi Universal’s Euro film arm is refusing to pay, and has lodged an appeal.

The sorry demise of the epic-scaled project dates back to some weeks after Cannes.

According to Benayoun, Alain Sarde, whose Les Films Alain Sarde is entirely owned by Canal Plus, “unilaterally announced” that the company no longer wanted to finance the project. Benayoun claims the “The Pretender” was shelved without consulting with him.

Studio Canal’s Chioua tells a different story. According to him, the preliminary budget to which StudioCanal had agreed shot up by more than 30% in a matter of weeks, but when asked, Benayoun refused to make cuts.

“When we looked at pre-sales, we couldn’t justify the extra cost,” says Chioua, “but Benayoun wouldn’t budge.”

Benayoun continues to believe that the project, about the recovery of a Jewish family’s Nazi-confiscated possessions, will see the light of day.

“With French and American actors, it is a perfect film for a Franco-American group like Vivendi Universal. If StudioCanal is afraid to handle it, they should give it to Universal,” he suggests, somewhat unrealistically. “Stacey Snider would make a good job of it.”

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