Company takes Cannes limelight

CANNES Studio Canal is making a fresh bid to become a European major, ramping up its investments in new films to the tune of $200 million annually, and flexing its distribution muscle beyond France’s borders.

The company has been in the limelight at the Cannes Film Fest, with two pics bookending the festival: Wong Kar Wai’s opener “My Blueberry Nights” and Denys Arcand’s closer “The Age of Ignorance.” Another, Emir Kusturica’s “Promise Me This,” falls in the middle.

Those movies will feed Studio Canal’s library of 5,000 titles, which the studio is also busy mining for remake purposes.

New projects with an array of international partners include a new “Escape From New York,” being developed with New Line, a Brit version of the French classic “La Piscine” and a remake of “The Dam Busters” being developed with Universal.

Studio Canal’s relationship with its erstwhile merger partner is very much on again, and the classic Brit war pic is just one illustration of that.

Studio Canal has recently pacted with Universal to handle the physical distribution of its films in the Benelux countries, the latest piece in a European distribution puzzle after Britain’s Momentum, which it acquired last year.

Meanwhile Universal and Studio Canal have also re-upped their Working Title partnership, with Studio Canal increasing its stake in the Brit production shingle’s films, and taking distribution rights to Benelux, as well as France.

The architect of the Canal Plus Group subsid’s big ambitions is the company’s new chairman, Olivier Courson.

In his first interview since taking the operational reins of the group earlier this year, he told Variety: “Studio Canal is back, but doing things differently this time.”

Last time around, the company’s plans for major-studio status were sacrificed in the short-lived merger of Vivendi and Canal Plus with Universal. In the wake of the break-up, Canal Plus Group was revealed to be $5 billion in debt, and Studio Canal, along with other divisions, received a radical make-over, shrinking back to a streamlined Gallic business with a much-reduced budget.

Today, the Canal Plus Group has entered a new growth phase, and orders have been sent down from parent company Vivendi to maximize cash flow across its various businesses.

Studio Canal acquired British distrib Optimum last year, and opened an international office in London headed by managing director Frederic Sichler, from where it plans to develop international projects.

As part of its new methods, the company no longer produces inhouse; it’s only co-producing pics. But fully financing, as it did with “Blueberry Nights,” remains an option.

“The idea is to initiate projects, not to only be a financial partner, and to be able to nourish our distribution pipeline and international sales,” Courson says.

With Columbia, the company co-financed Mathieu Kassovitz’ Vin Diesel starrer “Babylon AD,” which finished shooting this week.

Other international films slated to go into production this year include Johnnie To’s remake of the Jean-Pierre Melville classic “The Red Circle” and ” Honor Among Thieves,” directed by John Rogers.

Says Courson, “We are going to get Johnnie To to do something he has never done before, which is an international film with an international cast. It is a bit like Wong Kar Wai, who we are taking on a new path that he has never explored before, with an international cast in the U.S.

“With the Johnnie To film, we preferred to stay in Hong Kong, but he’ll work in conditions he’s never had before with a budget he’s never had before.”

As well as backing roughly three international projects a year, Studio Canal will also invest in 12-15 French and European titles.

Upcoming films range from Jean Jacques Annaud’s French language mythologically themed “His Majesty Minor,” which the company is selling internationally, to “Disco,” a popular French comedy Studio Canal will distribute in Gaul, by the helmer and star duo, Fabien Onteniente and Franck Dubosc, behind last year’s summer hit, “Camping.”

“It was one of the first films I greenlit,” says Courson. ” I think popular comedies are one of the things France is the best at.

“We are positioning ourselves as a European major while working on bigger budget films with the American majors,” Courson says.

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