Besson, Le Pogam turn passion into profit

When Gallic film mavens Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange Le Pogam decided to launch EuropaCorp in 2000, their vision was simple if ambitious.

They wanted to make the kind of films they had grown up loving, whether those be Hollywood-style genre films or Francophone cinema d’auteur — but they wanted to do so on their own terms. That meant basing themselves in France and, while ingraining themselves in the European film industry, taking a global view.

Nearly a decade later, Besson and Le Pogam reap the benefits. The duo still control many of the aspects of EuropaCorp’s activities, from the development and production of its projects to its distribution operations in France and its international sales arm.

The third musketeer, Jean-Julien Baronnet, former exec VP of specialty chemical manufacturer Rhodia, joined as CEO last November to run the company while Besson remains chairman of the board of directors.

“Pierre-Ange wanted to dedicate himself to production,” explains Baronnet. “But producing nine to 13 films per year and run the company on his own at the same time was nearly impossible.”

Baronnet breaks down the new relationship: “We decide together on our international activities, diversification and greenlighting, although Pierre-Ange and Luc focus on the artistic and creative factors while I evaluate the profit margins and other business factors.”

In addition to its steady position as a French production and distribution powerhouse, the company has grown to become, along with the likes of Pathe and Teuton banner Constantin, one of the foremost producers of English-language fare outside of the U.S.

This year EuropaCorp is enjoying its most spectacular success, with helmer Pierre Morel’s “Taken.” The action pic, which cost a lean $37 million and was fully produced in France, has taken in more than $140 million in the U.S. alone, where it was released by Fox.

There’s plenty more than the success of “Taken” for the dynamic French duo to crow about. In April, EuropaCorp inked a deal with Miramax and Universal/Focus Features Intl. to create an English-language remake of their breakout French thriller “Tell No One,” about a doctor grieving for his dead wife but who discovers she may still be alive. Kathleen Kennedy is onboard to co-produce the pic.

“We make films we’d want to watch with passion and without shame,” says Besson. “In the last 15 years, the world has shrunk and there has been a global, cultural melting pot. The new generation has accelerated this trend by being more open to other cultures and, as a result, cinema has evolved.”

Revenues are exceptional for an indie French company. Between March and December last year, EuropaCorp saw sales of $123.8 million, of which $39.1 million came internationally. About a third of EuropaCorp’s revenues emanate from international sales, a keen indicator of the company’s ability to deliver pics with global appeal.

In May 2007, Besson and Le Pogam took EuropaCorp public by listing on the Paris Stock Exchange. That move has proved a mixed blessing: Though EuropaCorp’s share price has been rising in recent months — as of late April it was holding steady at around the $7 mark — that’s still some way off its all-time high of $21 a share back in mid-2007. Regardless, being publicly listed has been a real advantage, giving the company that $100 million line of credit to develop and produce its projects.

“It can be difficult for analysts to understand the nature of the film business and see that year on year and even sometimes quarter on quarter we’re becoming a richer company thanks to the assets we have, which are our films,” Le Pogam says. “It’s a question of education. We’re still very confident of our business model. Going public actually showed people we were a real company. It was important for us. There was a recognition from the industry.”

That recognition has only grown with EuropaCorp’s continued ability to deliver modestly budgeted, mainstream pics with international crossover potential. Some of its biggest hits to date include “Taken” (budget: $37 million; worldwide box office to date $210 million) and the “Transporter” trilogy (average budget $31 million; worldwide box office to date $228 million).

Those English-language pics have brought the company much attention from Hollywood, where EuropaCorp enjoys strong relationships with the likes of Fox and Lionsgate.

“EuropaCorp is unique because Luc and Pierre-Ange are the creator and producers of the movies,” says Fox co-topper Jim Gianopulos. “They’re more than a production and marketing entity. They’re involved in every step of the process, from concept to completion. Luc has the ability to identify and mentor new talent and emerging filmmakers in the French community. ”

In fact, while both Besson and Le Pogam have had to contend with snobbery from some of their fellow French peers, EuropaCorp has been at the forefront of nurturing the new generation of French filmmakers raised on a diet of American genre fare.

The likes of Pierre Morel (“Taken”), Louis Laterriere (“The Incredible Hulk”) and Richard Berry (“L’immortel”) have all come through EuropaCorp’s finishing school, often making their first features for the company.

“The market has changed in France,” says Emmanuel Prevost, who produced both “Arthur and the Invisibles” and recent EuropaCorp action hit “Go Fast” starring Roschdy Zem. “Luc Besson works like an American studio in that he respects the public. In the past, French directors were always in search of a masterpiece, but it was in a very specific, intellectual way. Now filmmakers are becoming less complex, and the advent of multiplex has had a big impact.”

While the company has forged a reputation for its popcorn-friendly fare, neither Besson nor Le Pogam are afraid of taking creative risks — at the right budget. At Cannes this year, the company has both English-language “I Love You Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as gay lovers, and French helmer Xavier Giannoli’s “A l’origine,” starring Gerard Depardieu, in official selection.

Even though EuropaCorp is hoping to increase its English-language projects from one or two features a year to three or four, it will continue to maintain its level of four to six French features a year.

Both Besson and Le Pogam are keen to not let their current success cloud their long-term strategy of building EuropaCorp responsibly. Neither believes it likely, or feasible, to rival the U.S. studios anytime soon. If anything, it’s constructive partnership they’re in search of.

“Our strength comes from the fact that we’re small,” Le Pogam says. “It means we’re more reactive.”

As for Besson, the iconic helmer is readying his next directorial project, set to be announced at Cannes. Despite more than two decades of accolades, he insists he will never let success affect his filmmaking philosophy.

“We make a conscious effort on a daily basis to keep thinking as producers and not as movie moguls,” Besson says. “I remember when I was 18 working at a production company. One day I heard my boss arguing with a distributor because he couldn’t see his film’s posters anywhere. Eventually, my boss realized he didn’t see them because he was driving around in his Porsche. I’ll never be that guy.”

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