French co. unveils slate of indie English pics

LONDON — As the Hollywood studios increasingly take a global view in their production decisions, European companies are taking a similar approach. Pathe is ramping up a slate of pics covering topics ranging from the Alabama civil-rights movement to “The Jungle Book” to the Israel-Palestine conflict — and the French film company is making them all in English.

Pathe thus joins the growing ranks of European-based companies such as France’s EuropaCorp and Germany’s Constantin by creating films in the mid-budget gap left by the faltering U.S. indie market.

Pathe hopes to become one of the leading indie producers of English-language films outside the U.S. That represents a significant strategic shift for the company, which has been most active recently in U.K. distribution and third-party acquisitions, as well as its own productions.

“Without wanting to sound hubristic, we do want to become one of the leading indie producers out there,” says Pathe U.K.’s managing director Cameron McCracken.

A key plank in the company’s English-language ambitions is its five-year pact with Christian Colson’s shingle Cloud Nine Films, for development, production, sales and distribution. The startup shingle from the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” producer will take some time before it’s fully up and running. (Pathe co-financed and produced that pic.)

Cloud Nine will work with Pathe and Celador Films on “Selma,” which traces the civil-rights march in the Alabama town. That project is slated to go in to production later this year.

Julian Schnabel will direct “Miral,” an adaptation of Rula Jebreal’s book about the real-life Palestinian woman Hind Husseini who started the Dar Al-Tifl orphanage in Jerusalem in the wake of the 1948 partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. Freida Pinto has joined the cast of the pic.

The company is working with Warner Bros. on a $60 million live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” A decision on whether to greenlight the project is due shortly, after execs look at test footage, which involved adding a new style of CGI to footage of real tigers.

Pathe also has projects previously developed and financed with Colson and Celador Films.

Currently lensing is director Neil Marshall’s “Centurion,” set in 87 A.D. during the Roman invasion of Britain, with a platoon of Roman soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in what is now Scotland.

Currently in post-production are Jon Harris’ horror sequel “The Descent Part 2″ and Tom Harper’s dark coming-of-age tale “The Scouting Book for Boys” starring Brit thesp Thomas Turgoose (“This Is England”).

While these projects were all in the pipelines prior to the “Slumdog” juggernaut, that film’s success has given Pathe execs some added muscle to realize their ambitions.

” ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was a wonderful achievement but the level of its success cannot be planned,” says Pathe’s director general Francois Ivernel. “We can’t rely on it as a business model for the future. The intention of aligning ourselves with a studio like Warner Bros. and moving a high number of acquisitions a year to a smaller number of productions has been there for a while. ‘Slumdog’ has given us more flexibility but it hasn’t changed what we were intending to do.”

The company has experienced its share of corporate ups and downs since being founded by brothers Charles, Emile, Theophile and Jacques Pathe in 1896. (By comparison, the oldest of the U.S. studios, Paramount, was founded in 1912.)

By 1910, Pathe had theaters and production facilities in various global outposts. Since that time there have been bankruptcies, expansions into TV production and numerous changes of management.

Stability returned in the figure of chief exec Jerome Seydoux, who took control in 1990 through his conglom Chargeurs Intl.

After introducing multiplexes to France, Seydoux sold off Pathe’s stakes in TV-satellite firms, concentrating Pathe on its film operations.

“Jerome is in this for the long haul and that shows in some of the creative risks he’s prepared to make,” says McCracken. “There is something fundamentally French about Pathe’s respect for talent. In the U.S. and U.K. I think companies tend to have more of a producer/business bias, whereas France has such a long history of upholding the primacy of the author’s rights. The director even has final cut by law.”

The company is headquartered in France, where it boasts a strong exhibition circuit and will continue to distribute its own releases as well as produce French-language fare.

In the U.K., it has managed to become a key player in the famously insular British film industry. On March 12, Pathe announced WB will distribute all the French major’s films in the U.K. and Ireland, as well as work together on English-language co-productions. Pathe will retain the services of U.K. managing director of distribution John Fletcher and continue to devise the marketing strategies for its pics, as well as put up the coin for their P&A spend. But the nuts and bolts of booking and invoicing theaters will now be the responsibility of WB.

While some Brits are lamenting the exit of a major buyer from the challenged market, others applaud Pathe’s new direction and a potential financing and producing partner outside the studio system.

Ivernel and McCracken are building an eclectic slate in terms of budget and subject matter. Invernel shrugs off comparisons to Working Title or EuropaCorp, in terms of Pathe’s ambitions.

“In terms of Europe, though, the only companies which matter in terms of English language productions are EuropaCorp, Constantin and ourselves. We are able to greenlight a film without any conditions of pre-sales and we can go for very small or very big films, genre or art films.”

Pathe’s ramping-up of its English language activities isn’t stopping the company from remaining a Gallic major. It produced and distributed one of France’s biggest hits of the year, “Laughing Out Loud,” a comedy starring Sophie Marceau.

Pathe is also expanding its production activities without having to diversify from its core film business.

“We’re a pure film company,” says McCracken. “There are a lot of companies out there that are backed by television companies or have a big television animal at its side but our activities are pure cinema.”

Pathe execs are pointing to their longstanding home entertainment deal with Fox as a sign of indie-studio co-habitation.

“The business model really wasn’t working in terms of indie distribution,” explains McCracken. “We are now in the uncharted waters of the digital age and period of flux for traditional media with collapsing windows and new exploitation platforms, whether with windows or platforms for exploitation. For us to be able to compete and prosper in that environment, we needed a strong strategic partner. That’s what the studios offer. They’re survivors par excellence.”

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