Producer Luc Besson wins over U.S. box office

U.S. filmgoers are smitten with “Taken,” with the Liam Neeson actioner nabbing $118 million through March 8. The pic, about a former CIA agent seeking his missing daughter, even got an all-American sendoff by bowing on that quintessential Yankee sports rite, Super Bowl weekend.

But audiences might be surprised to discover that the Fox-distribbed pic was directed by a Frenchman and fully produced by Gallic companies — mostly by EuropaCorp, the nine-year-old production and distribution company founded by producer-writer-director Luc Besson and Pierre Ange Le Pogam.

Besson, who writes most of the films he produces, was one of Gaul’s first filmmakers to start making French pics in English.

“When I made ‘The Big Blue’ in English back in 1988, people in France were cursing me,” says Besson. “They considered it a big scandal to make French films in English.”

The 50-year-old is an anomaly among France’s artsy auteurs, known for his commercial sensiblities and taste for splashy action pics that appeal to young multi-ethnic filmgoers. Always clad in jeans and t-shirts, the burly, spiky-haired and bearded producer is a self-taught filmmaker. He said was he was denied admission to Gaul’s most prestigious film school, La Femis, because he openly expressed his penchant for American cinema. Even today, Besson cultivates a rebellious streak. He recently voiced his anger after UGC refused to screen  “B13 Ultimatum,” because it would bring in the “wrong kind” of filmgoers.  

Besson has a more checkered history when his company has ventured into the risky waters of English-language indies.

“I Love You Phillip Morris” bowed to lots of buzz at Sundance, but the dark comedy starring Jim Carrey as a gay con man and Ewan McGregor as his cellmate lover, didn’t find a U.S. distributor at the festival. Nearly two months later, CAA and Endeavor are closing in on a U.S. distribution deal. The $18 million pic was financed through foreign presales.

The company’s previous American indies such as Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” didn’t catch on, but it has had better luck with French titles like “Tell No One, ” which it co-produced.

Le Pogam recently announced the company is in talks with Hollywood partners for American remakes of the thriller “Tell No One” and futuristic actioner “Banlieue 13.”

“Taken,” however, does show what EuropaCorp can deliver.

“The phenomenon of ‘Taken’ has amazed people in Hollywood,” says Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos. “The box office drop from one week to the next has been in the teens.”

Both Gianopulos and Jason Constantine, Lionsgate’s president of acquisitions and co-productions, agree that EuropaCorp’s most attractive asset is its ability to deliver high-concept movies at the low- to mid-budget range that can punch in high numbers in multiple territories.

Lionsgate distribbed EuropaCorp titles “Transporter 2,” “Transporter 3″ and horror pic “Frontier(s).” Fox handled “Taken” and EuropaCorp pics “Hitman” and “Transporter” in multiple territories including the U.S.

“They have a very smart business model that allows them to thrive even in the current economic environment,” says Constantine. “EuropaCorp has a remarkable ability to consistently produce films that can be marketable, wide-release movies in North America.”

“Taken” cost a lean $37 million, and looks likely to top $200 million worldwide.

Before launching EuropaCorp, Besson broke through in the U.S. with 1998′s Bruce Willis starrer “The Fifth Element,” which grossed more than $63 million domestically. EuropaCorp’s first major release was 2001 actioner “Kiss of the Dragon.”

Even though he enjoys a strong young Gaul fanbase, Besson has been criticized by French critics for making American-style action movies that lack depth and originality. But it’s precisely these commercial titles that have helped EuropaCorp’s films account for more than 40% of French film exports over the past two years.

“Taken” director Pierre Morel also toplines the company’s next high-profile actioner, John Travolta-starrer “From Paris With Love,” due in late 2009.

But EuropaCorp’s not trying to take over Hollywood, just be a reliable supplier for the France and the rest of Europe, as well as the U.S.

“Our focus is to make the best possible films that we’d want to watch and give our American partners their money’s worth,” says Besson.

But, he adds: “Studios have been in Hollywood for 100 years and if we can just live alongside them, it’s perfect for us.”

But the publicly traded company will need to make bigger pics to reduce the volatility of its quarterly results. Although revenues have climbed by 19% since Jan. 1, EuropaCorp’s stock has fallen by 73% since the shingle sought public listing in May 2007.

Even those critical of Besson’s taste admit that he deserves credit for mentoring tyro and soph helmers: Morel, Louis Leterrier, Xavier Gens, Alexandre Aja and Olivier Megaton — much of France’s new genre wave.

“EuropaCorp’s model of apprenticeship is reminiscent of the old Hollywood studio system, in which filmmakers are brought up in an organized infrastructure of technical support and creative mentorship,” says Constantine.

John Hopewell and Ali Jaafar contributed to this report.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more