Co-productionss rise as TV funds dry up

ROME — Is cross-border collaboration becoming more fertile?

While Euro co-productions aren’t getting any easier, several of the most prominent recent European pics show that transnational filmmaking is alive and well.

Case in point: Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning “The White Ribbon.”

Haneke’s biggest production to date, budgeted at $18 million, this very rare case of a four-territory co-prod between Germany, Austria, France and Italy saw regular Haneke producers Margaret Menegoz of France’s Les Films du Losange and Veit Heiduschka of Austria’s Wega Film extending their creative partnership to Stefan Arndt of Germany’s X Filme Creative Pool, which put up almost half the budget, and Italy’s Lucky Red boarding as a co-financer/co-producer rather than a mere pre-buyer.

Jacques Audiard’s gritty prison drama “A Prophet,” which was packaged as a French-Italian co-prod by Paris-based Why Not with Italy’s BIM Distribuzione holding an equity stake, and Marco Bellocchio’s Mussolini movie “Vincere,” set up as an Italian-French project between Rome indie Offside, RAI Cinema, and Celluloid Dreams, are high-profile and critically acclaimed pics that illustrate cross-border collaborations hitting screens.

In the case of “Prophet,” BIM opted to make a bigger investment than a pre-buy in exchange for a 10% equity stake, signaling an increased willingness to share risk along with “Prophet’s” profits, while “Vincere” sees Bellocchio make his most mainstream pic to date shepherded by young producer Mario Gianani, whose pact with Celluloid Dreams allowed the helmer to work with his most lavish budget — $13 million.

Just as France and Italy introduce new national tax incentives that may not favor co-productions – while the U.K. is decidely not Euro co-production friendly – a drive by young European producers is under way to mount more projects in tandem with their neighbors as a means to tap into more markets.

n some cases this is certainly also a way to compensate for TV coin drying up.

But as competition for soft money toughens across the European Union, the Europudding projects that once saw European producers joining forces just to tap into cross-border subsidies no longer seem to be gelling.

“A European co-production project now needs to be stronger, more international, bigger, to make it work,” says Bavaria Pictures production topper Philipp Kreuzer.

“Only these movies will actually be made, as opposed to the ones that are just financially driven.”

The new mantra at Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s co-production fund (where Kreuzer used to be an exec), is that European co-productions travel better than movies generated by just one country.

That claim is based on a 2008 study known as the Krackow Report, issued by the European Audiovisual Observatory, analyzing data between 2001 and 2007. It states that in Europe “co-productions on average get released in more than twice as many markets as national films.”

Of course European co-productions have always existed. But while output is stable, with about 250 co-prods a year over the past five years, “the mentality of producers is changing as they envision projects that can resonate with audiences in different countries,” says Eurimages executive director Roberto Olla.

“Stories are becoming more and more international, which definitely does not mean a French-German romancer.”

And while Eurimages only recoups ?1.5 million ($2.2 million) of the ? 20 million ($30 million) it invests the 60 projects it supports per year, the org is a prime fixture on the international fest circuit. Eurimages in 2009 had 12 titles unspooling in Cannes, nine in Berlin, and five in Venice.

Certainly most big-budget commercial projects coming out of Europe, be it the “Asterix” franchise or Constantin Film’s lavish female pope costumer “Pope Joan” and Roman Polanski’s upcoming thriller “The Ghost,” are packaged as co-prods, which are also seen as a common bulwark against Hollywood blockbusters.

According to producer Charles Gillibert of Gallic mini-major MK2, “Co-productions in Europe are one of the most efficient ways to build a type of European identity.”

By contrast, mirroring its Euroskeptic political stance, Blighty has almost ceased to be a European co-production partner under its current tax scheme, which is inimical to co-prods. The U.K. also does not participate in Eurimages.

“It’s quite difficult today to work with the U.K.,” admits Gillibert, though MK2 does have close relationships with U.K. and U.S. producers.

France, of course, with its wealth of soft money, is Europe’s co-prod champ. According to France’s Centre National de la Cinematographie, out of 240 features produced in Gaul in 2008, 95 were co-productions and 44 of these originated – and were majority-financed – in another country.

“If a foreign film has potential for France, then a French producer will get involved,” says Patrick Lamassoure, managing director of Film France, which oversees the country’s film commissions.

Lamassoure, however, admits that recent tax regulations in Gaul, designed to keep coin within national confines, may be forcing some local producers to give up producing a film with a European partner. New Italian tax rebates are sparking similar concerns, though it is too early to clearly understand their full implications.

Still, the advantage of shooting with trans-national auds as a target seems to be outweighing other possible obstacles.

“The whole idea is to have more partners on board from the get-go, with the full awareness that the market for that project involves more countries,” is how Andrea Occhipinti, topper of Italy’s Lucky Red, puts it.

High-profile co-productions on the horizon

• “Black Venus”: MK2 has set up Tunisian-born Gallic helmer Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus” as a French, Italy and Belgium co-production with Lucky Red as the Italian partner. Highly anticipated pic from Kechiche (“The Secret of the Grain”) is a biopic of 19th century South African tribeswoman Sarah Baartman who, due to her oversized physical features, was displayed as a freak at high-society parties in London and Paris. Now in post.

• “Solitude of Prime Numbers”: In November, Bavaria boarded Italy’s Isabella Rossellini-starrer “Solitude of Prime Numbers,” based on Paolo Giordano’s bestselling novel about trauma, love and math, adapted by hot young Italo helmer Saverio Costanzo (“Private”). Produced by Mario Gianani’s Offside, “Numbers” is shooting in Italy and will be moving soon to Germany.

• “This Must be the Place”: Lucky Red is packaging as a European co-production the English-language debut of Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”), toplining Sean Penn. Titled “This Must Be the Place,” pic turns on a retired rock star (Penn) on a quest to find his father’s Nazi executioner. An August 2010 shoot is planned.

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