Variety's Achievement in Int'l Film Award: Olivier Courson

With a three-year, $800 million war chest from 2011 to co-produce, finance and buy movies, Studiocanal boasts one of the biggest film financing capacities of any movie company in Europe.

It also has — and this is typical of Studiocanal CEO-chairman Olivier Courson — a very precise idea of what productions it wants to spend the money on.

Take “Serena.” Building on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and along with Joel and Ethan Coen’s Scott Rudin-produced “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Michel Gondry’s “Mood Indigo,” the pic stakes out Studiocanal’s top-of-the range ambitions for movies that do not involve a studio partner.

Director Susanne Bier has made English-language films before, but nothing on the scale of “Serena,” which she calls “a thriller love story.” In fact, many Studiocanal productions inhabit a middle ground between auteur cinema and mainstream entertainment. And, rather than co-producing, Studiocanal co-finances with Los Angeles-based 2929 Entertainment.

“Our philosophy is not to make the movies physically but produce, finance, co-finance and develop, working with a network of great independent producers in France, U.S. and the U.K., to exploit the movies,” Courson says.

The network comprises a variety of far-flung companies, including U.S.’ Strike Entertainment, 2929 and Joel Silver’s Dark Castle; Blighty’s Working Title, Big Talk and Warp Films; plus France’s LGM Cinema, Ce Qui Me Meut and Brio Films.

Under Courson’s watch, Studiocanal has four production priorities: The first is international indie titles, such as “Serena,” “Llewyn Davis” and “Mood Indigo”; next, family entertainment, such as producer David Heyman’s “Paddington Bear” adaptation and “Sammy’s Adventures 2″; then, what can be called elevated genre, like “The Last Exorcism” franchise, produced by Strike and Eli Roth; and, finally, local productions with international appeal, think Blighty’s “Attack the Block” and French biopic “My Way.”

Whenever Studiocanal boards a project, it usually brings significant clout to the table.

For 2929’s Ben Cosgrove, “Studiocanal is often very willing to put up minimum guarantees against not only their three territories (France, the U.K. and Germany) but also against other international territories. For producers, that significantly cuts down the risk as well as financing costs.”

Also, as many U.S. films gross far more abroad, “Having a company that’s plugged in to what’s working internationally is invaluable,” Strike’s Eric Newman suggests.

Ce Qui Me Meut’s Bruno Levy agrees: “Olivier Courson has created a studio and opened it up to other markets. That can really help French production.”

Studiocanal “isn’t afraid to put the wind in the sails of a project, which is always the trick with a culturally specific film like, for instance, ‘Attack the Block’s’ night exteriors and expansive shots,” adds Big Talk’s Matthew Justice.

But Studiocanal isn’t throwing good money away. The company “is making bigger bets on films than European companies have in the past,” Cosgrove says, “but they’re being very smart about their moves, and it seems to be paying off. The quality of the films is very high, and they’re always made in financially sound ways.”

The numbers bear Cosgrove out. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was “something of a game-changer” for Studiocanal, says Tim Bevan of Working Title, which produced the film.

Studiocanal financed the $22.7 million pic, which grossed $80 million worldwide. The $1.6 million “The Last Exorcism” pulled in $70 million.

Studiocanal is not a passive investor. “They gave us a lot of advice on the cast, the visual approach, about being spectacular without going overboard, how much money we could put in,” recalls “Mood Indigo” producer/co-scribe Luc Bossi.

But it allows partners creative freedoms. “Studiocanal is a big group in France, but Olivier (Courson) doesn’t run it like a big company,” says Cyril Colbeau-Justin at Paris’ LGM.

Adds LGM partner Jean-Baptiste Dupont, “We have many meetings at projects’ very beginnings to decide globally about their direction, after which Olivier allows us large creative autonomy.”

For Bevan, Studiocanal is “an obvious partner for a certain kind of European film that Working Title wants to continue to make but that doesn’t fit quite as comfortably with Universal.”

The company has “that great combination of European creative sensibilities and a serious commercial backbone to its decision-making,” says Justice.

That gives many Studiocanal movies a very contemporary crossover tenor.

“With 2929, we share the same philosophy,” says Courson, “to do elevated genre movies with great directors, great casts.”

Of Studiocanal’s French co-productions, even Alain Resnais’ Cannes competition player “You Haven’t Seen Anything Yet” and Jean Becker’s “Bienvenue parmi nous,” two classic auteur films, can also be audience events, at least in France and perhaps abroad, Courson argues.

Mixing artistic ambition and commercial heft, Studiocanal plays off market trends.

“Compared to 15 or 20 years ago, when PolyGram operated, there are more market-attuned young and not-so-young directors. That’s a good opportunity for Studiocanal,” says Philippe Kern, at Brussels consultancy Kea.

Studiocanal nurses new talent, such as Paddy Considine’s Warp-produced “Tyrannosaur” and Chris Morris’ “Four Lions,” BAFTA first feature winners this year and last.

“They’re just the kind of films we’re willing to take a risk on, but we can only take that risk because of the backing of someone like Studiocanal,” says Warp’s Mark Herbert.

In parallel, Studiocanal is fast consolidating as a first port of call for cutting-edge directors with local-language hits who want to raise their game.

Swede Tomas Alfredson segued from “Let the Right One In” to “Tinker Tailor.” Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky went from “The Counterfeiters” to “Deadfall,” co-financed by 2929 and Studiocanal and a hit at April’s Tribeca.

Now Luca Guadagnino is prepping a thriller, his English-language debut, for Scott Free and Studiocanal. Joann Sfar and “Rango” producer John Carls are working on the development and screenplay of English-language 3D animated feature “Little Vampire,” which adapts Sfar’s best-selling graphic novel, “Little Vampire Goes to School.”

Expect more significant production announcements at Cannes.

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