When Christophe Lambert was tapped CEO of Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp in 2010, he got a lukewarm welcome from the local film industry. Indeed, he was best known as a leading advertising exec with ties to France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. Since then, there’s been nothing but applause for Lambert, who has led EuropaCorp to a record €19.6 million ($25.5 million) net profit for 2012-13. Under his watch, EuropaCorp has opened its La Cite du Cinema studio and backlot outside Paris, signed strategic output deals in key international markets, and diversified into TV production and theatrical exhibition. Lambert last month launched a decisive phase of the shingle’s expansion, reaching a $130 million deal to create Relativity EuropaCorp Distribution (RED), a U.S. distribution company jointly owned with Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media. Variety’s Elsa Keslassy spoke with Lambert about the new company’s slate, the cost of doing business in the U.S. and EuropaCorp’s push into English-language production.
Elsa Keslassy: You made that joint distribution deal with Relativity for $130 million. Seems like a lot of money.
Christophe Lambert: No, it’s not. To acquire a distribution company that right away is capable of releasing 15 movies a year in the U.S. is highly valuable. Through this company, we benefit from agreements with Fox Home Entertainment and Netflix, and various distribution channels. That establishes that company’s value at $260 million, and it ranks in the top eight distribution companies in the U.S.
EK: Could you tell me how the joint venture is structured?
CL: RED will distribute films from EuropaCorp and Relativity; but EuropaCorp USA (the French company’s L.A.-based arm) and Relativity Media will retain their respective distribution mandates for each film, and revenues from theatrical, video and TV, which will flow directly back to each of us. And all the marketing employees of Relativity have now been transferred to RED. The agreement also gives us a first-look option (on Relativity’s films) and allows us to invest up to 50% in equity in each others’ films.
EK: What are the first movies that will be released in the U.S. via RED?
CL: Louis Leterrier’s “Sea at War,” the “Transporter” trilogy reboot and
“DNA” (to be directed by Simon West). We’re also considering releasing
Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent” in the U.S. since it’s got a strong international potential. But “Lucy” and “Taken 3” will be released by Universal and Fox, respectively, since we signed those deals prior to the launch of RED.
EK: So you’ll consider using RED to distribute your French-language movies in the U.S.?
CL: Yes, but it won’t be often. Very few French-language films can appeal to mainstream U.S. audiences. In any
case, we’ll do a platform release on these movies.
EK: Why does it make more sense financially to release your movies directly in the U.S. and put down the P&A rather than signing with a U.S. major like Universal or Fox, which can release your films in multiple territories?
CL: It makes sense because we have output deals in nearly every major market (for instance, Fundamental in China, Universum in Germany, Scanbox in Scandinavia). Our partners want to have access to our international films since they rarely have access to U.S. studio movies, which are often handled by U.S. majors’ foreign arms. When we make a movie like “Lucy” with Universal, it frustrates our partners considerably.
EK: Clearly, you seem to be planning to increase the volume of your English-language productions.
CL: Yes. The whole idea behind this deal is to have the ability to produce around eight English-language films per year. We have the projects, ideas and resources, but up until now we didn’t have the capacity to distribute them in the U.S.
EK: Since you’ll be producing many more English-language movies, are you looking to expand beyond actioners and thrillers? How well are you connected with U.S. independent talent and producers in order to generate projects?
CL: We’re looking to broaden our scope. We’ll be doing melodramas and dramedies, as well as continue making fantasies, sci-fi, thrillers and action movies. We already have a great melodrama that is ready. (He declined to specify the title.) As far as our industry connections in the U.S., Lisa Ellzey, who spearheads our L.A. office, has been introducing us to some great talent and screenwriters, but we still need to establish ties with independent producers. It will be our next challenge. Being a distributor will give us extra leverage to negotiate with agents and sign talent. They’ll know we’re not using their clients’ names to lock down a distribution deal.
EK: If you’re going to make more English-language movies, what are your plans concerning production of French-language films?
CL: We’re going to considerably cut down the number of French-language movies we produce to three or four. We’re open to working with French producers who want to make English-language movies, and we’ll continue working with producers like Alain Attal (Les Productions du Tresor), Mandarin Cinema or LGM, although we’re not interested in signing output deals. I believe that in five years or so, more and more French producers will be able to make successful movies in English.