The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Metropolitan Filmexport, France’s independent distribution leader owned by brothers Samuel and Victor Hadida, has not just survived; it has steadfastly thrived for the past 35 years.

Thanks to the Hadida brothers’ deep-rooted ties to Hollywood’s power players, passion for movies and guts, they’ve been able to stay on top in spite of the downfall of U.S. studios’ specialty divisions, rampant piracy and intense competition on the French distribution front.

The Hadidas have shaped the taste of French audiences — they were the first distributor in Gaul to import cult Hollywood movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” David Fincher’s “Seven” and martial-arts pics with Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1990s.

“We brought a new kind of film to France and created the Metropolitan generation, one that grew up watching American movies that were both director-driven and entertaining, like the Tarantino movies,” Victor says.

The Hadidas complement each other perfectly: Samuel (known as Sammy), who focuses more on the production side of the biz, has a forceful and creative personality that meshes well with Hollywood studio execs and filmmakers. His brother Victor, who handles the distribution activities, is more discreet, mild-mannered and eloquent. He can comfortably navigate Gaul’s film circuit. They’re both impressive negotiators.

After a difficult 2012, Metropolitan bounced back with a successful 2013. It scored with €72 million ($99 million) from 12.5 million admissions on a series of hit theatrical releases, ranging from such franchise movies as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” ($30 million) to crossover auteur-driven fare like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” ($17 million) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” ($26.4 million). And this year, it did well with “American Hustle” ($5.1 million), outperforming such pics as “Philomena” and “August: Osage County.”

“We launched Metropolitan with the wish to carve for ourselves a niche for independent cinema and today our goal is to have a mix studio movies and indies,” Victor says.

The company has two big output deals — with Lionsgate and DreamWorks — while continuing to work with indies like the Weinstein Co., Nu Image, Constantin Film and FilmNation, as well as new players such as Entertainment One, Good Universe, Panorama and Red Granite.

While they’re perceived as sharp businessmen, anyone who knows the Hadida brothers speaks of their genuine love for movies, especially American ones.

“What’s special about Sammy and Victor is that they’re not only distributors, they’re also producers and above all, true movie fans,” says director-producer Brett Ratner. “In the United States maybe 50 years ago, the feeling was the same with Warner Bros. where it was a family business, but now all the studios are owned by big companies. Metropolitan is a true family business and these two guys know material and they know good stories.”

Jeff Small, president and chief operating officer of DreamWorks Studios, concurs: “Their passion and creativity have proven to be a winning formula for their business, from arthouse fare to tentpoles and everything in between.”

Their love of movies goes back to their childhood in Morocco. “Our father, David, was a distributor of American films in Morocco. He released ‘King Kong,’ the RKO movies, John Wayne movies — and my uncle was a representative of Fox in Morocco,” says Samuel.

“We grew up watching genre movies,” he continues. “We would spend the weekends watching 16mm movies, and our great-uncle would test them on us before they presented them to the censorship board. That’s how I discovered American blockbusters of the time, from ‘The Planet of the Apes’ to ‘Dracula.’ ”

Their production banner, Davis Films, is behind the “Resident Evil” (produced with Constantin Film) franchise and Christophe Gans’ “Silent Hill.”

The brothers have also demonstrated their ability to spot talent, investing in emerging filmmakers. Tarantino is the best example.

“I read the script of ‘True Romance’ when Tarantino was still working in a video rental store and was the first one to buy it,” says Samuel. “We produced it and got Tony Scott on board to direct and it was the very beginning of a great adventure.”

He says the “heart of every movie is still the story, no matter what budget you’re working with, and that’s why we buy or decide to co-produce 90% of our films at script stage.”

The exec adds: “(Metropolitan) was the first to buy ‘District 9’ after (we read) the script, even though it had an unknown South African director and no cast. The fact that Peter Jackson was producing it reassured us and we loved the concept.”

The Hadida brothers also bet on Asian talent, like John Woo and Jackie Chan, before they became bankable.

It all started back in 1978, the year that Metropolitan launched. The Hadidas, who had studied marketing, were only releasing genre movies and actioners on VHS.

“Very quickly we realized there was a gap to fill. Producers would ask us, ‘OK, I sell you the video rights but who’s going to release my film in theaters?’ And then directors were telling us, ‘No one wants to produce my movies.’ That’s how we got involved in all-rights distribution and production,” says Victor.

Since then, French pay TV has revolutionized the market for genre movies, he adds. “When Canal Plus started buying genre movies, it broadened their mainstream appeal beyond niche and made them more profitable.”

As the market opened up for U.S. genre titles, more and more French outfits, such as Le Pacte/Wild Side, Wild Bunch and Mars Distribution, have jumped in, creating a highly competitive environment in France with bidding wars on some titles.

Until recently Metropolitan had an output deal with Canal Plus, but Samuel says even without the pact, the company still manages to sell its films to the paybox or other channels in France.

The duo has been able to survive the rising tide of competition from other French distributors and the turmoil of U.S. specialty banners thanks to its longtime connections.

“We were lucky to start in the 1990s with New Line. Like us, it was a studio with an indie mentality, and we were loyal collaborators until they were absorbed by Warner Bros. in 2009,” says Samuel, adding that Metropolitan is still handling New Line’s catalog in France.

Their collaboration with New Line kicked off with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — a milestone in Metropolitan’s history. It was a gamble for Metropolitan because helmer Peter Jackson didn’t have an established track record that would reassure buyers of his ability to handle such an ambitious project.

Adds Samuel: “The trilogy changed the business for everyone because it showed that independent players could access this kind of franchise blockbuster.”

Victor says from that point on, they “started talking to executives and talent who came back to us afterward, and that’s how we got into more co-productions and collaboration.”

Metropolitan’s ties to Lionsgate also goes way back. “We believed in it from its debut and we started negotiating movies like ‘American Psycho,’ and today this relationship has reached a new dimension.”

Meanwhile, Metropolitan was able to secure “Wolf of Wall Street” and the upcoming “Dumb and Dumber To” from Red Granite Pictures because of its ties with Danny Dimbort, co-president of distribution, whom they met decades ago when they were buying films from him at Cannon Films, before he co-founded Nu Image with Avi Lerner.

Lerner is another key partner for the Hadidas. Banking on the success of the “Expendables” franchise, they’re now working together on “ExpendaBelles.”

“Sammy and Victor are legends in this business. Over the four decades that I’ve been producing movies, they have distributed almost all of my films,” Lerner says.

Their pact with DreamWorks is a milestone for the shingle. “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” with Helen Mirren and Charlotte Le Bon, is the first pic to be distributed by Metropolitan under the deal.

And in a major evolution of the company’s DNA, the Hadida brothers are now looking to start producing and distributing French movies.

“When we see the incredible market share of local films like (‘Serial Bad Weddings’ or Guillaume Gallienne’s ‘Me, Myself and Mum’) in France, we think it makes total sense to give it a try, see what’s out there. So we’re meeting lots of people, reading scripts now,” says Samuel.

The timing is particularly good since Studiocanal, EuropaCorp, Wild Bunch and Pathe have claimed they wanted to produce fewer French-language movies. Gaumont, meanwhile, has kept its focus on French movies and grossed nearly as much as Metropolitan did in 2013 with half as many box office releases. Getting into French movies can also allow Metropolitan to be less dependent on U.S. films.

Besides, piracy has been a big issue for Metropolitan. In order to contain it, Metropolitan has been ramping up day-and-date releases. The latest “Hunger Games” installment, for instance, will premiere in France 48 hours before the U.S. release.

The brothers are also following the footsteps of Gaumont and EuropaCorp by leaping into international TV production with adaptations of some of its films, notably “Silent Hill,” into television series.

“We’re diversifying but keeping the same mandate,” says Victor. “We’ll always be looking for great universal stories that can cater to a wide audience and can also travel well.”

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