Behind the Sudden Exit of EuropaCorp

To Hollywood, Christophe Lambert was best known as the colorful and outspoken right hand of EuropaCorp founder Luc Besson, the director behind “The Fifth Element” and “The Professional.”

But the spotlight turned to the CEO himself this week following his shocking departure from the Paris-based film and production company. In France and much of Europe, the news resonated even more loudly, echoing from the Berlin Film Festival to the office of the Cite du Cinema film complex in the French capitol.

Lambert is known in France as a successful advertising executive who transformed himself into a filmmaking force, an amateur bullfighter, husband of powerful women and confidant of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Lambert’s star still burned bright up until this week, when the L.A.-based CEO met with his bosses on the EuropaCorp board in Paris, and his reign came to an abrupt end six years after he took the helm and helped turn the company into one with international reach and vast ambitions. Marc Shmuger, the former Universal Pictures chairman-turned-indie producer, immediately succeeded Lambert as CEO.

The 51-year-old Lambert insists that he left his EuropaCorp job voluntarily, a scenario many insiders dispute. Sources close to the decision say that the executive was asked to leave because his abrasive manner had worn thin with Hollywood agents, producers and talent and – as one theory goes – his presence could have even become an obstacle to a sale of Besson’s growing company.

Anecdotes of Lambert always spoiling for a fight, alienating compatriots, terrifying underlings with the lash of his hot temper, and constantly pushing to create the Next Big Thing reverberated from Hollywood to Berlin. There was also chatter about Lambert’s flamboyant personal style, his financial acumen, his love of verbal combat and his loyalty to some members of his Beverly Hills-based staff.

Though some suggested Lambert and Besson had not even been on speaking terms in recent months, Besson issued a glowing tribute to his company’s deposed topper. “The arrival of Christophe at EuropaCorp has been a tremendous engine for development,” read the English translation of Besson’s statement. “He was able to help the company make its shift to international and allowed him to get real legitimacy among the major cinema studios.”

Besson also thanked Lambert for working tirelessly to cobble together the millions in financing to make the $170 million-budgeted “Valerian,” which is now shooting at the company’s headquarters — the Cite du Cinema studios in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. The shakeup in the executive ranks will not interrupt production of the film, which stars Clive Owen, Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne and Rihanna, and has been shooting for seven weeks.

Lambert said in an hour-long interview with Variety on Friday that he was proud of his time at EuropaCorp. He cited many successes: upping production of English-language films from two or three annually in the past to seven in the current fiscal year; the funding of “Valerian” from backers spread all over the world; and sustaining a growing team in the U.S., despite challenges, like maintaining a distribution joint venture with Relativity Media, the bankrupt company run by Ryan Kavanaugh. The distribution partnership was not included in the studio’s Chapter 11 filing.

“We went from a French company to a global company in just a couple of years,” he said. “I have done a lot of work I am very proud of.” He said he wanted to move into a job as an independent producer, to tend more to the creative side of the business, which he said he most enjoys.

Lambert claimed that the company brought in $230 million in revenue in its last fiscal year, which ended March 30, 2015, and is expected to continue growing as it mounts even more English-language productions.

Another coup, he said, was selling foreign rights to “Valerian” to the tune of $70 million worldwide. That helped EuropaCorp mitigate its risk, because it meant that only 10% of the film’s total budget has not been covered by equity or international pre-sales.

Lambert has notched eight producing credits in recent years and said he now wanted to focus on the creative side of the business. He will take with him producing duties on the film “Kursk,” a true-life thriller about rescue attempts on a Russian sub that sank to the bottom of the ocean. Thomas Vinterberg has signed on to direct, with production expected to begin this year.

He is also working on “Nine Lives,” a project he cooked up, about a man trapped in a cat’s body that is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black”) and stars Kevin Spacey. “The thing I am really passionate about is the creative part of my job, much more than the business part,” said Lambert, explaining his shift.

Among others impressed by the operation Lambert built in L.A. were the backers of the film “The Circle,” a Tom Hanks-Emma Watson vehicle based on a Dave Eggers novel about a woman who lands a job at a powerful tech company, where she becomes involved with a mysterious man. Reps from CAA and UTA joined director James Ponsoldt earlier this year at EuropaCorp’s offices to hear the firm’s pitch on how it would market the sci-fi thriller.

Lambert and Tommy Gargotta (the chief of marketing for the Relativity/EuropaCorp distribution joint venture) broke down every aspect of their proposed campaign — from print to digital to publicity and beyond, to the point that a participant guessed the presentation must have been put together over months. “It was so comprehensive and confidence-building for the filmmakers,” said one agent who attended. “They went from dark horse for the job to front runner in the course of a two-hour meeting.” Ponsoldt & Co. obviously agreed — giving the marketing nod to RED, the Relativity/EuropaCorp joint venture.

“I don’t know if Lambert is the greatest guy ever or a bad guy. I don’t know him that well at all,” said the source. “But I do know that that group put on an amazing presentation that day and he was clearly in charge.”

Such votes of confidence do not eliminate the complaints from others, delivered anonymously, that Lambert could be hard-headed. One Hollywood executive who negotiated with the Frenchman said he seemed to crave a fight, seeking confrontation even when it was not needed to accomplish a task.

Rumors that the company was exploring a sale, possibly to Vivendi, could have complicated matters. Vivendi CEO Vincent Bollore was not a Lambert fan, said Alexandre Koller, an analyst at Gilbert Dupont. But Koller said Lambert deserved credit for moving the company into more lucrative international markets and increasing English-language production. Koller called the company “hugely successful” due to films like the “Taken” franchise and “Lucy.”

The creation of a more U.S.-centric EuropaCorp does not necessarily sit well with French film execs, however, who worry about funding for films in that country. “EuropaCorp is a key company in France — almost every year it delivers the highest-grossing French films overseas,” said Jean-Paul Salome, the president of French film promotion organization Unifrance. “We’re of course watching carefully . . . hoping the company will keep producing French films, even if it appears to be firming up its grounding in the U.S.”

Another area of concern regarding the company and its management is the ongoing investigation into Cite du Cinema, the $192.6 million studio complex financed by a combination of public and private money. Lambert played a close role in overseeing the construction of the massive production facility and lobbying the Sarkozy administration for public funding.

The former CEO acknowledged in the interview that his old friend Sarkozy had lobbied vigorously for a studio complex to champion French cinema. “But there is nothing illegal about that,” he said. The facility was intended to rival production facilities like Pinewood and Cinecitta and become a global production hub. But government officials have investigated the possible misuse of public funds in the construction of the facility. A preliminary inquiry, launched in December 2013 by the National Financial Court, stemmed from a leaked memo to Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. Lambert said the studio was constructed solely with private funding.

That ongoing investigation led to a search of Cite du Cinema on Dec. 1, with anti-corruption and financial/tax evasion officers swooping into the offices of EuropaCorp, which is housed inside the luxurious complex. EuropaCorp downplayed the legal cloud that hangs over the company, with spokesman Régis Lefèbvre denying that charges will be filed against Lambert or the company in what remains a preliminary investigation.

From the man who has led a charmed life until now, that may or may not end up being true. After his success as an ad man, landing accounts as big as Pepsi and Fedex, Lambert married Marie-Catherine Dupuy, a top advertising exec. Later, after a divorce, he married Marie Sara. Though a Frenchwoman, she had moved to Spain at 15 to learn to be a rejoneador — one who fights a bull on horseback, the only female in Europe to do so. (She is also the goddaughter of Jean-Luc Godard.) Her husband Christophe also took up the sport.

The family maintains a compound in the South of France where they breed bulls and, when time permits, step into the ring to test themselves against the raging animals. “We have a private bull ring,” Lambert said. “I love it. I do it as much as I can.”

It’s a hobby that charms Lambert fans and brings a smirk to the faces of his foes. To the latter, it’s just another affectation, like the $5,000 European suits, the gleaming smile and the shirt collars routinely popped open to expose his well-tanned chest.

At least one producer who has had his fill of the Lambert flash has dubbed the impresario “White Teeth.” Others might miss the point, but not Lambert. “It’s not very positive,” he said. “I would hope I would known be known for something other than just the color of my smile.”

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.


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