Bac’s Croisette comeback

Investment from Millimages helps Labadie regroup

PARIS — He’s been through hell and high water but Gallic distrib Jean Labadie, Miramax’s former French partner, will be back on the Croisette ready for action this month.

The threat of bankruptcy finally behind it, Labadie’s company Bac Majestic has settled outstanding debts totaling some x50 million ($59.7 million) with an army of creditors and pacted with a new majority shareholder, the Gallic toon house Millimages.

And in Paris last week Labadie himself was looking rested after a spell convalescing in a clinic near the French capital. In another dramatic twist to the Bac saga, the distrib collapsed with exhaustion at the American Film Market and spent two days in the hospital in Santa Monica before being flown back home to France.

“Two and a half years of fighting to save Bac took their toll on me,” Labadie told Variety April 26, in his first interview since coming out of the clinic. “I could have done without going through all that, but c’est la vie.”

Bac intends to distribute around 15 films a year in 2005, and will be shopping for pics to put on that slate at Cannes and AFM this fall, from a modest acquisitions budget of $4.2 million-$6 million.

That’s a couple of million less than Labadie paid for a single pic, “Ali” which along with the similarly costly “We Were Soldiers” helped bring about Bac’s downfall two years ago.

“We are going to proceed with caution,” Labadie said. “I haven’t bought anything since last September. Cannes and AFM later this year are the start of a new cycle.”

Possibly not since the difficulties of distributor AMLF, taken over by Pathe in 1980s, has a French indie company seen such a dramatic unraveling.

At the height of its success, Bac employed 80 people, was Miramax’s French distributor and StudioCanal’s distribution partner and owned a chain of theaters.

It all collapsed like a house of cards in 2001. Multiplexes that Bac had borrowed heavily to build proved to be an unprofitable millstone. Labadie took a bath on “Ali” and “We Were Soldiers,” which flopped at the box office in the wake of 9/11. And just when it looked as though things couldn’t get worse, Miramax ankled its distribution partnership with Labadie, closely followed by StudioCanal, the Canal Plus subsid that was facing its own difficulties within the traumatized Vivendi Universal group.

With the company heading fast for the wall, Labadie sold his exhibition business, managed not to file for bankruptcy and, after talking with a series of potential investors over the past two years, inked with Millimages late last year.

The deal is due to finalize at the end of this month, with Millimages owning 55%-58% of holding company Bac Majestic. Labadie will be left with a little more than 25%. As part of the deal, Wild Bunch is taking over Bac’s two video subsids, Wild Side Video and Wild Side Films.

The distrib is philosophical about the decline in his fortunes, saying: “I think it has been quite an achievement to have kept going and avoided filing for bankruptcy with such a huge debt load. It’s a crisis Bac would never have been able to come through were it not for the confidence that people in the business still have in us.”

As for no longer being his own boss, Labadie says he will have sufficient leeway to continue doing what he does best — buying and distributing films in the French market, even if Millimages will have the last word on Bac’s financial management.

“I don’t have the feeling that I am the managing director of somebody else’s company. I am still president of Bac and I have a substantial minority,” Labadie says. “Also the way Millimages has worked with Gedeon (the docu producer it took over two years ago) makes me confident that we can work together.”

While the upcoming Cannes Film Festival will mark Labadie’s return to the Croisette, it will also be Millimages’ big bow.

Together the TV animation company and Gedeon produce around 75 hours of programming a year, but have recently moved into the feature film biz. Millimages has three pics on its slate — the $18 million 3-D motion-capture “Renaissance,” to which Buena Vista has already taken North American distribution rights, and two feature-length toons based on its successful TV properties, the $12 million “Piccolo, Saxo and Co.,” an adventure film involving musical instruments, and the $10.8 million “Pablo the Red Fox.” Gedeon also is preparing to shoot a $4.8 million feature-length docu about the Arctic.

These pics and those acquired by Wild Side Films will contribute to Bac’s slate of around 15 films a year.

Millimages chairman and CEO Roch Lener insists Bac will “remain one of the leading independent distribution companies in France. In fact, it will be more stable than a lot of other French distributors.”