StudioCanal regroups film ops

Co. reported $30 mil profit last year on revs of $486 mil

PARIS — StudioCanal has stopped being a Euro haven for international auteurs, and it has lost a lot of its clout in France — but the Canal Plus subsid is proving there still can be life after Vivendi Universal.

After losing $121 million in 2002 amid accusations of management chaos, the company has restructured and turned a $30 million operational profit last year, on revs of $486 million.

It also has set new objectives and given itself the means to achieve them: It will invest $121 million-$146 million in film production this year, some $40 million of which will go to Working Title, its joint venture with Universal which was recently renewed for another four years.

Universal also continues to handle StudioCanal’s foreign TV sales and its video distribution throughout most of the world.

“The transition from being sister companies to distant cousins has been very positive,” says StudioCanal’s managing director, Frederic Sichler. (Canal Plus’ parent company, Vivendi, will still own 20% of NBC Universal).

“Today we only do business if it is good for both sides — there is no danger of interference from above.”

All of this activity might surprise those who thought StudioCanal had vanished into a black hole.

Jobs went — some 50 people, 20% of the workforce, were laid off — and over the past 18 months there have been persistent rumors that Canal Plus would cut its losses, give up film production altogether and sell the subsid’s 5,000-strong movie library to the highest bidder.

But that solution doesn’t seem to be on the agenda — for now in any case.

“We still are France’s No. 1 film company and one of the leaders in Europe discounting the exhibition revenues of our competitors,” says Sichler. (StudioCanal owns no screens.)

The mild-mannered topper, who was a film business associate of the late Daniel Toscan du Plantier before being thrust into the limelight at StudioCanal, has harsh words for the way the company was run before he took over in February 2003.

“There was no production department, no legal affairs department, nobody had organized the company in a logical and rational way.” Says Sichler. “It was a financial disaster.”

He adds: “It was no on individual’s fault. It was the way things had always been at StudioCanal.

There have been changes. As well as creating a new organizational structure the company has almost entirely given up inhouse production, establishing with its former producers Alain Sarde, Richard Grandpierre and Alain Goldman less financially onerous deals, which also give the company more flexibility.

Another two films will be made by the 80%-owned Studio Legende, which is presided over by Goldman, including an adaptation of Jean-Christophe Grange’s “Le Vol des Cigognes,” but StudioCanal’s strategy today is to coproduce — it will invest in around 25-30 French films this year.

“As one of Europe’s leading film companies, we need to have our pick from as wide a variety of projects as possible,” Sichler says.

Gone are the days when Studio Canal operated quasi-independently from Canal Plus.

Says Sichler: “StudioCanal is a film company but it is first and foremost a subsidiary of Canal Plus. We won’t make investments that are incompatible with the channel’s programming needs, it’s that simple.”

No film gets the greenlight without the say-so of a committee that includes such people as Rodolf Belmer, group chief operating officer and channel topper, and chairman Bertrand Meheut.

StudioCanal still has some high-quality crossover pics on its lineup — including Agnes Jaoui’s in-competition “Look at Me” and, recently signed, Costa-Gavras’ “Le Couperet.”

But the company has started to display a strong penchant for commercial fare such as “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” helmer Alain Chabat’s prehistoric comedy “RRRrrrr!!!” or the kitsch laffer “Podium,” which StudioCanal subsid Mars distributed in France. “RRRrrrr!!!” performed under par, but “Podium” contributed significantly to Mars, grabbing the No 1 spot among French distribs — the majors included — in the first quarter of this year.

“The majority of cinemagoers want to be entertained,” says Sichler. “Look at the films that have performed best in the past 12 months: ‘Podium,’ ‘Les Choristes’ ‘Tais toi,’ ‘Crimson Rivers,’ ‘Rrrrrr’ — these aren’t depressing dramas.”

Indeed, StudioCanal’s other development deals are with Alain Chabat and one-time premium channel topper Dominique Farrugia, who has gone back to film producing and has a number of comedy and adventure products in development.

So where does that leave the foreign helmers who once received VIP treatment at chez StudioCanal?

Down, but not entirely out.

Showing that it hasn’t entirely lost its international auteur leanings, StudioCanal is co-developing a remake of “The Heart of the Matter” with Martin Scorsese, who wants to helm. And on a recent trip to L.A., execs even paid a call on StudioCanal vet David Lynch.

Says Sichler: “Of course we are interested in international auteurs. We’re interested in any project that has an artistic commercial value — as long as it’s compatible, of course.”