Blockbusters on tap, European-style

Continental studios deliver English-lingo crowd-pleasers with lean, mean budgets

When France Telecom’s film arm Studio 37 approached the U.S. studios with the script for “Upside Down” by helmer Juan Diego Solanas, the project met with a warm welcome.

“They said, ‘This is great, but we don’t know about this European director — if you give us the project, we will do it our way,’ ” recalls Studio 37 CEO Frederique Dumas with a laugh. “We had a strong faith in our project, so we preferred to say no. We were able to make it for $50 million; they would have made it for $150 million in a more Hollywood style.”

Studio 37 is one of several players, such as StudioCanal, Europa-Corp, Gaumont and Pathe from France and Germany’s Constantin, that are bringing a European touch to the production of big English-language features. As the U.S. majors cut back on everything except franchises and tentpoles, these Euros are increasingly calling the shots, creatively and financially, on projects that don’t quite fit the studio template.

From EuropaCorp’s Paris thriller “Taken” and Pathe’s Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” to Studio 37’s pickup “Buried,” such fare is proving a viable alternative to anything Hollywood has to offer. At their best, these aren’t pale imitations of Hollywood product, but a fresh and confident style of cinema that delivers crowd-pleasing entertainment with European flair.

Undaunted by the lack of an American partner, Studio 37 is shooting “Upside Down” in Canada. Solanas, born in Argentina but raised in France, has created an alternate reality, in which the terrestrial world is mirrored by an inverted world in the sky. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess play lovers across the divide.

“There is more and more French or European talent that is capable of addressing the international market,” Dumas says. “They come from advertising, videogames and the Web, and it comes naturally to them, because for this young generation, culture is much more universal. It used to be that they had to go to Hollywood to make these films, but now we can keep these talents in Europe.”

Constantin topper Martin Moszkowicz says, “Companies like ourselves, EuropaCorp, Pathe and StudioCanal are able to do big international films that have the same quality as the Hollywood studio movies but with that European edge our audiences like. We partner on their films, and they partner on ours. There’s a real network of cooperation within Europe that has grown up.”

European cinema is traditionally more director-driven and more liberal about sex and relationships, but less so about violence and horror. Above all, it’s less profligate with cash because it always had less to play with.

Euro toppers argue that this is the primary creative difference between Euro and Hollywood production. The same production values can be achieved for less. That efficiency gives the filmmaker more flexibility to express an original vision even within a commercial genre.

“We have always been careful in spending money,” says EuropaCorp’s Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. “If we do these movies for $35 million, that’s a big budget for us, but it’s small for an American studio, so the ratio between potential and price is attractive for buyers. We work very hard on the production values, but maybe it also means there’s less pressure on casting when the budgets aren’t so high, so we can pick the actor who’s right for the part. We chose Liam Neeson for ‘Taken’ because he’s absolutely the character.”

“It’s a difference in the way our production is structured, not because people are more talented,” explains Dumas, whose Studio 37 is developing a 3D eco-fable “Mune,” about the guardian of the moon, with French animators who worked on “Kung Fu Panda.”

“When we try to replicate the exact model of films as the U.S. majors, we are not competitive because we don’t know how to make them,” agrees Leonard Glowinski, head of French and international co-production for StudioCanal. “But we make films that are more edgy, that have more personality in their directing, their casting, their story. In the U.S., you have a few A-list actors, directors and writers, and to make a big film you have to gather all those elements together. In Europe, you can have a director coming from the arthouse, an A-list writer and a peculiar subject, you can mix those elements and get it financed in our system.”

Even when considering American scripts, they look with European eyes. “We come from a different cultural angle, and we have a different relationship to filmmakers, one of respect and collaboration and flexibility,” says Pathe exec VP Francois Ivernel.

“We are seeing more quality projects from the U.S.,” he says. “We used to get the second choice from the studios, but now we get the first choice. ”

An example is Danny Boyle’s “127,” a co-production with Fox Searchlight, based on the true story about a hiker trapped under a rock who cut his arm off to escape.

“It’s essentially created by European brains in America, a meeting of two cultures. It’s a typically American story of survival, but maybe there’s some more depth of character and originality in the way the story is told,” Ivernel explains.

“The two worlds are coming together,” agrees Dumas. “Before, American filmmakers didn’t need Europe, but now they need us and we need them. But we tell them, don’t come to us just because there’s no money in America and expect to keep your old way of working.”