French mogul banks on co-productions

Former EuropaCorp exec sets film ambitious slate

While Hollywood centers its business model around blockbusters at the expense of mid-budget adult-skewing films, Europe’s biggest movie companies have been taking up the slack, with hefty rewards.

Films like “Taken,” “Unknown” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” deliver B.O. on a budget, with a mix of international talent in front of and behind the camera — underscoring a sector of the international biz that’s grown stronger since the credit crunch of 2008. So it makes sense for Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, Luc Besson’s partner at EuropaCorp until early 2011, and one of France’s most high-profile movie mavens, to launch a weighty trans-Atlantic player, the production-distribution-sales combo Stone Angels.

Le Pogam’s first slate includes seven pics, mixing U.S. and foreign creative talent, subjects, properties, producers and — potentially — co-financing. Repped in the mix are talent from the U.S. and the U.K. to Morocco, France and New Zealand. To wit:

•”Maggie,” from U.S. scribe John Scott III, landed a spot on the 2011 Hollywood Black List of most promising unmade screenplays. Brit film-title designer Henry Hobson will direct. Le Pogam produces with Trevor Kaufman and Matthew Baer. With cast talks initiated, the pic is skedded to roll in late spring.

• French director Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en rose”), Brit screenwriter Arash Amel and Le Pogam are exchanging final script notes on “Grace,” a film about Grace Kelly set in Monaco in 1962. Key cast will be locked in this month, Le Pogam says.

• Stone Angels has optioned two novels: New Zealander Paul Cleave’s serial killer thriller “The Cleaner,” for which Le Pogam may attach a European helmer, and “Eldorado,” from France’s Laurent Gaude, for which he’d like “a good, sophisticated American director.”

• Montreal’s Max Films and Stone Angels will co-produce English-language remake “The Grand Seduction,” helmed by the original’s scribe, Ken Scott.

• Moroccan helmer Nabil Ayouch is editing psychological drama-thriller “Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen,” a Stone Angels co-production, about four perpetrators of 2003’s Casablanca bombings.

• The shingle is co-producing “Comme des freres” (Like Brothers), from first-time scribe-helmer Hugo Gelin, a Gallic dramedy bowing October in France.

• Stone Angels also has made its first third-party buy for its French distribution arm: David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis.”

Le Pogam “has a very broad base as far as his taste is concerned, whether dealing with very mainstream commercial films or the esoteric art film that’s artistically brilliant,” says Michael Barker, co-prexy at Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed EuropaCorp’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and the Gaumont-produced “Me Myself I.”

While stoking international ambitions, many topnotch Euro outfits have also kept one eye focused on their local markets, forging films that can catch fire at home then expand abroad. Exhibit A: Gaumont’s “Intouchables,” which bowed Nov. 2 and has racked up $152 million in France and $24.4 million in Germany since its Jan. 7 release. The Weinstein Co. picked up the film for North American release.

Le Pogam fits easily into this trans-Atlantic model.

“I feel very comfortable in France, have a passion for French movies, but also feel comfortable in the U.S., have a lot of friends in New York and, of course, Los Angeles,” says the bearded, fiftysomthing Le Pogam.

That ease comes from years of dealing with the U.S. studios. He began with Gaumont in 1981, and by 1992 he had created a Gaumont-Disney joint distribution venture for France.

Besson and Le Pogam launched EuropaCorp in 2000. It soon became the most consistently successful producer of English-language movies in Europe, making seven of France’s top 20 grossers abroad from 2000-2010.

Led by “Taken” ($210.9 million outside France), nearly all its worldwide hits made most of their money in the U.S., including the “Transporter” franchise (a combined $240.2 million outside France), “Kiss of the Dragon” ($91.9 million) and “From Paris With Love” ($52.1 million).

Le Pogam is “one of the rare producers in France or indeed Europe who is highly respected by Hollywood studio bosses,” says Ayouch.

Count Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which released “Taken” to $145 million Stateside, among them. “He’s a very capable producer, Gianopulos says, “knows the global entertainment business very well, and was a great partner in everything we did together during his years at EuropaCorp.”

Leveraging this U.S. cache to access original material via his CAA agents, Le Pogam’s finance plan calls for Stone Angels to distribute its productions theatrically in France, and handle Gallic TV and international sales directly, or send titles through other sales companies. Le Pogam will outsource French DVD/VOD distribution. This means the shingle will be able to greenlight films without necessarily having a U.S. distribution deal in place.

Stone Angels will produce films through French TV finance and international presales, drawing in co-production partners on bigger-budget films to limit the gap to 25% to 30% of budgets.

EuropaCorp carved out a reputation for making studio-style movies for far below studio-style costs.

“(Le Pogam) understands the economics of the business, what needs to be spent, whether on the production budget or marketing and distribution of a film,” Barker says.

Gianopolus agrees: “(He) has always made films in a cost-effective manner, utilizing the excellent crews and talent opportunities available in Europe, which are great advantages.”

Accordingly, Stone Angel’s budgets are contained: “Grace,” a period piece with multiple characters, could come in at around $25 million-$30 million, “Maggie” at $9 million-$10 million, and “Etoiles” in the mid-$3 million range.

“Managing risk” is a Le Pogam mantra. Talent on his films, he hopes, will take backend deals, noting that stars respond to quality.”Let’s make movies unique, share creative ideas, bring them in at a reasonable price, then share profits,” he says.

Anybody expecting a EuropaCorp redux at Stone Angels, though, will be disappointed.

EuropaCorp’s hallmark was high-testosterone actioners, often bearing Besson’s imprimatur as a screenwriter or director. By contrast, Stone Angels’ slate aims for the middle ground between edgy mainstream and accessible arthouse — an aesthetic that’s now yielding strong commercial results on both sides of the Atlantic. Think “Drive,” at $71 million worldwide, or Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” a Spanish co-production, at $156 million.

“At EuropaCorp, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam might not have been completely free,” says Ayouch. “At Stone Angels, he’ll have the freedom to engage in projects in line with his sensibility.”

“Maggie” is “a genre movie that’s not a genre movie,” says Le Pogam, a love story about a father tending for his daughter, who’s been infected with a virus that turns her into the living dead.

“Grace” is not a conventional biopic, but rather an adult rite-of-passage drama set over six months in 1962, that has Kelly maneuvering to protect Monaco’s tax-haven status from the French government, even as she is yearning to return to acting.

“When I started in the late ’70s as an independent distributor, screening Carlos Saura and Andrei Wajda movies, quality or culture were for rich people,” Le Pogam says. “Today the world’s completely changed. With the Internet, there are more and more sophisticated people worldwide who want to see sophisticated movies.”