There’s a gap to be filled, if not a chasm. And a growing number of European players believe that they have the savvy and resources to fill it.
It’s a gap created by Hollywood which, in its ardor to serve up a menu of wall-to-wall blockbusters, has all but abandoned traditional genres like drama, comedy and other fare aimed at the broad spectrum of filmgoers.
Traveling around Europe these past weeks, I’ve met a number of filmmakers who grew up on Hollywood movies but feel the studios have lost their interest in making them — or the talent to do so. And they believe they can rediscover that lost art.
Here’s the problem: Euro producers in the past have, by and large, failed to create pictures that can also draw U.S. moviegoers.
But there have been exceptions, most notably Luc Besson’s recent action thriller “Lucy.” That hit, starring Scarlett Johansson, arguably is a very Euro film in style and sensibility (though hardly an art film), yet has appealed to American as well as international audiences (it grossed $415 million worldwide). Besson and his brash production partner, Christophe Lambert, launched an American distribution entity in February, in partnership with Relativity, with the aim of releasing 12 films a year. Relativity’s record as an indie distributor, to be sure, has been spotty at best, with its boss, Ryan Kavanaugh, insisting he’s chasing “singles and doubles, not home runs.” Besson wants home runs.
Another, more conservative, but equally ambitious, French company is StudioCanal, which is co-funding a range of international films and also exploring a link to a major distributor. Olivier Courson, its CEO, and Ron Halpern, its American production chief, are thoughtful film buffs who want to make serious auteur-driven films as well as family entertainment. Their company releases its pictures in five major territories from France to Australia, has a sprawling library to fuel and has ramped up a slate of 10 movies over the next year.
Tall, patrician, and politically well connected, Courson has helped fund films like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and is building relationships with producers such as David Heyman, Scott Rudin, Neal Moritz, Graham King and Working Title’s Eric Fellner. Courson has carefully studied the dramatic fall of Polygram, the well-funded Euro conglomerate that tried to become an international distributor but imploded more than a decade ago. “There were no controls,” he said. “Producers were greenlighting their own pictures.”
Courson and Halpern intend to hire international stars for their films, fully aware that several Euro-funded star vehicles have been box office disappointments lately — including Wild Bunch’s “Blood Ties.” Forthcoming StudioCanal films feature such names as Jennifer Lawrence (“Serena”) and Sean Penn (“The Gunman”). Still, the company feels directors are the key, and Courson is convinced that some of Europe’s top emerging filmmakers want to continue making international pictures in Europe rather than risk getting swallowed up by the Hollywood system.
StudioCanal and its rivals share several challenges in their efforts to spawn quality international films. For one, some of the U.S. majors have closed their specialty arms, and all show little talent at marketing films other than superhero epics. Further, European audiences have demonstrated a keen support for idiosyncratic local films rather than international fare — sleepers like Germany’s “F*ck You, Goethe” and France’s “Serial (Bad) Weddings.”
In Hollywood’s view, meanwhile, the international market has essentially bailed out a dismal year, with B.O. rising sharply in Russia, Brazil and China (up 32%), offsetting small declines in attendance in Germany and France and other, more mature territories. The tentpole still rules the world, especially in the U.S., where overall box office has declined.
It’s that very decline that fuels the passion of Europe’s filmmakers to fill the gap with challenging product. The funding is in place, as is the strategy. What’s needed are some smart (and lucky) films, and some shrewd marketing campaigns.