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‘Valerian’ Looks to China After Tanking in Most Markets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is shaping up to be one of the biggest flops of the year. Considered the most expensive independent film ever made, the $180 million sci-fi epic never recovered from its crash at the U.S. box office on its opening weekend and has under-performed in most overseas markets.

With China, South Korea, Spain, and Italy left to open, “Valerian,” based on a French comic book, has grossed $93.3 million overseas, including an estimated $39.2 million from the U.S. as of Monday. It has made just over $130 million globally. By contrast, EuropaCorp’s 2014 action-thriller “Lucy” — whose budget was $40 million — had passed $100 million in the U.S. at the same stage and had grossed more than $130 million worldwide, with 44 additional foreign territories still awaiting its release. In other words, it cost significantly less, had made nearly as much, and still had many more markets left to open. “Lucy” would end its run with an impressive $463.4 million in global ticket sales.

Even in France, where “Valerian” has clinched its best results so far, the film has grossed an estimated $30.5 million in a little more than three weeks — again well below “Lucy,” which earned about $37 million after its third week in France.

The release in China, set for Friday, could give “Valerian” a significant push, but even in the best-case scenario, it will be a challenge for “Valerian” to reach its break-even point, which analysts believe is over $400 million globally, or even to pass the $300 million mark that EuropaCorp said would allow the company to kick off a new franchise and recruit investors for a sequel.

Even if “Valerian” proves successful in ancillary markets, executives at rival studios currently estimate that “Valerian” could lose roughly $100 million from its theatrical release, though not all that loss would be borne by EuropaCorp.

A spokesperson for EuropaCorp acknowledged late last week that the film has failed to meet expectations in the U.S. and other English-speaking territories (Canada, Australia, U.K.) but argued that “Valerian” has performed well in France, as well as in Russia, where it opened on Aug. 10 and ranked first with $5.6 million (three times better than “Annabelle: Creation”) during its first weekend.

The stakes are particularly high for Fundamental, “Valerian’s” distributor in China and other Asian territories, which invested 60 million euros in EuropaCorp to become its second-largest shareholder a year ago, and put an additional $50 million into “Valerian.”

The hope is not only for “Valerian” to outpace the $45 million that “Lucy” grossed in China, but to rack up at least $100 million in China and South Korea, said Alexandre Koller, an analyst at Gilbert Dupont.

Fundamental is expected to roll out the movie on 5,000 to 7,000 screens in China, on a par with “Lucy.”

“We will really stay quiet until the film release and we have a clear view on where we will land,” said Fundamental.

So far, “Valerian” has received mixed reviews, including a 6.7 score out of 10 for audience anticipation on Douban, the influential Chinese listings and database site. But the movie has a couple strong marketing hooks, such as director Luc Besson, who has become a brand name in China and has a solid fan base there. The movie’s casting could click with Chinese audiences. The film has pop-culture cachet because its cast includes Rihanna, Cara Delevingne, and Kris Wu, a Taiwanese actor and model.

“Valerian,” however, may have to scramble for screens in China with two other anticipated Western films, “Cars 3” and “Baby Driver,” also set for a release on Aug. 25, following a six-week summer blackout without any new Hollywood titles.

While EuropaCorp took steps to mitigate its risk, bringing in nine different equity partners and selling rights to foreign distributors, one insider said that despite those moves, the studio could lose $20 million. That’s without taking into account the cost of the prints and ads (P&A) for the U.S., which is estimated at $60 million. STX, which distributed the film in the U.S., put up the P&A and will recoup it from the theatrical run before the equity investors receive their money, according to an industry source.

Because different distributors own the foreign rights to the film in different markets, some will make money. Others, who have the misfortune of handling the rollout in territories where the picture has not been embraced, will lose millions.

Then there’s a question of optics. The failure of “Valerian” is a major embarrassment for EuropaCorp. The studio has suffered a string of money losers such as “The Circle,” “Miss Sloane,” and “Shut In,” and has essentially shuttered its stateside theatrical marketing and distribution operations.

Koller predicts that if the movie ends up making less than $300 million globally, EuropaCorp will need to raise more capital. He said that the company would also be forced to concentrate their activity on TV series such as “Taken,” while producing fewer films with more modest budgets.

Besson, whose credits include “The Fifth Element” and “The Professional,” has some experience with rejection. At the premiere of “Valerian” in Paris last month, he noted that, apart from “Lucy,” none of his films was successful in the U.S. They only became cult hits later on home entertainment platforms.

Seth Kelley contributed to this report.

For the record: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that EuropaCorp backed “The Disappointments Room.” 

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