The Three Musketeers -  D’Artagnan

Source: Pathe

‘The Three Musketeers - D’Artagnan’

It has been an ambitious year for Pathé. The French mini-major released Guillaume Canet’s $70m (€65m) Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom locally on February 1 and the first part of its $78m (€72m) The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan double feature on April 5, with part two, Milady, to follow on December 13. Between them, they are three of the most expensive French films ever made.

But, as Ardavan Safaee, president of Pathé Films since 2019, says: “We can’t just make blockbusters.” This month, he is in Venice with Matteo Garrone’s Competition title Io Capitano, an Italy-Belgium co-production produced by Archimede with Rai Cinema, Tarantula, Pathé and Logical Content Ventures. Pathé is handling international sales, and will release in France in January 2024. The $12.5m (€11.5m) immigration drama about two young boys who leave Dakar for Europe was shot in Senegal, Italy and Morocco with a cast of non-professional actors. “We love making smaller auteur films too and bringing films to festivals,” says Safaee.

Ardavan Safaee

Source: Vincent Bousserez

Ardavan Safaee

As a distributor, Pathé handles the films of European directors including Pedro Almodovar and Paolo Sorrentino, as well as new names such as Just Philippot, whose Acid premiered in Cannes this May as a Midnight Screening. “Acid is a discovery for us. We see [Philippot] as a next-generation auteur,” says Safaee.

Now the Pathé Films head is keen to add another string to the firm’s bow. While the box-office performances of the latest Asterix film and D’Artagnan have been solid — grossing some $60m (€55m) and $38m (€35m) respectively to date at home and abroad — those figures are not record-breaking. In 2002, Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra saw almost three times the number of tickets sold at home and grossed almost double the new entry’s box-office worldwide (albeit with territories still to come). “When we release mainstream films like this, even with a strong IP like Asterix or The Three Musketeers, whether dubbed or subtitled, because they are still in a foreign language, there is always a barrier,” Safaee admits.

It is why Pathé, one of France’s largest and oldest film studios, may finally shed its accent. “Yes, this makes us want to make films in English,” he confirms. “It’s not so easy. If it was easy, we would have done it before.

“What makes us believe we can do it is that we have IPs in Europe, we have talents in Europe and we have the savoir-faire here [in France],” he continues. “All of that together is enough for these English-language films to be able to cross borders.”

Projects of scale

'Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom'

Source: Pathe

‘Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom’

Safaee has led the charge on the company’s ambitious production slate and pioneered a push into Europe-made productions to rival Hollywood studio fare. The latest Asterix and The Three Musketeers films demonstrate the company’s ability to make French and European-financed projects of scale.

“We can export French films internationally, but we’ll never reach a level at the box office that we had 15-20 years ago, because of language and casting barriers. [The Three Musketeers stars] Eva Green and Vincent Cassel are known across the world, which helps with promotion and making audiences want to see the film, but they are not Ryan Gosling or Brad Pitt.”

It helps that the first English-language production to emerge from the strategy was Coda, a Pathé-powered adaptation of 2014 French film La Famille Bélier and winner of the Oscar for best feature in 2021. The film was spearheaded by Safaee and fully funded by Pathé out of Paris, which put in upwards of $15m in financing. It was acquired by Apple TV+ at Sundance for a record-breaking $25m in 2021. Although that sale prompted some tricky unpicking of existing distribution deals, Safaee says the company’s strategy is shifting increasingly towards pre-sales.

“Our objective is to spark a desire among European distributors to be part of these projects from the beginning,” Safaee explains. “Distributors everywhere are looking for new films, so if we can find a way to work with them all over the world from the early stages, the films will perform better when they reach theatres.”

Back in January, Pathé and financier Logical Pictures announced a three-year co-production and co-financing deal through 2024 via Logical Content Ventures — a deal that opened Pathé’s film financing to private investors for the first time in the company’s history.

Royal affair

Pathé is starting big. First up is a saga about the Grimaldi family of Monaco, Europe’s longest-ruling royal dynasty spanning eight centuries. Pathé is reteaming with The Three Musketeers partner Dimitri Rassam’s Mediawan-owned Chapter 2 and Astrea, headed by the current generation of Monégasque royals Andrea, Pierre and Beatrice Casiraghi.

Safaee sees at least one feature emerging from the partnership. “It may be one film and a series, or several films and a series. The history of the Grimaldi family is a long one with several extraordinary tales to tell.”

The executive insists “the principle is that the project is European-based and filmed in Europe to maximize our chances of soft money and talents to rely on our local assets.” The Monaco project is just “part of our strategy to make others in the same vein. We are already floating several ideas of projects that can be European based.”

Pathé continues to aim for around 10 theatrical releases a year and about eight productions. Most of the films it releases are its own in-house productions or co-productions, in addition to a handful of acquisitions. For Safaee, deciding which projects to greenlight comes down to the audience, first and foremost. “When we greenlight something, we ask, ‘Do we like it?’ and then we ask, ‘Will audiences like it? Will people want to buy a ticket?’” After that comes the ultimate traffic stop that determines the film’s future: “We present all films to [Pathé chairman] Jérôme Seydoux, who is the green light.”

Pathé Films’ upcoming features, at various stages of production, span 19th-century France and 1940s Europe, all the way to Afghanistan in 2021. Shooting kicked off in July for the latest screen rendition of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count Of Monte-Cristo, which is filming throughout France until November.

The company’s long-announced biopic of Charles de Gaulle — titled De Gaulle for now and directed by Antonin Baudry — is also in production. The two-part feature, about the famed army officer who led France’s resistance against Nazi Germany before becoming the country’s first post-war president, is shooting in Normandy, Morocco and Lyon with some exteriors in London. The majority of the film will be in French, with a great deal of English dialogue. At around $78m (€72m), it has a similar budget to The Three Musketeers; the two-film approach is increasingly part of Pathé’s production strategy. “When we make The Three Musketeers or De Gaulle, stories that are very long, we can rationalise using and re-using the decors, the costumes and the sets,” says Safaee.

Pathé is also working on more international titles shot in a variety of languages, such as The Three Musketeers director Martin Bourboulon’s next Pathé production 13 Days, 13 Nights with dialogue in French, English and Afghanistan’s local dialects. The $32m (€30m) project is set to shoot next summer entirely in Morocco with a hoped-for A-list international cast.

Television plans

The company is also moving full-speed ahead into series. Faith Penhale was appointed managing director of Pathé UK in March to lead the push into scripted television. (Cameron McCracken is head of film.) Pathé UK, which reports directly to Safee, plans to develop English-language series following its first-ever shows in French for Disney+, Milady Origins and Black Musketeer, a spinoff series from a character to be seen in The Three Musketeers: Milady.

The company is also solidifying ties with streamers, producing Dany Boon’s 2021 lockdown comedy-drama Stuck Together for Netflix. Safaee does not see any contradictions between being a cinema-led company that sells original productions to streamers, as it did with Coda. “[The two kinds of projects] don’t cannibalise each other,” he says. “Audiences want to watch films both in theatres and on platforms.”

While asserting that avenue will be limited to one or two projects per year, Safaee adds, “The arrival of the streamers is a great thing. It brought a capacity to finance that we didn’t have before and it gave our films a way of reaching audiences internationally.”

The executive’s ambitions are for Pathé to build an identity in the international marketplace. “Today, a Pathé film is a film that will have an impact — either as an event film or a heritage or artistic impact. It is a film that brings something to the Pathé brand and the Pathé brand adds value to the project. It needs to resonate both in France and around the world — our films need to be able to travel and also bring people to cinemas.”