Paris-based EuropaCorp has cemented its early standing as one of the world’s most prolific vertically integrated film outfits. Pierre-Ange Le Pogam talks to Mike Goodridge about the company he co-founded with Luc Besson, how it has achieved global profile from a distinctively French base and its next steps
Who am I to teach them lessons?” says Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, managing director of EuropaCorp, when I ask him about the Hollywood studio model and why it is faltering of late. “I suppose that, like in the music business, the studios were living on easy revenues and weren’t thinking about the future. The owners hire people to be the bosses, the bosses hire other people. Everybody wants to protect his ass so they hire 20 people to do jobs which 10 people could do. So the overheads are too big for the potential revenues and it’s not the culture to make a film for less than $80m when it could cost $50m.”
The studios could learn a lesson or two from EuropaCorp. Le Pogam says that when he and Luc Besson first conceived the company in 2000, it was a “tiny studio model”, and even now in 2009, 65 films and one IPO later, the company only employs 90 people.
“There’s no comparison with the studios because we don’t have the network of distribution around the world, except a little production office in Los Angeles and a little office in Tokyo to help market the movies in Japan. But we think of ourselves as a small, vertically integrated studio.”
EuropaCorp’s staff is remarkably lean, consisting of 12 people in French theatrical distribution under Philippe Kaempf, one acquisitions executive in Eleanore de Prunele, three for French video as part of the Fox Pathé EuropaCorp joint venture, and four for international sales under Pascal Degove and Marie-Laure Montironi. The remaining 70-plus are engaged in production, finance, legal and public company administration. “Every aspect is done within EuropaCorp with a small team,” says Le Pogam.
“The goal is to produce or co-produce nine or 10 movies a year and acquire three to five from elsewhere, so the distribution company has 15 films a year.”
I meet him when he is in London to deliver the keynote speech at the London Production Finance Market in October. EuropaCorp’s success on a global scale is clearly intimidating to many of the UK producers in the audience, puzzled by the fact the UK has been unable to create its own EuropaCorps. But, behind his gruff French charm and humour, Le Pogam is a disciplined entrepreneur. He spent 26 years in the business before setting up EuropaCorp, 20 of them at Gaumont, and laid the groundwork for his own company by sucking up as much knowledge as he could from every business model he came across.
At the heart of EuropaCorp, he says, is the production division. “The main agenda of our company is to attract projects, develop them and produce them, and then the distribution system is at the disposal of each movie,” he explains. “The goal is to produce or co-produce nine or 10 movies a year and acquire three to five from elsewhere, so the distribution company has 15 films a year.”
The production agenda is split between French and English-language films. Both strands have been, on the whole, remarkably successful with the Taxi and Arthur franchises and winners such as Tell No One and The Singer in French, and Taken, the Transporter films, Kiss Of The Dragon and Cannes prize winner TheThreeBurials Of Melquiades Estrada in English. In fact, EuropaCorp is arguably the most successful producer of English-language films outside the US, consistently delivering high-concept action movies and thrillers which are as polished as anything coming out of Los Angeles.
Yet the company also takes creative risks that would make Hollywood balk. When EuropaCorp was casting 2008-09 box-office smash Taken, for example, Besson and Le Pogam were insistent that Liam Neeson remain in the lead role, even when a potential US studio partner on the film did not like the idea.
Fortunately, the studio that went on to take the film, 20th Century Fox, loved the notion of Neeson in the role and the rest is history. Even though Taken had been released almost everywhere else in the world, Fox managed to gross $140m in the US after opening the film on Superbowl weekend this year.
EuropaCorp also stepped up to finance gay love story I Love You, Phillip Morris, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, and Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, one of the sensations of Cannes 2005, when no US company would commit to either.
The production arm’s creative chutzpah is down to both principals. Besson, probably France’s most successful living director, works closely with all the company’s film-makers in development and production, rather like Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks. Le Pogam, meanwhile, brought in a CEO last year in Jean-Julien Baronnet so he could focus more on production and leave the running of the company in safe hands. “We are creative, we have ideas,” says Le Pogam. “We know how to shoot movies and we enjoy experimenting with new ways of using the camera or set design. We have made so many movies that we know great cinematographers, directors, design people, actors. We believe in them and they believe in our capacity to nurture them.”
“We know how to shoot movies and we enjoy experimenting with new ways of using the camera or set design.”
Indeed, among EuropaCorp’s discoveries are Pierre Morel, who made his first film, District 13, with EuropaCorp before graduating to the company’s bigger-budget titles Taken and From Paris With Love (pictured). There is Louis Leterrier, who directed Transporter 2 and Danny The Dog (aka Unleashed) before moving on to The Incredible Hulk and Clash Of The Titans in Hollywood. That’s not to mention directors such as Ariel Zeitoun, Guillaume Canet, Xavier Giannoli, Gérard Krawczyk and actor-turned-director Richard Berry, who have worked with EuropaCorp on multiple French-language titles.
The French distribution arm is key to the modus operandi, working on each film from the start of production and informing the subsequent global distribution, not too far removed from the US studio system and its US domestic campaigns. Steve Rubin, former head of UFD and Warner Bros in France, was appointed vice-president, international marketing, in April to strengthen the international marketing offering for distributors.
In the US, where EuropaCorp has strong relationships with studios such as Sony, Fox, Lionsgate and Disney, among others, Le Pogam prefers to work on finding the right home for each film than strike an output or partnership arrangement. “All of these guys are very professional,” says Le Pogam, “and we like working with them. Fox did a great job on Taken and their marketing team was full of ideas for the film. We had the right movie but they did the right job to make it successful.”
Laying the foundations
Le Pogam knew he had to be exposed to Hollywood business models before moving further in his career. He was the man behind the Gaumont/Disney distribution partnership hatched in 1992, and used the vehicle to become intimately acquainted with the Hollywood models. “The doors were open to me,” he recalls. “I could go to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Disney guy from Mexico, the guy from Japan. I learned how they established their power in the world. And all the time I was thinking, ‘I know we can never be the same but we don’t need to be the same, we just need to create a system in which we could use what they have created and learn from it.’ We created movies before them in Europe, but they created the business before us. Now we have to take it back.”
Le Pogam had met Besson at the Avoriaz Film Festival in 1983, where Besson’s first film, Le Dernier Combat, was screening. Le Pogam was taken by the picture, booked it into Gaumont theatres and helped Besson book it into other circuits. The two became friends and Le Pogam brought Besson into Gaumont, where he made a string of hits including Subway, The Big Blue, Atlantis and the $100m (€70m) sci-fi epic The Fifth Element.
“I know we can never be the same but we don’t need to be the same [as Hollywood], we just need to create a system in which we could use what they have created and learn from it.”
Both Le Pogam and Besson became disenchanted with Gaumont when the French major refused to finance a proposed Besson production called Taxi in 1998. Besson took it to then-fledgling distributor ARP, and the film was a hit, scoring 6 million admissions in France and spawning a four-film franchise.
At Cannes 2000, Le Pogam sat down with Besson, who was president of the jury that year, and the two decided to start EuropaCorp. “Luc explained the financial situation of his little production company [called Leeloo Productions] and I told him he would generate something like €15m out of the video business on Taxi 2 and that we should use that money to set up EuropaCorp.”
The original plan was, says Le Pogam, “to capture the margin of the distribution business. We know how to make movies cost-effectively, and I say that without arrogance. If we get a final budget of 10, we will always work to make that eight without cutting anything from the artistic side. We drew in French TV, some international partners and, depending on the movie, some equity partners to finance the films. We had a business model that said we would not greenlight a movie unless we could match 80% of our total risk.
“Meanwhile, on the distribution side, we are better able to control media spending and bear the overheads,” he continues.
In July 2007, in an effort to move on to the next step of growth, Le Pogam and Besson took the company public on the French stock exchange. “We needed money,” he says. “We needed an institutional representation so that Hollywood would take us seriously when we went to make offers to talent, and we needed cash to move into bigger projects. We wanted to increase the potential revenues for our catalogue and we wanted to acquire Roissy Films and their catalogue, and we needed €25m for that.”
“We wanted to grow, but the only alternative was sharing the company with a big media group and that’s not what we wanted.”
The IPO of a 21% share in the company was successful and delivered €76.1m — $95m at the time — to the company. Besson retained a 62% stake, through his holding company Front Line, while Le Pogam has an 8.05% share. He is happy with the IPO decision, even while it entails the pressure of delivering numbers to stockholders every year and maintaining a share price.
“We wanted to grow, but the only alternative was sharing the company with a big media group and that’s not what we wanted,” he says. “We’re not children. We know that you have to have money in your company, you have to have rules, and four years later we are delivering the numbers that we have predicted.”
The share price started at €15.50 — $23 — and, at the time of going to press, was trading at €7.55 — $11.20 — but Le Pogam says he is in it for the long term. The company has been in profit since inception and posted net profits of $11.5m (€7.8m) in the financial year 2008.
“Yes, media stock is being bashed around at the moment, but we don’t care so much because we’re not out to sell the company,” he says. “We believe that, year after year, the financial world will believe in our model.”
The company is certainly poised for further film successes with the second Arthur film, Arthur And The Revenge Of Maltazard, opening in France on December 2 (and the third in December 2010), a sequel to Taken set to go into production next year, and some ambitious French films also lined up for release in 2010. These include Besson’s $37m (€25m) The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec (pictured), Eric Lartigau’s $20.8m (€14m) film of Douglas Kennedy’s The Big Picture and Guillaume Canet’s next film, the $18m Significant Others starring Francois Cluzet and Marion Cotillard. Then, on the action stage, there is John Travolta-starrer From Paris With Love, directed by Morel, and Richard Berry’s thriller 22 Bullets.
“We never believe a franchise is going to be easy. When we start to work on the production and distribution of each new movie, we know nothing.”
In 2011 comes A Monster In Paris, an animated movie directed by Bibo Bergeron (Shark Tale) set in 1910 Paris, which has been in production for three years. That’s not to mention an aggressive push into TV production on both the French and English-language fronts.
EuropaCorp is also a partner in the $45m (€30m) Paris Studios with Quinta Communications which is set to begin construction in December for a 2012 opening. The megastudio will house nine soundstages.
But for all the growth, Le Pogam says EuropaCorp is determined never to be complacent and lose sight of the creative raison d’etre. “We have all these movies on a yearly basis,” he says, “and we have provided an industrial approach to our system, but we believe each movie is a prototype. We never believe a franchise is going to be easy. When we start to work on the production and distribution of each new movie, we know nothing.”
Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
- Le Pogam began his career in 1975 as an assistant director at La Clef cinema in Paris. He later became director of the venue and went on to manage distribution company Les Films Moliere from 1976-81.
- In 1981, he moved to Gaumont and was in charge of programming the company’s cinema circuit.
- In 1985 he took over Gaumont’s distribution arm in charge of acquisitions, marketing and distribution, and brought in Luc Besson’s Subway to the company.
- In 1992, he created and took management control of the Gaumont/BVI distribution joint venture. In 1996, he was promoted to president of worldwide distribution and marketing at Gaumont.
- In 2000 he left his post at Gaumont on September 15; three days later he opened EuropaCorp in partnership with Luc Besson.
- In 2005, Besson directs Angel-A, his first film for the company, followed by animated hit Arthur And The Minimoys in 2006.
- The company goes public on the French stock exchange in 2007, raising $113m (€76.1m) for further growth.
- In 2008-09, Taken becomes the company’s biggest success to date with a worldwide gross of $227m.