If you can’t beat them, join them! Never, in the audiovisual industry, has this proverb been so apt. Renowned for its arthouse films, comedies, and festivals (including Cannes, from May 16 through 27 this year), but sustained by various subsidies and legal protections, French cinema struggles to fully appeal to audiences fascinated by American action and superhero movies, which make up 55% of the national market. France had to compete with this heavyweight offering, but how? By working with their American rivals in a win-win partnership. This is the strategy adopted by the French production conglomerate Mediawan, which recently acquired a 60% stake in Plan B Entertainment, another independent production group, cofounded and directed since 2001 by Brad Pitt.
“In a globalized production industry, we have to let our talents express themselves across the world,” said Pierre-Antoine Capton in an interview with Les Echos. “And to do that, we had to develop our presence in the United States.” The Mediawan cofounder and president, whose partners are telecoms and press billionaire Xavier Niel and investment banker and former Lazard France CEO Matthieu Pigasse, has predicted that the world’s biggest market will provide an excellent launchpad for the group’s movies and series. And he’s not wrong. With one dominating Europe and the other towering over North America, the two independent production hard-hitters are more than compatible. They even share a common goal, to create high-quality content that is popular, ambitious, and closer to arthouse cinema than mass-produced works driven solely by return on investment.
The French group has the money to make good on its aspirations. Not only is it a listed company with high capital and three wealthy founders, it is also backed by powerful shareholders such as U.S. investment fund KKR and the Bpifrance bank, which has vast industry experience. Comprising some 60 individual production companies, Mediawan is the leading provider of fictional television content in France and is familiar with the rules and potential pitfalls of its sector. The resumés of the two partners are also cause for optimism. Mediawan has put out hyperrealistic police thrillers including The Stronghold and November, as well as iconic series such as Call My Agent!, adapted in a dozen countries, and HPI, starring Audrey Fleurot as a cleaner with an IQ of 160 who becomes a police investigator in Lille. Meanwhile, Plan B has already picked up three Academy Awards for Best Picture for The Departed, Twelve Years a Slave, and Moonlight – without forgetting its multiple nominations for The Tree of Life, Moneyball, Selma, The Big Short, and Women Talking.
Competing with American Studios
Mediawan officially has the upper hand in this agreement. The deal – around 300 million dollars, according to Les Echos – has given it a majority stake coupled with a total buyout option within three to five years. However, the transaction, split 50/50 between cash and shares, has also made Brad Pitt and his two co-presidents, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Mediawan shareholders, enabling the French group to use their expertise and contacts. The American actor and producer, who also owns the Château de Miraval rosé vineyard, a cosmetics brand, and a recording studio in Provence, was looking for an “international partner to work with on future content,” he said in an interview with Le Parisien.
Many French companies have tried, unsuccessfully, to produce content directly in the United States. This has meant competing with the “majors” and the streaming platforms to promote France in America, while avoiding Hollywood diktats and clichés. Horror stories include Jérôme Seydoux, president of Pathé, trying to purchase the struggling MGM in the early 1990s, and Vivendi acquiring Universal in 2000 – but being forced to sell it to General Electric a few years later. In comparison, the Mediawan-Plan B alliance seems to be off to a great start.
The partnership is mainly focused on producing movies and series for American platforms, and is part of a growing trend in the United States. Last year, Netflix co-president Ted Sarandos was looking for new screenplays and subscribers, and promised to invest 200 million euros every year in the creation of French content. As it happens, the streaming giant is the biggest exporter of Gallic shows. While U.S. blockbusters control the European market, French series also resonate in America and have inspired several remakes. ABC (Disney) has decided to adapt popular French-Belgian series HPI, which is now distributed in 90 countries. Meanwhile, Showtime and Paramount have just started production on The Department, the U.S. remake of Le Bureau des légendes, created by Eric Rochant for Canal+. It will be directed by George Clooney, another famous Francophile.
Ingenious American film executives have also designed a new form of cooperation called “glocalization” to bolster their European presence, particularly in France. On the one hand, local directors steeped in the reality and culture of their countries will now be creating shows in their own languages, but capable of winning over international audiences. On the other, U.S. streaming platforms will be co-financing these productions and broadcasting them worldwide. With Plan B, Mediawan has decided to (co)produce movies and series in America in the hope that they will later be exported internationally. The two objectives go together. In a globalized, digital industry in which demand for content is booming, the combination of artistic and emotional value with extraordinary reach appears to be the future. But what does Brad Pitt think? As he told Le Parisien, “I’d love to film in France!”