(PCM) Seven years of writing and prep, 100 days of shooting, $180 million dollars, and 20 months of postproduction later, Luc Besson’s “Valerian” is a reality. Starring Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan, the film will premiere in the US on July 21, 2017. But will it be a box office success? For Besson, it might not matter. He’s assembled an indie-like financial structure with a blockbuster sized budget, minimal financial risk for himself, full creative control, and no “notes” from a Hollywood studio.
“How the hell did he make this?” asks WIRED.
In the July issue, deputy editor Adam Rogers dives deep into the sausage of the latest sci fi mega spectacle, speaking with Luc Besson and his longtime producer Virginie Besson-Silla on set in Paris, as well as with Adam Fogelstein, chairman of STX Entertainment, who recently minted a distribution deal with Besson’s EuropaCorp.
“Valerian will have a tight if not altogether plausible plot, easily translatable dialog, and striking images and action. Even if you don’t like the movie—or if you plan to just watch it every time it comes on cable—everyone else in the world is probably going to buy a ticket,” writes Rogers. “But even if they don’t, the infrastructure remains in place. Filmmakers now have a wide range of options, beyond a Fox or a Disney, for getting movies made.”
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Some highlights can be found below:
WIRED’S ADAM ROGERS ON THE STRANGENESS OF VALERIAN’S EXISTENCE:
Valerian, though, will be an order of magnitude stranger. For starters, there’s the source material, a French series of bandes dessinées (graphic novels, literally “drawn strips”) called Valérian et Laureline, a moderne sci-fi title not well known in the US. Then there’s the Avatar-level amount of alien that Besson is pumping in—far more than anything else he has made. The movie has visual effects from both Weta (The Lord of the Rings) and Industrial Light & Magic (basically everything else). Where The Fifth Element had just under 200 effects elements—that flying-car chase through Manhattan, the luxury-cruise starship—Valerian has about 2,500. Finally, weirdest of all, there’s the fact that the movie is getting made at all. With few exceptions—Interstellar or Passengers, maybe—nobody makes hugely expensive science fiction movies out of unrecognizable or original intellectual property. It’s too much of a financial risk. No matter how big the cult of Besson is, it’s fair to ask: How the hell did he get to make Valerian?
LUC BESSON ON THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF ADAPTING “VALERIAN ET LAURELINE” INTO A FILM:
When Besson was developing The Fifth Element, he turned to bandes dessinées creators for production-design help. Jean Giraud, who under the pen name Moebius had ruled ’70s sci-fi comics in Europe, illustrated characters. And for Bruce Willis’ flying taxicab—a full-size version of which sits in Cité du Cinéma’s cathedral-like lobby—Besson turned to Jean-Claude Mézières, cocreator of Valérian et Laureline. According to Besson, adapting Valerian was Mézières’ idea. “I said, ‘We cannot do Valerian,’ ” Besson says. “‘There’s too many aliens and robots and spaceships. It’s impossible.”
Besson had a point. The series follows the titular characters, far-future space cops who get around in a time–traveling flying saucer. The first issue sends them back in time to fight a mad scientist under a flooded, post-apocalyptic Manhattan. Before long it’s off to a hollow planet, where men wage war against women in galleon-like airships. (Laureline spends a lot of time in a metal bikini in this one.) So yeah, good luck filming all that.
BESSON ON HOW AVATAR PAVED THE WAY FOR VALERIAN:
Besson and his longtime producer (and wife) Virginie Besson-Silla bought the rights anyway, thinking conditions might change. And they did: Avatar came out. Big enough computers fueled by large enough bank accounts could make anything look real. “Suddenly, only imagination became the limit,”Besson says.
BESSON ON BUILDING THE WORLD OF VALERIAN (NONE OF IT WAS USED IN THE FILM):
In a binder that grew to hundreds of pages, he wrote biographies for Valerian and Laureline and dozens of secondary characters. He described the centuries-long history of Alpha, a 12-mile-wide space station that’s home to 17 million, most of them aliens. He put out a call to designers all over the world, seeking ideas for creatures and ultimately ended up with 3,500 submissions. “So when the actors arrived, they had a package with all that. That’s their homework,” Besson says. “Honestly, none of this information will ever be used in the film. But when you tell them, ‘You’re in headquarters on Alpha,’ they know exactly what it means.”
AN ADAM ROGERS TUTORIAL ON ALTERNATE FILM FINANCING STRUCTURES:
So who makes cheaper movies? A lot of people, in a bunch of different ways. Here’s a relatively simple one: studio cofinancing. Get a studio to put up a chunk of the budget for a movie and find a private investor or fund to put up the rest. That hedges the studio’s bet, while still giving you access to studio marketing and studio distribution—which is how producers got major, prestige promotional pushes for the cofinanced Birdman and The Revenant.
Completely forgo the legacy studios and things get … well, not sketchier, exactly, but more intricate. These approaches are what used to be more commonly called “independent.” The key thing to remember about them is that production is only part of the cost of making a movie. There’s also marketing and, more importantly, distribution—getting the movie into theaters domestically and internationally. Keep that in your head.
One funding method that sidesteps the system: full-equity financing. That’s when the producers find people willing to invest in a movie against its future performance and use that money to pay for production. Then they sell the movie to a distributor when it’s done—maybe by showing it at festivals like Sundance or Cannes. Or they use more equity to self-finance the release. These tend to be in the sub–$10 -million budget range; Nocturnal Animals used this model, and so does Paul Thomas Anderson’s current project.
For funding movies between that amount and, like, $100 million, producers have another option: the foreign-sales model. A producer takes a presentation to distributors for other countries—a script, maybe, and images from the film, possibly a trailer or some early footage, all constituting a kind of pitch. If the distributors like it, they sign presale contracts, paying an advance to the producer with a promise to pay the balance on delivery of the movie. Those presale contracts become collateral to take to a bank and get a loan to cover the majority of the budget, say 50 to 80 percent. And all that becomes an inducement to get a financier to put up the rest. Maybe they also get some kind of tax rebate from wherever they’re going to shoot.
…ROGERS BREAKS DOWN FINANCING MODELS FOR LOVING, LA LA LAND, MOONLIGHT, JOHN WICK:
If that sounds dicey, three decades ago it was—a way to fund direct-to-video schlock starring D-listers and has-beens. Today, though? Loving structured its financing through foreign sales. John Wick was financed by foreign sales plus equity; once completed and screened for studios, it was bought by Lionsgate. Lionsgate partially financed La La Land, with the rest coming from two partner companies. Plan B developed the script for Moonlight, then partnered with A24 for financing and distribution. Clearly there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to selling art; rather, every studio assembles its own constellation of cooperation. And as risky or haphazard as one of these financing ventures might sound, everyone looks smart if the movie is a hit.
…BACK TO BESSON, AND HOW THE HELL HE MADE VALERIAN:
Besson has worked all those angles—and more. Besson shot The Fifth Element in England after the studio he was working with couldn’t cut a financing deal in France. The movie made $264 million worldwide, yet French studio Gaumont still balked at one of Besson’s next pitches. So he started his own production company and made Taxi, a minor franchise-starter.
That gave Besson the money to start EuropaCorp, essentially his own studio. Even as he was fending off accusations of getting sweetheart deals from the French government to build Cité du Cinéma, he was writing and producing (though not directing) lucrative television and movie franchises like Taken and Transporter. The fact is, Besson has a very particular set of skills, and they include the production of low-dialog, high–intensity-action international hits. He has a reputation for on-time, on-budget delivery, and that has allowed him to maintain decades-long relationships with distributors—and their money—all over the world. EuropaCorp distributes its own movies in France, has a distribution deal with STX for the US, and works with a crowd of international distributors on foreign-sales financing.