Besson's Europa taking IPO plunge

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PARIS -- Eight years after its launch, Luc Besson's Europa Corp. is finally taxiing toward a flotation on the Paris stock exchange.

A listing on the Bourse has always been part of the French mini studio's game plan, but the project was put on the back burner a few years ago when the overall market conditions were not right. Now -- despite the recent jitters prompted by Asian markets -- things seem set for an IPO. "We want to go (to the Bourse). It'll be in a few months. We're working with several banks (on preparing it)," Besson said at a press event in a Paris restaurant last week.

The 48-year-old producer-writer-director said he could not give further details about the putative flotation because of stock market rules. But it's clear that the additional financial clout of a listing would mean Europa Corp. could compete even more vigorously with Gaul's major film players like the publicly listed Gaumont as well as in the international market.

Europa's attractiveness for investors will no doubt be boosted by its run of recent successes, several of which, significantly, are franchises.

The mainly animated kids film "Arthur and the Invisibles," directed by Besson, was a huge hit in France, where it drew more than 6.3 million admissions. The film also sold well internationally, prompting Europa to launch two sequels in the Arthur saga.

The fourth installment of the Besson-created action-comedy "Taxi" franchise re-cently romped to 4.5 million admissions in France.

Europa has a characteristically eclectic range of movies in production, ranging from Gallic fare to German and Thai films, plus more ambitious productions such as the Liam Neeson starrer "Taken" and action thriller "Hitman" starring Timothy Olyphant, co-produced with 20th Century Fox.

But Besson has more on his plate than just movies these days. His flagship project is the Cite du Cinema at St. Denis just north of Paris. He points out that Italy has Cinecitta studios, Germany has Babelsberg, Spain has the City of Light near Alicante and the U.K. has Pinewood.

"In France, there's a gap. France produces more films than anyone else in Europe ... but whenever we have a bigger film, we're forced to delocalize," Besson said.

The Cite du Cinema will be housed in a former 1930s electric company plant, a cavernous, red-brick building with vast windows.

"We've got planning permission and we've found the financing," said Besson, who expects work to start in the coming months and the studio to open in the first half of 2010.

Besson said the aim is to create a sort of Hollywood-lot atmosphere. There will be 10 soundstages and 11 restaurants, plus acres of office and parking space. "It's really going to work in an American way, in the good sense of the word," he said.

Europa Corp. has outlined its plans to France's major producers, who gave an enthusiastic response. "I also showed plans to some Hollywood executives with whom I've worked, such as Fox's Jim Gianopulos, and I felt a good reaction from them. They loved the idea of shooting on the edge of Paris rather than more than an hour out of London, which is the case for Pinewood," Besson said.

Europa also is gearing up for its first foray into exhibition, with a multiplex under construction on the outskirts of the southern city of Marseilles.

Meanwhile, Besson's other main preoccupation these days is the charitable foundation he's setting up to help disadvantaged youths in France's tough housing estates, the so-called banlieues.

Unemployment is typically well above the national average in these areas, often linked to the fact that those of immigrant origin who live there find it hard to break into the job market -- a fact that Besson says is linked to racist hiring policies.

"There are people with two, three, four years of diplomas who can't find work because of their surname," he says.

The foundation will provide grants as seed money to help set up small businesses. A requirement is that each project must create a minimum of three jobs.

Besson said he was inspired to do something to improve the lot of the banlieues after the wave of rioting in 2005, seen by some as an expression of despair by those fed up with living on the margins of French society.

"The riots shocked me deeply. Everyone knows the banlieues are difficult. Life is tough there, with high unemployment. The least you can do is to have some respect for the people who live there," he said.
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