Does 'Anna' Mark the End of the Line for Luc Besson?

Luc Besson -Comic-Con 2016- Getty - H 2016
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The film's $3.5 million domestic bow was the worst-ever for the French director, who has faced sexual assault allegations and whose EuropaCorp shingle is fighting to survive amid a string of pricey flops.

Anna was supposed to be Luc Besson's comeback movie.

After the galactic flop that was 2017's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — the $180 million sci-fi epic grossed just $250 million worldwide, far below expectations — Besson's new action thriller was designed to remind audiences what they love about the French action helmer.

The film — about a young woman who becomes a KGB assassin in Cold War Russia, starring supermodel-turned-actress Sasha Luss — features Besson's trademark style of hyper-kinetic, female-fronted action of the kind that made the director's Lucy and La Femme Nikita worldwide hits.

But when Lionsgate's Summit label released Anna last weekend, the movie misfired, earning just $3.5 million in 2,114 theaters, the worst-ever bow for a Besson-directed film in the U.S.

The flop comes at a particularly bad time for Besson, who is struggling to keep his debt-laden company, EuropaCorp, from collapse and has recently faced a flurry of #MeToo allegations.

In May 2018, Belgian-Dutch actress Sand Van Roy filed a complaint, accusing Besson of raping her at a Paris hotel. Initial press reports indicated that she had also claimed he had drugged her, which Van Roy denies. On Nov. 28, five more women came forward in a report in French investigative magazine Mediapart, alleging sexual misconduct. In total, nine separate women have accused the director of sexual assault and harassment.

Following Van Roy's allegations, Lionsgate put the release of Anna on hold and only confirmed a release date for the pic after the Paris prosecutor's office dismissed the rape charges, saying an investigation failed to turn up sufficient evidence to support the woman's allegation. 

Lionsgate chose a June 21 release date for Anna, giving the film a high-profile summer bow. But the distributor did the minimum in the way of promotion for the film, with no prerelease screenings for press and little-to-no media beyond trailers and a handful of TV spots.

It's a pattern that looks to be repeated internationally. Lionsgate U.K. has done next to no marketing for the movie, which is set to bow in Britain on July 5, and Anna is nowhere to be found on the company's website or Twitter feed. Even Rambo: Last Blood, which is slated to open in the U.K. in September, has a bigger presence, with Lionsgate U.K. promoting the teaser trailer released last month.

Similarly, StudioCanal, which has Anna in Germany (due out July 15) and Australia (Sept. 5), has done little to let Besson fans know the movie is coming.

“There's been next-to-no marketing, no trailer push, no real news from the distributor,” says Ines Walk, editor-in-chief for Moviepilot, an online portal for German film fans. “No one really has it on their radar.”

While the #MeToo allegations against Besson may have impacted the distributor's release strategy (StudioCanal did not respond to requests for comment), Walk says it has likely had little impact on local audiences. “#MeToo allegations have far less impact in Europe than in the U.S.," she says. "That's why you see, sadly, that films by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski still do repetitively well here."

Instead, Walk believes, Besson's action brand may have passed its sell-by date for a younger demographic.

“There seems to be a generational changing of the guard going on, with older directors losing favor among younger film fans that make up the core audience for action movies,” she argues. “It's something we are seeing, to a lesser extent, with Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan as well — this older generation of filmmakers are generating less excitement among our users than younger directors such as (Blade Runner 2049 helmer) Denis Villeneuve.”

This is all bad news for Besson, who is struggling to save EuropaCorp, the production and distribution company he founded in 1996. The beleaguered firm was put under court protection last month in France and given six months to restructure its debt. EuropaCorp has been bleeding money for years; it posted a $101.2 million loss in its latest half-year results, reported in December. That follows a $93.9 million loss over the previous 12 months and a $136.5 million loss in the 12 months before that. (The company did not respond to requests for comment for this report.)

EuropaCorp's follow-up to the box office bomb Valerian was the submarine thriller Kursk, which sank without a trace. The movie, starring Colin Firth, Matthias Schoenaerts and Léa Seydoux, earned just $5 million worldwide — including a paltry $775,000 in France — and failed to secure a major U.S. release, instead bowing exclusively on DirectTV on May 23 before going out on a multiplatform basis via Saban Films on June 21 under the new title The Command.

Last July, EuropaCorp signed a distribution partnership with Pathé, the group that bought out EuropaCorp's chain of French theaters in 2016.  Pathé last month released EuropaCorp's Nous finirons ensemble, Guillaume Canet’s follow-up to his 2010 box office smash Little White Lies. The sequel grossed $22 million in France, roughly half that of the original. Pathé will also handle Anna's release in France.

Besson has already sold off much of EuropaCorp's silver, offloading its French TV division for $13 million and hawking the company's Roissy Films library — some 500 titles — to French group Gaumont for an undisclosed sum. The company also cut into its overhead, chopping costs 34 percent in the last fiscal year to $15.5 million. Besson even quietly shuttered his Paris-based film school last July. All this was done in order to reduce debt and refocus EuropaCorp on its core production business.

The company confirmed it is in bailout talks with Pathé for a possible debt-for-equity swap, which would see Pathé take a majority stake in EuropaCorp in exchange for a cash infusion to allow the struggling company to restructure its debt. EuropaCorp also said it was in negotiations with other potential buyers. Besson and his holding company FrontLine still own 38 percent of the company, while Chinese investors, which put $67 million into the company in 2016, hold 28 percent.

EuropaCorp has few assets left aside from its remaining back catalog, now valued at $160 million, according to its own estimates. Besson's company, which used to release around 10 films a year, currently has no movies in production.

The lone bright spot is EuropaCorp's TV production division, which saw revenue jump nearly 80 percent to $22.5 million last year due to delivery of NBC's Taken. Besson has three new English-language series in development: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec, Gray and American Flagg.

But if Anna tanks worldwide in the manner it has stateside, even great TV will unlikely to be enough to save Besson's bacon.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Kursk did not receive a U.S. release.

UPDATED 7/22/2019 with the following statement from Ms. Van Roy: "In none of the police reports I mentioned I was drugged by Luc Besson. Blood tests were run as part of the procedure as French police wanted to exclude 'date rape' as they had dealt with a similar [unrelated] case shortly before my complaint. I called the police only hours after I was raped which allowed them to collect objective evidence. The doctor who examined me wrote down that “the physical evidence could support my statements.'”  

Van Roy has subsequently filed for a judge to re-examine the case. That decision is expected in early September.