EuropaCorp Shake-Up: Surprise Exit Reignites Sales Chatter

Christophe Lambert and Luc Besson Split - H 2016
Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images; Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Christophe Lambert's sudden departure as CEO of Luc Besson's film studio has raised speculation that the company might soon be sold off.

The abrupt exit of Christophe Lambert as CEO of Luc Besson’s growing Paris-based major EuropaCorp, and on the eve of the Berlinale, has raised eyebrows in both Europe and the U.S.

While EuropaCorp and Besson offered the standard praise for their outgoing leader, who resigned on Feb. 10 following a board meeting and after almost six years at the helm, sources — almost all surprised by the news — have hinted that his exit could be linked to events going on behind the scenes at a studio with grand international ambitions.

One major cause is believed to be Besson’s not-exactly-secretive search for a buyer to take EuropaCorp off the stock market. The former enfant terrible of French film, whose career dates back to 1981 and has seen hits including Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, first established the studio in 2000 with veteran producer Pierre-Ange Le Pogram and helped take it public in 2007. But many believe he would now prefer running it as a private entity, without the financial and PR restrictions that come with a public listing.

"Besson has said that they want to be delisted. There are too many reports, too much examination, it's expensive for the company. They don't see the point. [Acquisition] is a way to get rid of these limits," one source told The Hollywood Reporter, while another said that thanks to 2014's $450 million-plus box-office hit Lucy, EuropaCorp is "really comfortable right now ... they are sitting on cash and don't need [to be on] the market."

With Lambert reported to have an ego to match that of Besson, sources suggest his exit could be linked to a pending takeover. French giant Vivendi, U.S. studio Universal and Amazon are all potential suitors for EuropaCorp and Lambert's presence may have been seen as an obstacle.

"It's a path to acquisition, because it's not easy for a buyer to have a CEO with such a strong character. It's difficult to manage," said another source. "Luc is also a strong character, and with him and a [similar] CEO, it's an obstacle for a buyer."

Lambert's replacement at EuropaCorp, former Universal chairman Marc Shmuger (whom Besson had reportedly been chasing for years after working with him in the '90s), has taken the post on an interim basis, although sources suggest he may have the option to stay on, even after a future sell-off.

Shmuger, who rose up the ranks at Universal to become co-chairman before leaving in 2011, is seen as an ideal man to build EuropaCorp's U.S. business. EuropaCorp's film slate has expanded rapidly following the launch of RED, their U.S. distribution company set up with Relativity in 2014.

Despite a bankruptcy judge's conditional approval of Relativity Media's reorganization plan (which EuropaCorp objected to), EuropaCorp is currently set to argue at a Feb. 17 hearing that its deal with Ryan Kavanaugh's studio for RED can not be assumed thanks to past alleged breaches of an operating agreement and lack of compensation for a default.

RED is set to release Besson’s $180 million sci-fi epic Valerian, currently in production, while other major upcoming titles on EuropaCorp's slate include $48 million Chinese co-production Warriors Gate; Naomi Watts-starrer Shot In; Colombian drug lord biopic Escobar, starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz; and the follow-up to Lucy, which was first mentioned at last year’s CineEurope (where EuropaCorp made a presentation for the first time). Showing its growing prowess as a buyer, the company this week scooped up U.S. rights for The Circle, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, for a reported $10 million.

Whatever the reasoning, Lambert’s leaving potentially removes one hurdle to the sale and, given his 10 percent stake in EuropaCorp, sets himself up for a hefty payday.

The official line from Besson is that Lambert had a “desire to produce,” which Besson said he could understand. EuropaCorp sources told The Hollywood Reporter that after the EuropaCorp board meeting Wednesday in which he officially resigned, Lambert flew from France to Los Angeles. Other insiders suggested EuropaCorp's board would be rather happy with his departure.

Possibly raising their smiles even further was seeing EuropaCorp’s shares close up by 4.94% to 4.46 Euros ($5) on Thursday, although analysts couldn’t be reached for comment on whether the increase in a down market was driven by expectations of a sale or hope for stronger results under the new CEO.

Shmuger, who flies back to L.A. on Friday, will return to Europe next week to attend the Berlin Film Festival and meet up with EuropaCorp's international partners.

Scott Roxborough and Eriq Gardner contributed to this report.