How European cinema is learning to live without the U.S.

Yankees, stay home!

Since Ecosse Films started developing its new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” a few years back, Natalie Portman, Abbie Cornish and Gemma Arterton have been touted at various times for the lead role.

But when Andrea Arnold signed up to direct, she was given free rein to cast teenage unknowns. With the U.S. pre-sales market all but closed to European projects, there was no longer any point in trying to tailor the casting to the tastes of American buyers. The producers relied instead on the cachet of Arnold’s name on the European arthouse circuit to finance the project out of Europe.

That’s a striking example of how the shrinkage of U.S. specialty distribution is changing European cinema. The days when an ambitious producer’s first thought was to tempt Miramax or New Line are gone. Instead, they are retreating to their own domestic markets, or looking to co-productions or pre-sales from neighboring countries to support larger budgets.

“The U.S. is now worth exactly the same as the Philippines, but at least you know you’ll get a deal out of the Philippines,” quips Paul Brett of Prescience Film Finance. “The U.S. market used to be worth 40%, but now it has to be discounted to zero.”

That’s changing the kinds of stories being told, and how they are cast. There’s a shift from the kind of tasteful heritage cinema — often with transatlantic casting — that’s traditionally been embraced by upscale American auds and Oscar voters toward edgier contempo genre fare, with the auteur twist that European audiences favor. For example: French gangster pics such as “Mesrine” and “A Prophet” or Swedish thrillers such as “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” or “Let the Right One In.”

Ironically, the byproduct of this localization is material ready for American remakes, and the emergence of a cadre of young Euro filmmakers who have proven their multiplex chops and are ripe for plucking by Hollywood.

“The days of doing the transatlantic mishmash kind of project are gone,” says “Wuthering Heights” producer Kevin Loader. “People are thinking a little more locally. It’s about budget, and working with directors who have a reputation in Europe. We’re all looking a little more south and east, rather than west, and everything’s cheaper.”

“There’s a discernible trend toward films that can be financed out of Europe and can recoup out of Europe, which ties in with the contraction of the American market,” agrees Peter Watson of the Recorded Picture Co.

RPC is producing David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” a psychosexual drama about Jung and Freud, which it has financed entirely out of Europe. Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender star, and shooting will take place in Germany.

“What we’re trying to do is make films we can fund here, and rely less and less on America,” says veteran producer Stephen Woolley. As the title suggests, his “Made in Dagenham,” about women factory workers campaigning for sex equality in east London, is as local as it gets. Yet the pitch of “a comedy about female empowerment from ‘Calendar Girls’ director Nigel Cole” was attractive enough to raise significant international financing long before Sony Pictures Classics bought the completed film.

“We pre-sold in territories that wouldn’t normally buy without an American pre-sale in place,” confirms Woolley.

“We’re constructing finance plans differently now,” explains Ivan McTaggart of BMS Finance, which backed “Made in Dagenham.” “You used to raise finance from the rest of the world and include the U.S. as upside, but now most plans ignore the U.S. completely. There also seems to be a burgeoning demand out of Europe for French-language gangster films like ‘Mesrine.’ We saw a plan for one recently from Gaumont for $17 million.”

Pathe topper Francois Ivernel has no doubt that the balance has shifted. “The shrinking of the American market does make a difference. We would have to be blind and deaf not to factor that in,” he says.

Pathe is exploring more genre fare such as the Roman actioner “Centurion,” which sells strongly in international markets and doesn’t need an American sale to break even. Projects such as its Martin Luther King/LBJ drama “Selma,” however, have become “a lot harder” to make. “It’s something we need an American partner for, not just financially but for cultural reasons,” admits Ivernel.

On the other hand, Ivernel is encouraged by the pan-European appetite for certain types of French-language fare. Pathe is currently shooting “Switch,” a $6 million Gallic thriller starring the former soccer star Eric Cantona, which it expects to sell widely across Europe.

“We believe it has international potential, otherwise it wouldn’t have been financeable and it wouldn’t have been made. And it has remake potential,” says Ivernel. Pathe also has two big-budget French family comedies in the works, “Evolution Man” and “Marsupilami,” which it will make as Euro co-productions.

StudioCanal also plans a number of these “regional” pics, including a French-lingo actioner set in Afghanistan, an Amos Gitai spy thriller set across several countries and a Walter Salles project set in Latin America but financed out of Europe because U.S pre-sales aren’t available.

StudioCanal also stepped in to co-produce Working Title’s spy thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” after Universal passed.

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