The Fifth Element director Luc Besson’s marks his return to the sci-fi genre with a flashy new epic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which premieres in US theaters tomorrow.
The visually stunning film reportedly features more than 2,300 visual effects—nearly four times as many as the last Star Wars film Rogue One—including a multitude of alien lifeforms like the Pearls, a beautiful, ethereal species whose peaceful and highly intelligent nature sounds a bit like the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar.
Like that 2009 fantasy epic, Valerian wasn’t cheap to make. Its estimated budget of $180 million—produced by Besson’s own independent French studio EuropaCorp—makes it both the most expensive independent feature (paywall) ever made, and the priciest movie to come out of a non-US studio. The cost is on par with Hollywood mega-movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
But the financial risk is nowhere near the same.
While Valerian was made on a blockbuster budget, it was financed like the indie it is. EuropaCorp reportedly brought on more than a dozen equity partners to help finance the film, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall). Equity partners invest against the future performance of a movie and use those funds to pay for the production. When the movie is done, those investors either sell the movie to distributors or use more equity to finance the release themselves.
EuropaCorp distributes Valerian in France, where its based, and has a deal with STX Entertainment for the US—but it also sold the rights to distribute the movie in dozens of other territories before it was even finished, through a practice known as pre-sales, Wired reported. Two years ago at Cannes, before a single shot had been recorded, Besson and his producer and wife, Virginie Besson-Silla, pitched the movie to 70 or foreign distributors. Besson said:
We showed all the designs. I told the entire story, and they could read the script and make an offer. We sold almost $80 million of pre-sale in a day.
That pitch was reportedly sold to distributors in more than 100 countries. EuropaCorp took advantage of tax credits for filming in certain regions, too. The movie was estimated to cost between $180-200 million, based on estimates from the Journal and EuropaCorp CEO Marc Shmuger (though some outlets place the budget higher). And Shmuger told Forbes that the estimated final net cost after tax credits would be about $150 million. Besson, who co-founded EuropaCorp, told ScreenDaily in June:
Like every film company, we will only greenlight a project if at least 80% of its budget is covered. With Valerian, we’ve covered 96% of the budget with pre-sales… The risk to EuropaCorp is 4% of the budget so there’s no actual financial risk.
Shmuger told Forbes the company was on the hook for a little more—around 10% of the budget. “The cost to EuropaCorp to mount the largest European production ever made, the largest independently-produced non-studio production ever made, the dream project of the company’s founder—the total cost to the company is not $200 million or $150 million, but under $20 million of financial exposure,” Shmuger said.
Both are attainable targets. Even Guy Ritchie’s terrible King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, which cost nearly as much as to make as Valerian and looked far less fun, brought in $141 million at the box office this summer.
Naturally, EuropaCorp would like to see Valerian do more than break even. The last feature film Besson directed, Lucy, grossed $463 million worldwide. And his 1997 film The Fifth Element, which was a bit of a sleeper hit but became a sci-fi classic, grossed $264 million, unadjusted for inflation.
As Besson also told ScreenDaily, “The risk for the company is more one of notoriety. If the film is a big flop, we’ll lose credibility for making these sorts of films. The risk is not financial, but rather human.”