It’s hard to get more ambitious than Luc Besson’s 3D epic “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” The action-sci-fi film that hits theaters on July 21 is STX Entertainment’s answer to franchises like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and is packed with astonishing visuals that combine the dystopian desert sets of “Mad Max” with the underwater environments of “Avatar” and the galactic backdrops of “Star Wars.”
“Valerian” follows two special operatives (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) in the vast space metropolis of Alpha, home to a species from a thousand planets, where a dark force threatens the future of the universe.
At this year’s CinemaCon, the National Association of Theatre Owners’ annual show where studios present show reels and give first looks at their new movies, STX chairman Adam Fogelson touted several of his fledgling studio’s upcoming titles, but left little doubt that “Valerian” was the film that would help the company “compete and win like a major.”
The competition at CinemaCon was fierce, with major studios teasing titles like “Spiderman: Homecoming,” “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but the sizzle reel for “Valerian” had something that no other studio presentation did: a new intellectual property, and one as visually stunning as Besson’s “The Fifth Element.” Reviews are still embargoed, but we can confirm that the movie delivers on the high expectations set by the sizzle reel shown at CinemaCon.
“Valerian” took Besson seven years to conceive, $180 million to produce, and almost two years to edit, as Wired reports in a new cover story. Perhaps the most remarkable data point, however, is the number of major Hollywood studios involved with the movie: zero.
It’s not that Besson turned away studio support. Hollywood today makes big bets only on established intellectual properties with built-in audiences and “Valerian” is based on a French comics series entitled “Valérian and Laureline” that most U.S. audiences have never encountered. To get the movie made, Besson needed his own film studio, a luxury that almost no other filmmaker on the planet gets to enjoy, Tyler Perry aside.
After box office hits like “The Fifth Element” and a string of financially successful film and TV projects he wrote and produced, Besson started EuropaCorp, which distributes his movies in France without the help of an outside distributor. The company also has a distribution deal with STX.
Besson also had to use every trick in the independent film financing book, including pre-selling rights to foreign distributors. Fortunately, the filmmaker has strong relationships with distributors who regard him as a visionary, an importantly, one who always delivers his films on time and on budget.
According to Wired, Besson and his producing partner (and wife) Virginie Besson-Silla made a presentation to foreign distributors at Cannes that consisted of the finished screenplay and some 80 sketches of the “Valerian” characters and universe. The pitch raised nearly $80 million in pre-sales in one day. Besson eventually sold the rights to the film in more than 100 territories.
While pitching financiers at Cannes is how countless independent projects get funded every year, you won’t find anyone else offering equity stakes in $180 million sci-fi blockbusters at the Marche du Film. Because “Valerian” was financed like an indie, Besson doesn’t have to worry about losing hundreds of millions of dollars for an individual studio and risking a major career setback. He also didn’t have to deal with a stack of script notes from studio execs, a certainty for any filmmaker shooting a Hollywood movie for upwards of $200 million.
“He pieced together a financing structure that would allow him to make the movie without — I’ll choose my words carefully — the weight of major studio executives,” Fogelson told Wired.
Though “Valerian” marks the newest space opera to hit the big screen, Besson noted at CinemaCon that the original “Valerian” comics, published in 1968, were actually sources of inspiration for the makers of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” He added that he originally wanted to make “Valerian” two decades ago, when he made “The Fifth Element,” but technology at that time wouldn’t have allowed him to realize his vision.
“It was not possible, because there are only two characters and 1,000 aliens,” Besson said. “James Cameron just made the technology possible in ‘Avatar,’ and thanks to him, imagination is the limit.”