Pathe U.K., the London-based division of the venerable French film and TV company, is folding its theatrical division to focus on premium scripted television content. Cameron McCracken, the celebrated head of film at Pathe UK who exec produced movies such as Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionnaire,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” will step down and retire at the end of the year.
Three key executives working for the division — Lee Bye, Lloyd Vanson and Michael Guerrero — will depart the company. McCracken, meanwhile, will keep working on several ongoing projects he initiated at Pathé, including a biopic of Alexander McQueen directed by Oliver Hermanus. Under the strategic shift, Faith Penhale, who joined Pathe U.K. in 2022 as managing director, will continue leading the banner with a staff of 12 people. In France, Pathé created a TV division led by Aude Albano in 2021 and has a roster of shows at different stages of development and production, including “Black Musketeers,” a spinoff of the adventure saga whose second feature, “The Three Musketeers: Milady,” will be released in France on Dec. 13.
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Penhale and Pathé CEO Ardavan Safaee spoke to Variety about the decision to shutter the theatrical arm, which they said was prompted by McCracken’s desire to retire as well as structural changes in the industry following the pandemic, and the difficulties tied to independent distribution in the U.K.
Variety: What sparked this decision to move on from theatrical distribution?
Ardavan Safaee: When Cameron told us he wanted to retire we decided to focus on television. Keeping that distribution arm obligated us to release every film in cinemas and it costs money in P&A to distribute films in cinemas. We wanted to avoid these constraints and that’s why we changed our model and decided to work more on TV series and with platforms. It’s also a switch that’s tied to all the changes that have happened in our industry since the pandemic.
Faith Penhale: We have been talking for a long time about how to bring television into Pathe alongside film, but I think that the model for film has changed substantially over the last few years. And so we’re now looking very much to producing films for the streamers. Our latest film, “Joy,” which Jack Thorne has written and Ben Taylor’s directed, is for Netflix, but alongside that is now the new television slate. My whole background is in television and premium television, so for me, it’s about how those two things sit side by side, and how now we’re able to tell stories. Pathe is able to tell stories in both a feature and a series format, which is really exciting. So really the news crystallizes that change in direction for us, but it’s a new and exciting future.
I was surprised to hear that Pathé was pulling out of theatrical in the U.K., because it’s such a huge part of your DNA in France (Pathe owns France’s largest cinema circuit).
AS: We don’t have theaters in the U.K. as we do in France, and we never handled physical distribution ourselves, we would always work with a third-party distributor to handle it.
FP: I think France is very specific and has its own very specific kind of culture around film and audience expectations. I think the U.K. is a very difficult market, and we’re seeing that. So our (decision) is our way of responding to audiences and the way they want to view things. And it’s partly in response to the storytellers and the way in which the writers and the directors want to work. And I see now so much more movement between film and television, so much more appetite for creatives to tell stories in a longer form, to tell stories as ambitiously and as cinematically, but in this kind of longer serialized form. So hopefully it’s about giving us more scope to work with people in that way.
When you hear streamers like Amazon or Apple committing to theatrical, doesn’t it give you faith in cinemas?
AS: Yes, but when an Apple movie does theatrical they’ll see it to Sony or Paramount worldwide. They’re not going to sell it to Pathé for the U.K. So it’s not the same model. But of course, it’s certain that streaming services are going to release their prestige films in theaters because they know that cinemas create the value and they have profitability goals. Our idea at Pathé is to continue making English-language movies for theaters but make them out of France rather than from the U.K.
Are you worried about a slowdown in scripted commissions and acquisitions from streamers?
FP: I think we are in a period of transition. And I think for sure, especially over these last 12 months, it’s been partly exacerbated by the strikes, and everyone, all participants, actors and writers and the studios will have a moment to take stock. Audiences are so hungry for great material. I think, if anything, it’s about us being able to push the quality, make sure that we’re really delivering pieces that they want to watch. But I don’t see the demand slowing.
AS: It’s a global issue. It’s certain that the competition is going to be tougher going forward but as we’ve always done, our mandate is to produce quality rather than quantity whether it’s on films or TV. We think streaming services will always have an appetite for premium series. We’re not in the volume game and that’s why we have lean teams.
Do you feel that there is an appetite for the kind of highbrow shows that Pathé strives to produce? It seems streamers are looking for a lot of male-skewing action fare.
FP: In the U.K. and the U.S., the audience really respond to pieces that are commercial and entertaining. They want to engage great characters, great stories. But I also think that audiences are sophisticated and they want intelligent storytelling. And for me, it’s a combination of that sort of intelligence and yet commercial that feels like the sort of winning formula. If I look back at the Pathe UK films that have come out of the U.K. over the last 25 years, of course, they are prestige, very talent-led, but they have told stories that have global resonance and that are incredibly commercial. They’re not so rarefied. They are commercial offerings, but they are quality.
AS: The movie we’re doing now, “Joy,” is not at all an action film. In the U.K. there’s a demand for content that appeals to an audience that’s more senior. So it depends on what country you’re in. Globally, it’s certain that streamers are looking for mainstream, but they also want quality. If you take Netflix, they have a lot of different target audiences to reach.
In France, Pathé has been developing several shows based on IP, such as “The Three Musketeers.” Will you adopt a similar editorial line in the U.K.?
FP: Of course, like everyone, we’re looking at IP but not exclusively. I think that we are also very much looking around at real life stories, and stories that can inspire us from journalism, from podcasts or from a piece. It doesn’t have to rest on the brand of a big IP. A lot of the writers that we work with want to create original stories themselves, and so we’re also in that space.
AS: It’s not like we’re only doing IP in France. But it’s clear that period is slightly less in demand today, or at least not in the same proportion so we’re looking to develop series that are very contemporary because that’s what people want now.
Faith, what competitive advantage does it give you to be part of a venerable French film studio like Pathé?
FP: It’s the legacy. It’s being part of a film studio that is 126 years old, that has always, throughout its lifespan, put quality first and understands talent, knows how to look after talent; that understands the ups and downs of working in film or now in television. And that kind of sensibility is really special and it makes Pathe a really special place. Most people who have worked at Pathe have been there for over 20 years. There’s something in taking the long view, looking at something not just for tomorrow’s returns, but for thinking about the brand, for the next 100 years. That gives everybody a perspective and a sense of thoughtfulness that is really valuable.
Ardavan, I heard that “Black Musketeers,” the series ordered by Disney+, will start shooting soon?
AS: Yes, we hope to start filming next year!
K.J. Yossman contributed to this report.
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