An American in Paris: Ron Halpern oversees international productions/acquisitions at STUDIOCANAL
New York-born and educated Ron Halpern, STUDIOCANAL executive VP, international production and acquisitions, is not quite “Our Man in Paris” (to tweak a rare classic title not in the company’s vast library). While proud of his U.S. citizenship, he’s now fully committed to his adopted country and company. Based in STUDIOCANAL’s Paris home office, he’s been in charge of international productions and acquisitions since 2007. Armed with both a Columbia University B.A. and MBA, he’s come a long way both geographically and professionally.
That he has stayed so long in France has also given him a unique perspective on native, European and global cinema. Like others in the upper reaches of the industry, Halpern began his affair with movies when he was a young fan (a love that must run in the family, as sister Adrienne Halpern has long been partnered in New York-based Rialto Pictures with Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein).
After Columbia (which included Halpern’s life-changing year abroad in France), he worked in ICM’s New York mailroom and held various jobs at CBS Sports, including coverage of three Winter Olympic Games. Beyond his affinity for France and quality films, he explains his long stretch at STUDIOCANAL by reminding that “it’s always easier to work in something you love doing.” Halpern resides in Paris with his French wife and children, travels regularly to festivals and markets like Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, the AFM and sometimes Venice, and makes about five or six trips a year to L.A., where STUDIOCANAL has an office and where his unit does business. He describes his team’s mandate for production and acquisitions as “a focus on theatrical features, with no involvement in TV or original French productions.”
Asked how being American-born and educated has been been helpful, considering the differences that separate French and American cultures (film and business, notably), he answers, “STUDIOCANAL is incredibly international and, in fact, being from one country and living and working in another makes one more sensitive to these differences. And this is valuable in broadening one’s outlook, by allowing us, in fact, a very international perspective. So we get a good sense of what might be good for the U.K. or other territories or even across all our markets. Our mix of origins and backgrounds is distinctive to our company.”
Such variety has been instrumental in helping make the studio a European major across markets and genres and a key purveyor of art-house hits to the U.S.
Halpern’s oversight is acquisitions and international productions for theatrical, absenting original French-only productions and TV. His unit focuses on a mix of art-house and mass-audience-oriented films; he describes the former as “targeting adults” and the latter as “family films for the multiplex.” And in some cases and in recognition of “name value,” a few projects might essentially be talent-driven.
Halpern deals with a number of territories, especially Germany and the U.K., where the company does most of its co-productions and productions. In general, he explains, the company “tries to make European-anchored films, European-feeling films. This is what we make also because we try to do something that stands slightly apart.”
He carries a production credit on many of the the company’s theatrical projects, including such winners as the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Legend, Non-Stop and global smashes Paddington and Shaun the Sheep Movie, the current A Bigger Splash and the upcoming Our Kind of Traitor.
The art-house market in the U.S. has been a hard nut to crack for all companies, but many acquisitions under Halpern’s watch have broken through, including such successes as The Place Beyond the Pines and Oscar winners Silver Linings Playbook and The Imitation Game.
Describing his team’s decision-making, Halpern offers that “first, we respond [to material] as audience members, because that’s essentially what we are at this company. And we consider whether we can do well in our territories and what feels distinctly European but can travel.” Maybe a quarter of the deals arrived at are acquisitions and the rest co-productions or sometimes productions outside of France.
The projects STUDIOCANAL embraces “are budgeted according to what they reasonably need, but we now have a much bigger development budget than we had.”
Team Halpern was recently at Cannes, where the focus was on acquisitions in addition to eyeing pre-sales and scouting talent. “We look mostly at filmmaker-driven projects,” he says.
Asked how his unit’s production and acquisition decisions have been impacted by a world becoming more homogenized and globalized, Halpern responds, “Generally, we want films that feel anchored, we want films that can travel. Globalization has in fact opened people’s minds to different kinds of storytelling and different cultures from around the world and that’s a good thing. We look for films that reflect a personal point of view and comedies like Les Intouchables that can travel, not films that only have an American passport.”
As a Franco-American film executive, what might Halpern’s views be regarding the seeming lull in the appeal of French films stateside, certainly contrasted with their heyday decades ago? “It’s not just a French thing,” he replies, “it’s a foreign-film problem. While there are notable exceptions, foreign-language films in the U.S. are a very complicated thing. In the U.S., we’re just not subtitle-friendly.” As a rare success for subtitles in the U.S., he points to the small screen and a big disruptor, Netflix, whose Gaumont series “Narcos” is “somehow hitting the right marks.”
During his tenure at STUDIOCANAL, Halpern has seen many changes in the business. So what are his strategies for filmed entertainment in the near future? “Europe,” he quickly responds, “has an enormous number of great writers, directors and actors, so it’s our job to tap this talent. But our overriding challenge is to up the quality of what we do, because films have gotten so much better. The bar is raised, but there’s also the additional challenge of so much TV programming.”
Asked, with apologies, to name some favorites among his upcoming projects, Halpern answers, “Nothing makes me happier than making another Paddington movie. We shoot in October.”