Pathe UK, the London-based division of the venerable French film and television company, is exiting its theatrical division to focus on premium scripted television content. Cameron McCracken, the famous film director of Pathé United Kingdom who produced films such as Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionnaire,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” will step down from his role and retire at the end of the year.
Three key executives working for the division, Lee Bye, Lloyd Vanson and Michael Guerrero, will leave the company. In the meantime, McCracken will continue working on several ongoing projects he initiated at Pathé, including an Alexander McQueen biopic directed by Oliver Hermanus. Under the strategic change, Faith Penhale, who joined Pathe UK in 2022 as CEO, will continue to lead the business with a staff of 12. In France, Pathé created a television division led by Aude Albano in 2021 and has a slate of shows in different stages of development and production, including “The Black Musketeers,” a spin-off of the adventure saga whose second feature film, “The Three Musketeers: Milady” will be released in France on December 13.
Penhale and Pathé CEO Ardavan Safaee spoke with Variety about the decision to close the theatrical division, which they said was motivated by McCracken’s desire to retire, as well as structural changes in the industry following the pandemic and difficulties related to independent distribution in the UK.
Variety: What prompted this decision to leave theatrical distribution?
Ardavan Safaee: When Cameron told us he wanted to retire we decided to focus on television. Maintaining that distribution division forced us to release all films in theaters and it costs money in P&A to distribute films in theaters. We wanted to avoid these limitations and that is why we changed our model and decided to work more on television series and with platforms. It is also a change linked to all the changes that have occurred in our industry since the pandemic.
Faith Penhale: We’ve been talking for a long time about how to introduce television into Pathé alongside film, but I think the film model has changed substantially in recent years. That’s why we are now thinking a lot about producing films for streamers. Our latest film, “Joy,” written by Jack Thorne and directed by Ben Taylor, is for Netflix, but alongside it is now new television programming. All my experience is in television and premium television, so for me, it’s about how those two things come together and how we can now tell stories. Pathe is able to tell stories in both feature film and series formats, which is really exciting. So the news really crystallizes that change of direction for us, but it’s a new and exciting future.
I was surprised to hear that Pathé was pulling out of cinema in the UK, because it’s a big part of their DNA in France (Pathe has the largest cinema circuit in France).
AS: We don’t have cinemas in the UK like we do in France, and we never handle physical distribution ourselves, we always work with a third party distributor to take care of it.
FP: I think France is very specific and has its own kind of culture around cinema and audience expectations. I think the UK is a very difficult market and we are seeing it. So our (decision) is our way of responding to audiences and the way they want to see things. And it’s partly a response to storytellers and the way writers and directors want to work. And now I see a lot more movement between film and television, a lot more appetite on the part of creatives to tell stories in a longer form, to tell stories in such an ambitious and cinematic way, but in this kind of longer serialized form. Hopefully, it’s about giving us more chances to work with people in that way.
When you hear streamers like Amazon or Apple commit to film, doesn’t that give you faith in theaters?
AS: Yes, but when an Apple movie hits theaters, you’ll see it on Sony or Paramount around the world. They are not going to sell it to Pathé for the United Kingdom. So it’s not the same model. But of course, it’s a safe bet that streaming services are going to release their prestige films in theaters because they know that theaters create value and don’t have profitability goals. Our idea at Pathé is to continue making films in English for cinemas, but to do it from France and not from the United Kingdom.
Are you worried about a slowdown in streamer commissions and acquisitions?
FP: I think we are in a transition period. And I think for sure, especially over these last 12 months, this has been exacerbated in part by the strikes, and everyone, everyone involved, actors and writers and the studios will have a moment to take stock. The public is hungry for good material. I think if anything, it’s about us being able to drive quality, making sure that we’re actually delivering pieces that they want to see. But I don’t see demand slowing down.
AS: It’s a global problem. Competition is sure to be tougher in the future, but as we have always done, our mandate is to produce quality rather than quantity, whether in film or television. We believe that streaming services will always have an appetite for premium series. We are not in the volume game and that is why we have agile teams.
Do you think there’s an appetite for the kind of intellectual spectacles that Pathé strives to produce? It seems that streamers are looking for a lot of male action.
FP: In the UK and US, audiences really respond to commercial and entertaining pieces. They want to involve great characters, great stories. But I also think audiences are sophisticated and want intelligent storytelling. And to me, it’s a combination of that kind of smart and yet commercial that feels like the kind of winning formula. If I look back at the Pathe UK films that have come out of the UK over the last 25 years, of course they are prestigious, very talented, but they have told stories that have global resonance and are incredibly commercial. They are not so rarefied. They are commercial offers, but they are quality.
AS: The movie we are making now, “Joy,” is not an action movie at all. In the UK there is a demand for content that appeals to an older audience. It depends on the country you are in. Globally, streamers are sure to look for something conventional, but they also want quality. If we take Netflix, they have many different target audiences to reach.
In France, Pathé has been developing several programs based on intellectual property, such as “The Three Musketeers.” Will you adopt a similar editorial line in the UK?
FP: Of course, like everyone else, we focus on intellectual property, but not exclusively. I think we are also looking a lot at real-life stories, and stories that can inspire us from journalism, from podcasts or from an article. You don’t have to rely on the branding of great intellectual property. A lot of the writers we work with want to create original stories themselves, so we’re in that space as well.
AS: It’s not that we only do intellectual property in France. But it’s clear that that period is in slightly less 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 being part of a venerable French film studio like Pathé give you?
FP: It’s the legacy. It is being part of a film studio that is 126 years old, that has always, throughout its life, put quality first and understands talent, knows how to take care of talent; who understands the ups and downs of working in film or now television. And that kind of sensitivity is really special and makes Pathe a really special place. Most of the people who have worked at Pathé have been there for more than 20 years. There is something about taking a long-term view, looking at something not just for tomorrow’s returns, but to think about the brand, for the next 100 years. That gives everyone a perspective and a sense of consideration that is really valuable.
Ardavan, I heard that “Black Musketeers”, the series commissioned by Disney+, will start filming soon.
AS: Yes, we hope to start filming next year!
KJ Yossman contributed to this report.