Sasha Luss walked into the private screening room with a cocktail in hand, ready to watch herself in her first major movie. It was a quiet Thursday afternoon when she arrived at Soho House, and her birthday. She was 27 and had spent the morning celebrating at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
But even though Luss’ film, “Anna,” an action thriller about a former model turned assassin, will be released by Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment on June 21, the studio had not arranged the screening. Instead, it was a representative for the actress who booked the intimate gathering of about 10, including a couple of her close friends and Luc Besson, who wrote and directed the film.
Besson, best known for cult favorite action spectacles like “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element,” has kept a low public profile since last year, when nine women accused him of sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior in the French publication Mediapart.
One of those women, the 28-year-old Dutch Belgian actress Sand Van Roy, went to the French police in May 2018, accusing Besson of rape.
A lawyer for Besson has said publicly that the director denies “reprehensible behavior of any kind.” In February, following a months-long police investigation into Van Roy’s claims, the Paris prosecutor’s office said Besson would not face any charges due to lack of evidence.
Lionsgate had acquired the U.S. rights to release “Anna” in October 2017, before the allegations against Besson became public. While Van Roy’s claims were being investigated, the film’s release was put on hold. And then in April, just two months after the probe ended, the studio finally dated the film.
Lionsgate, known for “The Hunger Games” and “John Wick” franchises, is not the first studio to have a film entangled in Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning.
Amazon Studios severed ties with Woody Allen amid renewed attention to a 1992 claim that he sexually abused his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow. Allen, in February, sued the company for at least $68 million for breach of contract, saying Amazon had reneged on his film deals as the result of a “baseless” allegation. Twentieth Century Fox, on the other hand, hired Bryan Singer to direct “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 2016 even after the filmmaker was publicly accused of sexual abuse — charges he has long denied. The director was subsequently fired from the production, but Singer was nevertheless credited as the film’s director, and the Queen biopic became a global box office hit.
Lionsgate is neither abandoning “Anna” nor fully promoting it. The film is expected to open in 2,200 theaters nationwide, but Lionsgate is doing minimal publicity -- opting to not host screenings for movie critics, press junkets or red carpet premieres. Nonetheless, previews for the movie have appeared on television and in theaters ahead of movies, including the latest “John Wick” sequel.
But despite a prime summer launch date, the movie is expected to be squashed by the competition, including the much-anticipated Pixar Animation Studios sequel “Toy Story 4” and Orion Pictures’ remake of “Child’s Play.”
According to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys, “Anna” — which cost an estimated $30 million to produce — will likely debut with around $5 million in ticket sales. That would be a strikingly low number for a film playing in so many theaters, making it one of the worst-performing wide releases of the year.
Lionsgate, based in Santa Monica, declined to comment for this story. Through his lawyer, Besson was also unwilling to participate. So too were the stars of “Anna” — other than Luss. Representatives for Luke Evans and Helen Mirren told The Times that their clients were unable to talk about the film due to overseas shooting schedules. Cillian Murphy, another actor in the film, simply wasn’t available for an interview, his publicist said.
Which is why Luss’ manager this month began pitching the media directly about the fledgling star, who is in nearly every frame of the film. Her performance is wide-ranging: In one scene, she ruthlessly takes down her targets with shards of broken dishware while barely breaking a sweat. In another, she lies lifeless on a table, submitting to her boyfriend’s sexual urges while appearing dead in the eyes.
The movie should be a huge break for someone whose only prior acting job was a tiny part in Besson’s 2017 big-budget flop “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” The filmmaker has a track record for spotting star quality in models: Milla Jovovich became a Hollywood name after Besson cast her in 1997’s “The Fifth Element” — the two would go on to have a short-lived marriage — and he has worked with Rie Rasmussen and Cara Delevingne.
Luss, who grew up in Moscow and now lives in New York, had already worked with the likes of Dior and Valentino by the time she met Besson. Before the filmmaker set out to make “Valerian,” he was looking through headshots of models to cast in the movie and was struck by Luss’ image. The two met in Paris, and after a four-hour audition, he told her he wanted to give her a small role in the film.
On set in New Zealand, Luss lamented that she was growing tired of modeling. No one ever cared to hear her opinion, and the profession was becoming overrun with Instagram influencers. The director and the model formed a friendship, she said, and when the shoot wrapped, Besson followed up with frequent phone calls: “Are you still doing your acting classes? How is modeling going? Do you still want to continue acting?”
He urged her to pursue acting classes with celebrity coach Susan Batson as well as accent courses to learn how to modulate her Russian intonation. And, at Luss’ request, he sent her screenplays so she could understand how a script was crafted.
Then, on a trip to Los Angeles during a coffee meeting, he presented her with the script for “Anna.”
“I read it in front of him, and then I said, ‘I’ve never heard of this,’ ” Luss recalled. “And he said ‘Yes, because it’s new. Do you want to play Anna?’ I couldn’t even believe it for a second. I think my jaw just dropped.”
While Luss began intensive, six-hour-a-day fight training to prepare for the film, another actress was also surprised to learn Besson had cast her in the movie: Sand Van Roy. Van Roy, the actress who later brought her accusation to the French police, shot a small role in the film opposite Evans, though her scenes do not appear in the final cut.
When Luss first heard about Van Roy’s allegations last May, she was distraught. Even though she felt the claims “couldn’t be real,” she said she asked Besson to assure her of his innocence.
“I felt bad, because we could never imagine that that would happen to Luc,” Luss said, sitting on a Beverly Hills rooftop the day after the “Anna” screening. “I’ve known him for five years, and he was nothing but a gentleman. It’s extremely sad.”
She pointed to the fact that Besson’s movies often feature females as powerful heroines, and said that if he was truly “a jerk,” he wouldn’t have worked with so many influential industry figures over the past 20 years.
“I think we have to understand that there’s been a very long investigation on that case,” Luss continued, “and [the authorities] really tried to find out if it was true or not, and the case was dropped.”
Van Roy, however, is pressing forward. In March, she filed a complaint with civil party suit, meaning an independent investigating judge will now be assigned to the case. “He shouldn’t be allowed to work in this industry,” she said.
Lionsgate might have faced legal challenges if it had dropped the film amid the allegations, according to experts. That would hinge on the details of the distribution agreement between Lionsgate and Besson’s production company EuropaCorp, said Elsa Ramo, a Beverly Hills-based entertainment lawyer who is not involved in the matter. Lionsgate may, in fact, have been able to cancel the release, but such a move could have been riskier than proceeding.
“It depends on how this contract was framed in the first place, but it’s something that producers, directors and distributors are all struggling with,” Ramo said.
“Anna” is only the latest struggle for Lionsgate, which has fought to consistently produce commercial hits in recent years. Its last release, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” has been one of the few major boons for the studio as even movies made from known IP such as “Hellboy” and “Robin Hood” have faltered.
And Besson’s EuropaCorp has been in particularly bad shape. Its wildly ambitious science fiction gamble “Valerian” grossed just $225.9 million worldwide, a dismal result for a film that cost an estimated $180 million to produce and tens of millions more to market. (Box office receipts are split between studios and theater owners.)
In May, the company suspended trading of its stock in France and sought court protection from creditors, facing a substantial debt load. EuropaCorp said in court filings that its financial problems stemmed from a series of flops and a failed strategy it adopted in 2014 of trying to distribute its movies independently in the U.S.
Besson’s studio, which owes more than $200 million to JPMorgan Chase and venture capital firm Vine Investment Advisors, has been looking for a way to recover and restructure its heavy debt burden.
EuropaCorp may be close to finding a financial lifeline. The company late last month said it has been “in discussion” with French film company and cinema owner Pathé, which is interested in acquiring a significant stake in the firm. “[T]he Company confirms to be in discussion with its creditors and the group Pathé, as part of the restructuring of its debt and the strengthening of its financial capacity by way of capital increase,” EuropaCorp said in a press release.
Representatives for EuropaCorp did not respond to requests for comment.
As for Luss? As the studios wrestle with financial headwinds and the dilemma of how to sensitively handle Besson’s #MeToo situation, it is her future as a promising young actress that hangs in the balance, and her star turn that’s arriving with less fanfare than it might. Still, she remains hopeful that Besson will be able to move past the negative headlines and start anew.
“I think we should focus on him being a good director and the great movies he’s made and the great ‘Anna’ rather than thinking about” the allegations, she said. “Because there are people who have really done terrible things.”
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