Goldwyn makes much ado over Branagh

Would it be, or would it not be, that was the question when director Kenneth Branagh canvassed Hollywood financiers soliciting offers for his planned film adaption of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Though Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures reportedly passed on the proposition, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. wanted to be included, and one of the movie business’ most unlikely hits of 1993 was born.

Looking at the results so far, with stars Denzel Washington, Branagh, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinshaw propelling the movie to roughly $ 16 million to date, “Much Ado” might seem like a sure thing.

At its inception, however, “Much Ado” was actually a highly risky business venture. For example, Walt Disney Studios rejected distribution of the movie out of hand, even though it had previously handled the Goldwyn-produced Bette Midler-starrer “Stella”– a remake of the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck-starrer “Stella Dallas.”

“The real risk going into the picture was that no one before had succeeded in a Shakespearian comedy,” says Tom Rothman, Goldwyn’s president of worldwide production. “Our reason for going into it, for doing the picture, wasn’t originally the cast. It was the filmmaker, Branagh, his level of confidence, and his vision.”

The reward for “Much Ado” goes up with each ticket sold, and Eamonn Bowles, Goldwyn’s VP of theatrical distribution, says it is already safe to certify “Much Ado” as a smash hit. “In the art market, we are basically ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” he says. “It has passed every test we’ve thrown at it so far.”

The inside story of “Much Ado” includes a clatch of companies that partnered on the screen adaptation of the 300-year-old stage play, including Branagh’s five-year-old production company, Renaissance Films., the creative arm of Public Broadcasting Co. and Columbia TriStar Home Video.

“From the perspective of greenlighting the project, Goldwyn greenlighted it without any partners,” says Meyer Gottlieb, president and chief operating officer of Samuel Goldwyn Co., who adds that the company’s primary incentive was to “continue a very successful relationship with the filmmaker.”

Bowles describes the performance of “Much Ado” since its release as that of “a more muscular ‘Howards End.’ ” In fact, “Much Ado” is following the long-release strategy used last year by Sony Pictures Classics.

In the “Howards End” scenario, Sony Classics slowly released the movie on a market-by-market basis for more than a year. The company’s patience was subsequently rewarded when Emma Thompson’s Best Actress Academy Award in March sparked a box office boomlet.

“What they are doing (with ‘Much Ado’) is a smart way to distribute this film ,” says Tom Bernard, co-chief executive officer in charge of distribution for Sony Pictures Classics. “They have a picture that needs time for people to discover it. They are basically planting it in theaters and waiting for people to come. It is similar to ‘Howards End.’ The trick is how they will manage through September and October.”

Bernard is not kidding when he says the jury is still out on whether “Much Ado” will continue to build. Goldwyn faces a Herculian task over the next two months as it attempts to find screens in one of the most competitive markets ever.

“There’s a great deal of pressure every week from the new tide of major studio releases, so we have had to be careful to maintain the grosses and hold the screens,” Bowles says.

Bowles’ attitude is nothing new. Goldwyn executives have been aggressive about “Much Ado” from the beginning.

It started in 1990, when Branagh, having just finished the grainy Echo Park thriller “Dead Again” for Paramount Pictures, opened up discussions with a number of financiers about the next two movies he wanted to direct — the $ 11 million production of “Much Ado About Nothing” and the $ 5 million “Peter’s Friends.”

While the aggregate $ 16 million outlay was below the production cost of an average studio release, it was a considerable expense for the reclining, dialog-driven “Peter’s Friends” and the risky “Much Ado.” Paramount, for one, backed away.

But Goldwyn executives Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Gottlieb and Rothman cut a deal with Branagh’s Renaissance Films executive producers Stephen Evans and David Parfitt that called for Goldwyn to draw together the financing for the two movies in exchange for all worldwide rights except the United Kingdom — the territory that Renaissance retained.

“We in fact participated in the United Kingdom,” says Gottlieb, who added the picture will open nationally on a projected 100 screens in England either at the end of August or the beginning of September.

Rothman says it was Branagh’s ability to articulate “a powerful vision” for “Much Ado” that convinced Goldwyn to help finance the two pix. He said Branagh described “Much Ado” as a wide-open, rollicking movie populated by a cast of English and American stars.

A pair of key partners were drawn in to “Much Ado,” fairly early on.

American Playhouse Theatrical Films purchased an initial television broadcast window for the Public Broadcasting Co., while Columbia TriStar Home Video acquired homevideo rights in exchange for an estimated 15% of “Much Ado” with a $ 1.65 million guaranteed advance against a distribution fee for the homevideo rights to the movie.

Of particular interest is Goldwyn’s license/equity deal with Public Broadcasting Co.’s American Playhouse Television, which added a whimsical element to what would become a whimsical deal to produce a whimsical movie based on a whimsical play.

American Playhouse provided an estimated 5%, or $ 550,000, of the movie’s $ 11 million budget in exchange for the right to broadcast the movie for the first time on television in the United States.

“This was an unusual wrinkle,” says Rothman. “(American Playhouse president) Lindsey Law realized very early on that Branagh’s ‘Much Ado’ would be an enormously high-profile film, as well as agood investment.”

In one fell swoop, American Playhouse gave Public Broadcasting Co. a prime-time competitor, and potential fund-raising season conqueror, as well as an equity slice in the movie. And between the homevideo and broadcast deals, an estimated 20% of Goldwyn exposure on the movie had been covered.

The American Playhouse deal differed from the norm in two other respects: It bypassed a lower, six-figure, off-network licensing fee that might have been collected immediately and without selling equity, or the richer sweeping studio output deals that Goldwyn has enjoyed on such Disney-distributed pix as “Stella, ” and the upcoming James Caan/Craig Sheffer starrer “The Program,” and the upcoming Warner Bros.-distributed “Mr. Wonderful,” which stars Matt Dillon, William Hurt and Annabella Sciorra.

On the homevideo front, things continue to percolate. “Much Ado” will be shipped under the Goldwyn label, and looms as potentially the top-selling homevideo title to be distributed by an independent company in history.

Rothman says he is optimistic that “Much Ado” will ship around 150,000 rental homevid units, outpacing “Howards End’s” 145,000 rental units and possibly matching the 150,000 rental units shipped on the Buena Vista-distributed “The Crying Game.”

If the title ships at a wholesale price of roughly $ 60, the pic would generate $ 9 million to 10 million gross revenue for Columbia TriStar Home Video , which would deliver a substantial portion of that total back to Goldwyn.

“It is quite possible that the gross sales in U.S. video will equal or exceed the negative cost of the picture,” says Gottlieb, who declined further comment on Daily Variety estimates.

Given the success of the movie, it should come as little surprise that Goldwyn is already working to get Brannagh’s next picture — Shakespeare or not. Is “Hamlet” in the offing? Rothman says “he’s doing it on stage, but in truth Ken has not decided what he’s going to do next.”

Would it be, or would it not be, that was the question when director Kenneth Branagh canvassed Hollywood financiers soliciting offers for his planned film adaption of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Though Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures reportedly passed on the proposition, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. wanted to be included, and one of the movie business’ most unlikely hits of 1993 was born.

Looking at the results so far, with stars Denzel Washington, Branagh, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinshaw propelling the movie to roughly $ 16 million to date, “Much Ado” might seem like a sure thing.

At its inception, however, “Much Ado” was actually a highly risky business venture. For example, Walt Disney Studios rejected distribution of the movie out of hand, even though it had previously handled the Goldwyn-produced Bette Midler-starrer “Stella”– a remake of the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck-starrer “Stella Dallas.”

“The real risk going into the picture was that no one before had succeeded in a Shakespearian comedy,” says Tom Rothman, Goldwyn’s president of worldwide production. “Our reason for going into it, for doing the picture, wasn’t originally the cast. It was the filmmaker, Branagh, his level of confidence, and his vision.”

The reward for “Much Ado” goes up with each ticket sold, and Eamonn Bowles, Goldwyn’s VP of theatrical distribution, says it is already safe to certify “Much Ado” as a smash hit. “In the art market, we are basically ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” he says. “It has passed every test we’ve thrown at it so far.”

The inside story of “Much Ado” includes a clatch of companies that partnered on the screen adaptation of the 300-year-old stage play, including Branagh’s five-year-old production company, Renaissance Films., the creative arm of Public Broadcasting Co. and Columbia TriStar Home Video.

“From the perspective of greenlighting the project, Goldwyn greenlighted it without any partners,” says Meyer Gottlieb, president and chief operating officer of Samuel Goldwyn Co., who adds that the company’s primary incentive was to “continue a very successful relationship with the filmmaker.”

Bowles describes the performance of “Much Ado” since its release as that of “a more muscular ‘Howards End.’ ” In fact, “Much Ado” is following the long-release strategy used last year by Sony Pictures Classics.

In the “Howards End” scenario, Sony Classics slowly released the movie on a market-by-market basis for more than a year. The company’s patience was subsequently rewarded when Emma Thompson’s Best Actress Academy Award in March sparked a box office boomlet.

“What they are doing (with ‘Much Ado’) is a smart way to distribute this film ,” says Tom Bernard, co-chief executive officer in charge of distribution for Sony Pictures Classics. “They have a picture that needs time for people to discover it. They are basically planting it in theaters and waiting for people to come. It is similar to ‘Howards End.’ The trick is how they will manage through September and October.”

Bernard is not kidding when he says the jury is still out on whether “Much Ado” will continue to build. Goldwyn faces a Herculian task over the next two months as it attempts to find screens in one of the most competitive markets ever.

“There’s a great deal of pressure every week from the new tide of major studio releases, so we have had to be careful to maintain the grosses and hold the screens,” Bowles says.

Bowles’ attitude is nothing new. Goldwyn executives have been aggressive about “Much Ado” from the beginning.

It started in 1990, when Branagh, having just finished the grainy Echo Park thriller “Dead Again” for Paramount Pictures, opened up discussions with a number of financiers about the next two movies he wanted to direct — the $ 11 million production of “Much Ado About Nothing” and the $ 5 million “Peter’s Friends.”

While the aggregate $ 16 million outlay was below the production cost of an average studio release, it was a considerable expense for the reclining, dialog-driven “Peter’s Friends” and the risky “Much Ado.” Paramount, for one, backed away.

But Goldwyn executives Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Gottlieb and Rothman cut a deal with Branagh’s Renaissance Films executive producers Stephen Evans and David Parfitt that called for Goldwyn to draw together the financing for the two movies in exchange for all worldwide rights except the United Kingdom — the territory that Renaissance retained.

“We in fact participated in the United Kingdom,” says Gottlieb, who added the picture will open nationally on a projected 100 screens in England either at the end of August or the beginning of September.

Rothman says it was Branagh’s ability to articulate “a powerful vision” for “Much Ado” that convinced Goldwyn to help finance the two pix. He said Branagh described “Much Ado” as a wide-open, rollicking movie populated by a cast of English and American stars.

A pair of key partners were drawn in to “Much Ado,” fairly early on.

American Playhouse Theatrical Films purchased an initial television broadcast window for the Public Broadcasting Co., while Columbia TriStar Home Video acquired homevideo rights in exchange for an estimated 15% of “Much Ado” with a $ 1.65 million guaranteed advance against a distribution fee for the homevideo rights to the movie.

Of particular interest is Goldwyn’s license/equity deal with Public Broadcasting Co.’s American Playhouse Television, which added a whimsical element to what would become a whimsical deal to produce a whimsical movie based on a whimsical play.

American Playhouse provided an estimated 5%, or $ 550,000, of the movie’s $ 11 million budget in exchange for the right to broadcast the movie for the first time on television in the United States.

“This was an unusual wrinkle,” says Rothman. “(American Playhouse president) Lindsey Law realized very early on that Branagh’s ‘Much Ado’ would be an enormously high-profile film, as well as a good investment.”

In one fell swoop, American Playhouse gave Public Broadcasting Co. a prime-time competitor, and potential fund-raising season conqueror, as well as an equity slice in the movie. And between the homevideo and broadcast deals, an estimated 20% of Goldwyn exposure on the movie had been covered.

The American Playhouse deal differed from the norm in two other respects: It bypassed a lower, six-figure, off-network licensing fee that might have been collected immediately and without selling equity, or the richer sweeping studio output deals that Goldwyn has enjoyed on such Disney-distributed pix as “Stella, ” and the upcoming James Caan/Craig Sheffer starrer “The Program,” and the upcoming Warner Bros.-distributed “Mr. Wonderful,” which stars Matt Dillon, William Hurt and Annabella Sciorra.

On the homevideo front, things continue to percolate. “Much Ado” will be shipped under the Goldwyn label, and looms as potentially the top-selling homevideo title to be distributed by an independent company in history.

Rothman says he is optimistic that “Much Ado” will ship around 150,000 rental homevid units, outpacing “Howards End’s” 145,000 rental units and possibly matching the 150,000 rental units shipped on the Buena Vista-distributed “The Crying Game.”

If the title ships at a wholesale price of roughly $ 60, the pic would generate $ 9 million to 10 million gross revenue for Columbia TriStar Home Video , which would deliver a substantial portion of that total back to Goldwyn.

“It is quite possible that the gross sales in U.S. video will equal or exceed the negative cost of the picture,” says Gottlieb, who declined further comment on Daily Variety estimates.

Given the success of the movie, it should come as little surprise that Goldwyn is already working to get Brannagh’s next picture — Shakespeare or not. Is “Hamlet” in the offing? Rothman says “he’s doing it on stage, but in truth Ken has not decided what he’s going to do next.”

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