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Sony floats pix down Canal Plus

Can European filmmakers mesh with Hollywood’s development machine? Sony Pictures Entertainment and Studio Canal Plus plan to find out.

Looking to inject American commercial sensibility into the quirkiness of Euro filmmaking, the two companies have joint-ventured forth with a new company to produce a handful of high-end English-language pictures by Europeans.

The as-yet nameless entity will be based in London, seeking out European directors, writers and their projects. The plan, say Sony executives, is to apply a rigorous American studio development process to the European way of taking a script from the page to the screen.

Moreover, the deal represents Hollywood’s growing regard for international directors and films and their global box office potential. Sony, in particular, has already scored with French director Luc Besson, whose “The Professional” was a palpable hit on U.S. screens. Now, rather than bringing foreign directors and writers to Hollywood to learn the ropes, Sony and Canal Plus want to exploit the continent’s film community on its own terms – in Europe with European talent.

Conversely, After losing millions of dollars investing in Carolco, Studio Canal Plus has made no secret that its expensive attempt to gain a foothold in Hollywood is basically over. But its new alliance with Sony may provide a better approach for taking advantage of Hollywood wiles.

“We recognized that between ourselves we had some attributes that might make for an interesting, productive combination,” says Kenneth Lemberger, exec veepee of SPE. “Canal Plus has an incredible network of relationships with talent all over Europe, primarily in France. We bring to the table a more commercial, more institutional sensibility and a development process that is really lacking in Europe.”

Though Lemberger is unsure how many pictures will result from this experiment, he says he’d be happy to have three to six over the next three years. “We’d be in pretty good shape if that happened,” he says.

He declines to talk about budgets on the pics, but studio sources say they’ll range from $10 million to $15 million.

“This is not a low-budget movie program,” says Fred Bernstein, president of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Companies. “We’re looking to make movies in appropriate ranges. This is not a mandate to make a bunch of movies for $3 million.”

The deal, which Sony execs call the first of its kind, grew out of conversations a year ago when Canal Plus asked the Japanese firm to co-finance the Equinoxe scriptwriters workshop. Officials for both companies were at the workshop last weekend and final details of the agreement are expected to be hammered out by the end of November.

Equal partners

The project will be a true co-finance venture, with Sony and the Gallic pay-TV giant putting up equal shares of development funding. Each studio will have three executives on the company’s board and both firms will have an equal say in which projects, actors, directors and even crew members are chosen.

Theatrical distribution, both domestic and foreign, will be handled by Sony, while Canal Plus will look after European TV sales. TV rights outside Europe go to Sony, with the exception of Latin America which looks likely to be split between the partners on a film by film basis.

Lemberger says a “nominal” distribution fee will be taken by each company for its share of distribbery. “But then the money will go back into the pot,” he adds.

Areas that are not fully agreed upon include the financing of prints and advertising for the films as well as the splitting of commissions. A topper for the company also has yet to be chosen, but Bernstein said that would likely come by the end of the year. He says they’re looking for a European who has significant experience in the American film community.

In line with several other French production entities, including UGC, Studio Canal Plus appears to have decided that getting into the English-language film business will be less of a risk if it involves working between Paris and London rather than Paris and Hollywood.

For Sony, Bernstein says the deal provides access to a huge European talent pool that would otherwise go untouched.

“They do not have the appropriate infrastructure there,” says another Sony insider. “This combines Sony’s commercial sensibilities, structure and methodology with Canal Plus’ knowledge of the talent base in Europe.”

Lemberger, meanwhile, says the development process will be the most valuable element Sony introduces to Europe.

“There’s a development process that we go through in our industry that doesn’t exist here, ” he says.

Bernstein adds that the projects will not simply be the Americanization of European auteurs.

“This is not Sony Pictures going over to Europe and saying, ‘We’ll teach you how to do this.’ It’s not just about reading Sid Field,” he says. “We wanted to create an environment for them. We want it to be an ongoing process.”

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