D’Works backs Mendes’ Donmar Films

Shingle, studio ink $400,000 first-look deal

LONDON — First, the Donmar Warehouse theater; now, Donmar Films.

The latter, a new venture started up quietly two months ago, was unveiled Friday by Sam Mendes, artistic director of the London playhouse and now an Oscar-winning director with a separate but equal film company funded by DreamWorks.

“My concern was that it be connected to the theater geographically and also philosophically,” Mendes said of his film setup, speaking back on the stage of his London theater just five days after his first film, DreamWorks’ “American Beauty,” dominated this year’s Academy Awards, taking five trophies.

With a staff of two in addition to Mendes, Donmar Films has entered into a first-look deal with DreamWorks, which is funding the venture to the tune of £250,000 ($400,000) annually for two years, with the option on a third. And while the initial expectation is that Mendes will helm anything that comes out of Donmar Films, the director emphasized that he is free to accept any appealing offers from other sources.

“Now’s the time to make my Crusades epic costing $120 million,” Mendes joked. “I might as well do it now; I’ll never have the chance again.”

A more likely Mendes project is a Scott Frank (“Get Shorty”) script, “The Lookout,” to be shot in the United States. At the same time, Mendes made clear that the earliest he could begin prepping his second film is the end of this year, with Christmas 2001 the earliest likely release date.

Unlike, say, Anthony Minghella — a theater-trained Oscar winner (“The English Patient”) who now works virtually exclusively in movies — Mendes remains committed to the 251-seat Donmar Warehouse. That’s the studio theater that spawned in varying ways both of his New York hits, “The Blue Room” and the ongoing “Cabaret,” as well as such career-defining high points as “Habeas Corpus” and “Translations.”

Indeed, in addition to backing Donmar Films, DreamWorks has committed to donate to the theater nearly $160,000 a year for three years — not much money, perhaps, in film terms, but a sizable figure for a 251-seat fringe venue where a major set (for Mendes’ 1997 production of “The Front Page,” say) costs about $5,000.

“It’s shoring us up, really — bringing us up to a proper level of funding,” Mendes said of the DreamWorks coin. In addition, Broadway producer Anita Waxman is anteing up $560,000 per annum as part of a first-look deal for transfers to the New York stage. The American monies are increasingly crucial amid the ever-precarious financing of the British subsidized theater.

Better news still: For the first time in more than 18 months, Mendes is heading home to direct.

In July, he starts rehearsals for “Twelfth Night,” to run Sept. 14-Nov. 25 — the first Shakespeare production to have originated at the Donmar in Mendes’ 7½ years at the theater’s helm. (Others, including Mendes’ own Royal Shakespeare Co. production of “Richard III,” have been guests at the Donmar.)

In contrast to his last Donmar effort — Nicole Kidman in “The Blue Room,” which traveled westward to become a Broadway smash — the Shakespeare comedy will feature a local ensemble: “the home team, as it were,” Mendes said.

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