Fine Line’s big ‘Night’ in Venice

Pic tipped to take best actor award

VENICE — Beating out competition from several rival contenders, Fine Line Features has acquired North American rights to artist turned director Julian Schnabel’s second feature, “Before Night Falls,” which had its world premiere Monday in competition at the 57th Venice Intl. Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Classics has purchased North American rights to Ed Harris’ directing debut “Pollock.”

“Before Night Falls” has been the subject of considerable industry buzz in Venice since the event kicked off last week. Distribs were reportedly anxious to lock up a U.S. sale prior to its first official showing. In the weeks following the Venice bow, it travels to the Toronto, New York and San Sebastian fests.

Fine Line closed the deal Friday for a pricetag believed to be between $1 million and $1.5 million. Paramount Classics and Sony Pictures Classics lodged bids of $1 million and $1.5 million, respectively, for the U.S. and other English-speaking territories, while USA Films and Fox Searchlight had earlier made smaller offers.

The sale was negotiated by Fine Line prexy Mark Ordesky with producer Kilik and Bart Walker of ICM. Also recently finalized was a deal with Overseas Film Group to act as international sales agent on the drama. Prior to the Venice fest, Italy was the sole territory in which distribution was tied up, via Key Films.

“This is a sublime film with an unforgettable central performance by Javier Bardem,” said Ordesky. “Julian’s visualization of this moving, humanistic true story is so seamless. I was completely captivated and swept away.”

Adapted from the critically acclaimed autobiography of Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, the feature chronicles his poverty-stricken childhood, his persecution and imprisonment by Castro’s regime as a political dissident and homosexual and his eventual flight to New York during a 1980 amnesty allowing anyone homosexual or mentally ill to leave Cuba. Arenas died in New York in 1990.

“I felt compelled to tell this story,” Schnabel told Daily Variety. “This is a guy living on the margins, hiding out and then imprisoned, who came to New York and still didn’t find the paradise he was looking for. I didn’t set out to make a political film, but I think it’s important to give a voice to people who have suffered. This is very much a movie about freedom, the kind of freedom all people should be entitled to.”

Spanish thesp Bardem, who starred in Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” and John Malkovich’s upcoming directing debut, “The Dancer Upstairs,” plays Arenas. He stars with Olivier Martinez and Andrea DiStefano. Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Michael Wincott play supporting roles.

Schnabel previously made “Basquiat,” which premiered in competition at the Venice fest in 1996. In addition to directing “Before Night Falls,” he co-wrote the script with Cunningham O’Keefe and Lazaro Gomez Carriles.

“We are eyeing a December release date because we feel that Javier specifically and the film in general have strong Oscar potential,” Ordesky said. “If we go with December, we will be platforming first, then widening it out in January and February.”

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Pollock” preemed Thursday in the Cinema of the Present lineup. Pic is based on the turbulent life of American expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Starring Harris in the title role, the film features Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Jennifer Connelly, Bud Cort, John Heard and Val Kilmer. Fred Berner, Jon Kilik and James Trezza produced.

The acquisition is believed to have been finalized late Friday by Michael Barker and Tom Bernard for Sony and executive producer Peter Brant, who confirmed in Venice that the deal was closed but declined to reveal terms. Sony could not be reached for comment over the Labor Day weekend. A separate deal was concluded last week with Alliance to handle international rights.

‘Princess’ preem

Other key titles that premiered over the weekend in Venice included “The Princess and the Warrior,” German helmer Tom Tykwer’s first feature since his international breakout with “Run Lola Run.” Recently picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, the romantic thriller drew a generally positive response, though most festgoers felt it could benefit from trimming of the 135-minute running time.

Another Sony acquisition which drew a mixed response was the gangster actioner “Brother,” the first predominantly English-language feature from Japanese cult actor-director Takeshi Kitano. Similarly divided was the verdict on Universal’s competition entry “The Man Who Cried,” a 1930s-set drama from director Sally Potter starring Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett and John Turturro, all of whom were in Venice for the world premiere.

Of the competition entries to date, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s “Platform,” which examines the lives of young people from a provincial village across 10 years of cultural change, drew plaudits from press willing to go its three hour-plus distance. But “Before Night Falls” has perhaps met with the most unanimous approval, with Bardem now hotly tipped to take the fest’s best actor award.

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