'K19,' 'Windtalkers' lead off

ROME — Signaling the arrival of an aggressive new player in the Italian theatrical arena, 01 Distribution, the newly titled joint venture of Italian pubcaster division RAI Cinema and Vivendi’s StudioCanal, has assembled a muscular debut slate combining commercial and arthouse fare for the 2001-2002 box office season starting in September.

The lineup includes a string of key U.S. acquisitions, led by Kathryn Bigelow’s submarine thriller “K19,” with Harrison Ford; John Woo’s war actioner “Windtalkers,” starring Nicolas Cage; and fantasy drama “K-Pax,” from director Iain Softley, with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges.

Also on tap is William Friedkin’s police thriller “The Hunted,” with Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones; Irwin Winkler comedy “Life as a House,” starring Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas; Harold Becker’s family-under-threat thriller “Domestic Disturbance,” with John Travolta; and David Mirkin-directed comedy “Heartbreakers,” headlining Sigourney Weaver.

“Considering the short time since we entered the acquisitions market, I believe we have put together a formidable slate,” RAI Cinema president and CEO Giancarlo Leone tells Variety.

Constituting a serious rival to established competitors, 01′s punchy lineup is testimony to the acquisitions leverage afforded the neophyte distrib through its ability to offer theatrical, free TV and pay TV distribution — via StudioCanal’s Italo arm Telepiu — as a single package.

And while Leone is conservative in his estimate of a 7% market share for 01′s first year of activity, that figure would immediately place the fledgling banner in the top tier of Italian companies along with established players such as Filmauro, right behind Italian market leader Medusa.

The 01 debut slate also includes two Cannes competition entries, David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and Michael Haneke’s “The Pianist.”

With a production stake in five official selection titles, RAI Cinema has distanced itself from its more meager pubcaster’s profile at the fest in past years, underlining its mission to become a serious film industry player.

The division figures as a co-producer or associate producer on “The Profession of Arms,” “The Son’s Room” and Bosnian entry “No Man’s Land” in competition, plus “Tomorrow” and “The Words of My Father” in Un Certain Regard.

Italian features include Silvio Soldini’s “Yesterday,” Giuseppe Piccioni’s “The Light of My Eyes” and Marco Risi’s “Three Wives.”

Currently completing post, these titles all are likely to premiere at this fall’s Venice Film Festival and open domestically soon after. “This is exactly the kind of lineup we wanted,” Leone says of the company’s mix of mass-appeal U.S. pics, StudioCanal-driven Euro films and “Italian titles that come from RAI Cinema’s direct investment in production.”

The arrival of a new Italian government — considered likely after this week’s general elections — traditionally means a clean slate of key RAI execs and, in theory, could involve some backpedaling on the ambitious plans for the pubcaster’s theatrical unit.

But Leone stresses that the division was created with sufficient autonomy to withstand political upheavals.

“Political interest in RAI is generally more focused on information than on product,” Leone maintains. “Regardless of which way the elections go, changes in the administrative board and the director general are likely, and eventually, perhaps the news directors at each channel. But everything beyond that is of limited political concern.”

Leone also feels confident the radical restructuring of StudioCanal’s many offshoots under new owner Vivendi will not affect plans for the 50-50 joint venture that is 01.

Since the titles being brought in by the French partner are of a distinctly different nature to those going out under the Universal banner through UIP, he feels the presence of two separate product channels is entirely justified.

“Our partners at StudioCanal have given us every assurance that their interest in maintaining and developing this venture has not changed,” Leone says. “Right up to the recent signing of the shareholders agreement, they have been 100% behind the project, and I believe this is a collaboration that will function very well.”

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