Summit sees peaks as others fall

Old-school biz plans keeps foreign sales company healthy

HOLLYWOOD — Signpost Films is folding its sales tent before even reaching its first anniversary. And the Germans are pulling the plug on the once hot Neuer Markt, the stock exchange of choice for teutonic media wannabes.

Despite the continuing woes of so many indie film producer-distribbers, there’s one that just keeps humming along undeterred and unimpeded.

Patrick Wachsberger’s Summit Entertainment, which stubbornly adheres to old-school business plans and will celebrate its ninth anni under the same ownership this year.

While the French-born, motorcycle-riding Wachsberger is known as a colorful figure in the indie landscape, Summit’s approach to the foreign sales biz is refreshingly straightforward as compared to the shingles that embraced German tax-shelter schemes.

To wit, Myriad Pictures announced the $50 million “Borgia” but had to step away when it couldn’t get the sales. Intermedia’s stock price hasn’t seen light in weeks. Franchise Pictures is still dealing with an FBI investigation and Comerzbank canceled its most recent German film fund.

At a time when business practices are being held up to the light, Summit’s vin ordinaire looks pretty good.

Wachsberger’s doing the same thing he’s always done: Rather than investing in pictures, he focuses on selling grade-A product from a variety of producers.

“My nature is to go slow, while going for steady growth,” says Wachsberger. “Having to be forced to produce product is not for us.”

Summit’s current roster of suppliers includes Mandalay (“Beyond Borders”), Philip Anschutz’s Crusader (“Sahara”), Walden Media (“Around the World in 80 Days”), Newmarket’s (“Memento”) and Artisan, which has a small stake in Wachsberger’s company.

Summit also has an output deal with and an equity stake in Sony-based Escape Artists.

This year, Wachsberger hopes to see a couple of pictures (“Nautica” and “Need”) stem from that investment.

Then again, given the vagaries of the market, maybe it won’t.

And while that would be a blow to Escape principals Jason Black and Todd Blumenthal, Summit doesn’t stand to lose much on the bet.

“We try all the time not to rely on one source of product, or one provider,” Wachsberger says.

Indeed, it’s apparent that no matter how terrific any producing relationship can be, it’s almost assured that it will eventually fall apart.

Summit reaped a windfall from Universal’s “American Pie,” but that success also ensured that U wouldn’t let a hit slip away again.

And while Summit greatly benefited from Artisan pics like “The Blair Witch Project,” it also had to suffer through its sequel “Book of Shadows.” (Artisan and Summit hope to return to fighting form with the upcoming “The Punisher” and “Iron Fist.”)

More recently, Wachsberger established ties with Par-based Arnold Kopelson (“Blackout”) and Warners-based Alcon (“The Affair of the Necklace”).

In the process, Summit has become one of the last in an endangered species: a foreign sales company that’s both healthy and independent.

“He’s the Warren Buffett of the sales business,” says Endeavor agent Modi Wiczyk, Summit’s former head of production.

“Patrick only invests in what he understands, both explicitly and implicitly. As a buyer that’s not always the answer you want to hear, but it’s good for the stockholders — and the stockholders are Patrick and (partners) Bob (Hayward) and David (Garrett).”

On the other hand, an argument could also be made that Summit lacks the vision for large-scale growth. Not only is Wachsberger not interested in raising the equity that would require, but his plans for a more ambitious production slate have also been a slow process.

Three years ago, Wachsberger appointed Wiczyk to jump-start the company’s production efforts. Wiczyk brought in a handful of projects, but none of them got the nod before he left early last year to become a VP at Universal Pictures.

“If a movie isn’t good for foreign, I will pass on it, even if I see an opportunity to profit on it domestically,” Wachsberger says. “In-house production is only a facet of our business.”

Since then, current production topper Erik Feig has overseen horror pic “Wrong Turn,” in which Summit partnered with Newmarket and Constantin Film and “dot the i,” which stars Gael Garcia Bernal (“Amores Perros”), a romance that just wrapped.

“In a business that is fraught with peril, I don’t see anything wrong about taking a conservative approach,” says Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin. “Summit may not be the splashiest foreign sales agency or the most aggressive in acquiring product but, at the end of day, what’s important is that they are successful, viable, and profitable.”

For 2003, Summit plans to produce “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” at New Regency, which Wiczyk brought into Summit with Akiva Goldsman attached to direct, as well as “The Alias” with Jonas Ackerlund (“Spun”) at the helm.

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