Caine gets his Oscar run

Miramax Films has finally rescued Phillip Noyce’s “The Quiet American,” starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, from the limbo in which it has languished since Sept. 11, 2001. After the pic’s successful world preem at Toronto, the distrib has committed to a U.S. release in December, to qualify for the Academy Awards.

Pic has been ready for the best part of a year, but Miramax was fearful that the its subtle critique of U.S. imperialism — it’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel about the origins of the American entanglement in Vietnam — would be poorly received amid the country’s gung-ho mood of post-9/11 patriotism. But now the company says that the critical support from Toronto has given it the confidence to take the plunge.

That may well be true. But it’s also true that Caine, whose performance as a jaded British reporter has been lauded as among the best of his career, was telling all and sundry in Toronto that he had given Miramax an ultimatum — either release “The Quiet American” in time to give him a shot at another Oscar, or he would refuse to do a single minute’s publicity for his upcoming Miramax movie “The Actors.”

Helkon stalks Winchester

U.K. distrib Helkon SK has parked its tanks on the lawn of Winchester Entertainment, by acquiring a 3.67% stake in the publicly listed sales company. Helkon’s ambitious chief exec Simon Franks denies any specific plans for a takeover bid, but so he would. That’s the way these things work.

Winchester certainly looks vulnerable, with a stock price that has gone from a high of 360 pence ($5.58) in November 2000 to a low of 12.5 pence (19¢) just before Franks made his move.

The company’s management, which owns 11%, can’t rely on any loyalty from other shareholders, after a series of calamities that have destroyed the value of their investment. This included the investigation of chief exec Gary Smith for insider trading after he sold shares just two weeks before the company issued a profit warning. He pleaded ignorance, and was eventually cleared, but the damage to the company’s reputation was done.

The fact that the full-year loss, when it was finally published, was significantly worse than the warning had suggested and that Winchester was later forced to revise that deficit even further downward because of accounting issues, only compounded the mess.

Franks, a former banker, understands the psychology of the stock market, and still has good contacts in the City of London. He has previously made clear that he wants to expand Helkon SK beyond U.K. distribution. He and his partner Zygi Kamasa are in the final stages of buying out the company from its insolvent German parent Helkon Medien. Don’t expect any sudden movements, but watch this space.

Winterbottom’s number comes up

“The Silk Road” was a nice title, wasn’t it? But Michael Winterbottom obviously felt there was a danger it might tempt people to come and see his latest film, a gritty low-budget drama about Afghan refugees, so he has changed it to something less, well, memorable. Fans of Winterbottom’s work should start practicing now: “Two tickets to ‘M1157811,’ please.” Apparently it’s the number given to one of the refugees on entering Britain. Challenged about the change, producer Andrew Eaton rather defeats his own point by saying, “Everyone always remembers that George Lucas film ‘THX … whatever it is.’ ” The world premiere of “M1157811” will take place at the London Film Festival (Nov. 6- 21) on a date yet to specified.

Working Title backs ‘Atonement’

A footnote to a previous column: Working Title is the company backing the development of “Atonement,” the Ian McEwan novel that producer Robert Fox has optioned for Christopher Hampton to adapt and Richard Eyre to direct.

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