SAN SEBASTIAN — Sony Pictures Classics has acquired North American and Australian rights to Francis Ford Coppola’s recut presentation of Thai historical epic “The Legend of Suriyothai,” directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol.
While the pickup has been mooted for some months in acquisition circles, Sony officially confirmed the deal Sept. 23 on the eve of the restyled version’s international premiere at the 50th San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival. SPC principal Michael Barker flew in for the gala showing.
The film plays out of competition as part of a tribute to Coppola, who is being honored by the Spanish fest with a special 50th anniversary award and screenings of nine of his films. Chatrichalerm Yukol is a member of San Sebastian’s international competition jury.
Described as an epic story of intrigue, romance and war, “Suriyothai” was the highest-budgeted production in Thai history and a record-breaking box office smash in its home country, with reported grosses of $14 million.
Based on historical events, the saga traces the adult life of legendary figure Queen Suriyothai, who died a warrior’s death in 1548 in a heroic bid to save her husband and protect her kingdom from Burmese invaders.
A longtime friend of Chatrichalerm Yukol, who is a Thai prince, Coppola undertook an extensive overhaul of the pic that involved trimming it from its original 185-minute running time to 154 minutes.
A number of characters were removed to provide more focus, with written graphics added and onscreen character identification to simplify the dense chronicle of events driven by multiple figures in and around the royal court. Coppola also completely rewrote the film’s subtitling to make the complex character chronology easier to follow.
“I felt there were things we could do to straighten out the lines of the story so audiences would better understand who was who and what was going on,” Coppola told Daily Variety. “There was also the old question of less is more. With so many great battle scenes and so much spectacle and pageantry, we needed to make choices to present it all in a more digestible way.”
“Basically, I only provided another set of eyes and perhaps brought a Western point of view to material that’s familiar to audiences in Thailand but possibly confusing to others that are not aware of the history,” he added.
The retooled version will go out as a Francis Ford Coppola presentation from American Zoetrope, with Coppola and the company’s Kim Aubry receiving executive producer credits. In addition to duties on the new cut, Aubry worked with Chatrichalerm Yukol on the film’s original Thai-release version in 2001.
The film will have its first North American screening early next month at a special showing in the presence of Thai monarch Queen Sirikit at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with first lady Laura Bush expected to attend.
SPC is planning a spring 2003 release.
“This film is the type of epic and exotic filmmaking one never sees anymore,” said SPC in a statement.
“We were extremely pleased when Sony Pictures Classics took on the project because they are my dream distributor in America for this film,” said Coppola. “What they did, of course, in getting audiences to see ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ totally blew all the old theories about getting subtitled releases to wide audiences.”
The release continues American Zoetrope’s tradition of presenting prestige projects to international audiences, including Abel Gance’s “Napoleon,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagamusha,” Paul Schrader’s “Mishima,” Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyanisqaatsi” and “Powqaatsi” and documentary “I Am Cuba.”
“We like to be associated with something audiences might never get a chance to see if it weren’t for us presenting it,” explained Coppola.
Also in San Sebastian, Cinemavault, the Toronto-based international sales outfit headed by Nick Stiliadis, confirmed it has signed on to handle world sales on the new version of “Suriyothai,” which will be given its market premiere at November’s Mifed meet.
Cinemavault senior VP of acquisitions and marketing Irene Loewy said she expects to start fielding offers for Spanish-language and European territories during San Sebastian.