HBO ‘House’ key

Cabler sells pic, sets Newman, Leguizamo projects

It’s got projects with Paul Newman and John Leguizamo, but, most crucially, its “House” is on fire — and that’s great news for HBO Films.

The Richard Loncraine-helmed “My House in Umbria” has sold to Momentum Pictures in the U.K for theatrical distribution. The deal is a splashy start to the company’s new push to sell worldwide rights to its films.

At a breakfast sesh Monday, HBO Films prez Colin Callender also announced that Newman will produce and star in “Empire Falls,” an adaptation of Richard Russo’s Pulitzer winner. No director has been announced.

Leguizamo will make his helming debut with “Infamous,” which begins shooting in August. He’ll also star in the Frank Pugliese-scripted project, which is described as a Latino “Mean Streets.”

As for the company’s international push on its projects (Variety Show Daily, May 15), Callender said the time is right.

The company has sold films overseas, but never before under the HBO Films banner. But, Callender said, the new effort reflects “the growing awareness of HBO as a brand,” both in America and internationally.

The films will still make their domestic bows on the pay cabler. Though the world keeps tabs on U.S. box office, Callender doesn’t see any of this as a disadvantage. He points out that many foreign distribs buy or prebuy a pic on the assumption that it will get theatrical U.S. distribution, which often never comes to pass.

Admitting that their plan requires an education process in some territories, HBO Enterprises prexy Perry Schneider said, “It’s a twist on the traditional equation.”

But the HBO Films execs think their plan will fill a void. The marketplace is changing, with financing especially precarious and the market volatile. And for indies, distribution is often a bigger problem than financing.

So HBO is offering a slate chockablock with big talent. According to Callender, the majors are focusing on big-event movies, which makes sophisticated, intelligent films “an increasingly endangered species.”

The quality of the films and talent involved were also touted by Steve Scheffer, prez of film programming, video and enterprises, who added: “The evidence speaks for itself.”

The other selling point for overseas distribs is the HBO promo machine, which has scored consistent home runs domestically.

The company will bring its pics and talent to festivals and markets and, said Callender, will be “working with the foreign press in a way we’ve never done before,” such as bringing international press to the sets and locations.

At the sesh, the execs also confirmed projects including “Normal,” “Pancho Villa as Himself” and the $18 million “Live From Baghdad.”

Callender said, “We’re here for the long haul.”

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