Portman Film bites ‘Bullet’

Two years after its latest reincarnation, Portman Film is doing its best to prove that an indie sales boutique can still survive and prosper amid the most brutal market conditions anyone can remember.

The London-based outfit has two new Brit pics just wrapped — Saul Dibb‘s “Bullet Boy” and Amma Asante‘s “A Way Of Life.” John Crowley‘s high-octane Dublin drama “Intermission,” starring Colin Farrell and produced by Neil Jordan, is doing roaring trade in Ireland and making waves at the fall festivals. And Portman has finally closed a U.S. deal for Duncan Roy‘s “Aka” with the Sundance Channel and Empire Pictures.

These movies typify the kind of edgy contemporary fare that, more by circumstance than design, has become Portman’s stock in trade since Tim Buxton and Tristan Whalley staged their management buyout in November 2001.

At the time, Portman was basking in the success of “Saving Grace,” which launched director Nigel Cole‘s career. Since then, it has made up for limited financial resources by astute handling of challenging projects such as Paul Greengrass‘ Berlin winner “Bloody Sunday” and Francesca Joseph‘s surprise Cannes entry “Tomorrow La Scala!”

“We’re led by material, not any specific genre,” Whalley says. “We’re a bespoke sales and production outfit that works hand in glove with filmmakers to get movies out there.”

Portman’s shareholders are an intriguingly hardnosed bunch, including HIT Entertainment founder Peter Orton; Virgin exec Will Whitehorn; and Richard King, co-founder of Majestic Films, where Whalley once worked.

Whether it’s a gritty drama or a feel-good comedy, Whalley’s message is the same: “I tell filmmakers, for goodness sake, think about how someone in downtown Tallahassee is going to market the film, or in Madrid, or Seoul. That can be an unnerving process for them. It’s the difference between something that grounded within a location but has universal attributes, and something that’s just parochial.”

“A Way of Life,” starring Brenda Blethyn, is a $2 million drama set in Wales about a young single mother who comes into conflict with a Muslim neighbor. Craig David is involved with the music.

“Bullet Boy,” another $2 million project backed by BBC Films and the Film Council, stars Asher D, the most notorious member of the controversial garage collective So Solid Crew. It’s a docu-thriller about the escalating gun culture among black British youth.

Vue steps up in class

Until it was overtaken recently by a theater in Japan, the Warner West End in London’s Leicester Square was the highest grossing cinema for “Matrix Reloaded” anywhere in the world. In its four-month run, the movie grossed £800,000 ($1.33 million), more than double any other Brit site.

That’s something that Vue, the new owner of the Warner Village chain, is keen to boast about as it prepares to rebrand its entire 384-screen circuit next March. Chief exec Tim Richards wants his West End multiplex, due for a “drastic” makeover, to be seen as a rival to its hitherto more glamorous neighbors, the Odeon Leicester Square and the UCI Empire.

Upgrading the circuit’s image is central to Vue’s strategy. The company was created in May when SBC Intl. Cinemas bought Warner Village for $400 million. It plans to replace the aggressively juvenile Looney Tunes image with a more sophisticated pitch to a broader and more upscale audience, particularly in London. That means a classier look, but also programming and marketing more sensitively tailored to local tastes.

“Objectively, it’s the best equipped circuit in the country, but right now, I don’t think it’s attracting the higher end,” says Richards. “The graying baby boomers just aren’t aware how fantastic these multiplexes are.”

The arrival of former UCI topper Steve Knibbs as chief operating officer completes the new management team. “I’ve always believed that a lot of cinemas are not fulfilling their potential,” Knibbs says. “Film exhibitors and distributors have got to get smarter about working together to grow the audience.”

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