Regency aims for director-driven slate

Self-funded indie returns to winning formula

When you walk into the lobby of Regency Enterprises, you’re greeted by a wall of framed photographs of famous directors on the sets of iconic movies. There’s Oliver Stone directing Kevin Costner in “JFK.” Nearby, Terry Gilliam speaks with Robert DeNiro on the set of “Brazil,” while Joel Schumacher converses with Colin Farrell on the set of “Tigerland.”

Yet these auteur faces have been in shorter supply for the last couple years, as the self-financed studio attempted an ambitious experiment.

As prexy of production Sanford Panitch explains, the experiment was to branch out into different genres — not just to be known as a home for auteurs.

Testing this hypothesis netted a few profitable films, like this year’s “Daredevil,” but it’s also yielded some forgettable pics.

In particular, 2002 saw only two Regency films, and both performed unexceptionally: Suspenser “High Crimes” underwhelmed, and romantic comedy “Life or Something Like It” never took off.

This year’s “Down With Love” similarly went down for the count, taking a disappointing $20 million in B.O.

All this served as a reminder that working with master filmmakers isn’t just good for reviews — it’s good for business.

Return to the core

Now with six pics in the pipeline, Regency is changing yet again — some would say returning — to the formula for pics like “Pretty Woman,” which Milchan produced in 1990.

“Sometimes experiments work, sometimes they don’t,” says Panitch, “but I think we’ve kind of gotten back to the core of what this company does, which is ‘quality’ pictures — director-driven stuff.”

One of the few remaining maverick companies willing to bet big on its own pics, Regency is about to roar back in 2004 with the most ambitious slate of movies its ever put into production. Not only is Regency self-financing nearly all of them, it is doing so with big-name directors and stars worthy of hanging in its storied lobby.

  • This week, Regency will release the Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman toplined “Runaway Jury.

    “Jury” is as much a testament to the resolve of CEO David Matalon and Panitch to get a pic made in the face of adversity as it is a recommitment by Regency to above-the-line names.

    Acquired for $8 million in 1996, John Grisham’s tobacco-themed “Jury” seemed like an open-and-shut case. At the time, the mini-major had just released its biggest success to date, “A Time to Kill.”

    But “Jury” ran away more than it should have. Joel Schumacher departed, along with its tobacco theme. Alfonso Cuaron arrived, then left. Grisham approved a new plot involving a firearms manufacturer, but then scotched new helmer Mike Newell and star Will Smith as its creative elements.

    Now, the Gary Fleder-helmed $60 million pic is about to meet the real jury: opening weekend at the box office.

  • Last month, Regency went into production on “Stay” a David Benioff (“The 25th hour”) script it bought two years ago for $1.8 million in a fierce bidding derby. “Monster’s Ball” helmer Marc Forster directs, with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts starring.

  • Next month, spy thriller “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” begins lensing with “Bourne Identity” and “Go” firebrand Doug Liman at the helm, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie starring.

  • Next April, Regency will release Tony Scott’s kidnapping thriller, “Man on Fire,” with Denzel Washington toplining. “Fire” is a remake of an old title from Regency’s own 80+ title movie library, and for now, the one upcoming pic that will be co-financed with Fox.

  • Within six months, Regency will start a movie with Darren Aronofsky, with whom it has an overall first-look deal. (Its attempt to make his “Fountain” with Brad Pitt at Warner Bros. foundered earlier this year.)

“Some companies want to have relationships with movie stars,” says Panitch. “We want to have great directors — and that’s what we’re doing.”

Evolution a must

Created in 1991 by Arnon Milchan, Regency resided seven years at Warner Bros. before splitting with the studio and decamping for Fox. Then, in 1997, Milchan signed one of the richest producing deals in Hollywood, and did so at a time when such deals were fast becoming relics. Pact called for a 15-year distribbing and equity agreement that gave Fox a $200 million, 20% stake in his company.

But more than just the company’s address has changed since that time.

“The nature of the movie business changed,” Panitch says. “Five years ago, there used to be this “middle business” — there were middle budget movies that you’d like to have a partner on,” says Panitch.

Today, Panitch admits “we can’t wait for a co-financing opportunity to come to us. We have to generate stuff on our own, create our own opportunities.”

CEO Matalon, who also founded TriStar Pictures, is more direct about what’s made the movie biz harder.

“Two words: greed and stupidity. Greed on the part of the people who make the movies, and stupidity on our part for agreeing to their greed.”

He continues: “The cost of what actors, writers and directors get — it’s as if everybody’s playing with Monopoly money, not real money. There is no rhyme or reason for the amount of money people are asking for and getting, irrespective of whether the movie breaks even or not.”

Privately, many studio toppers confess their desire to throttle talent agents over their inflexibility and remorseless demands for ever higher payments.

Rare birds

So, since moviemaking costs are spiraling out of control, why aren’t there more companies like Regency operating alongside major studios?

“To tell you the honest truth, it’s because there are so few Arnon Milchans,” 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman says of the globe-trotting entrepreneur.

“There are very few ‘pure players’ like him — people who have their own capital to invest, and are not only willing to invest it, but who’ll still have it after they invest it.”

One reason Regency has plenty to invest is because of its boutique TV operation.

Regency hits “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Bernie Mac Show” stand to make the company $400 million and $100 million, respectively, from their afterlife in syndication and cable. (In addition, Regency recently recouped $675 million selling its controlling stake in sportswear provider Puma.)

Still, by operating independently from Fox on so many pics, Regency exposes millions of its own funds. Aside from Milchan’s controlling stake, the company is backed by Fox Entertainment Group (20%) and Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings in Australia (21%).

Regency says its movies are worth the risk, thanks to the low distribution fee it pays Fox, believed to be less than the 12.5% it used to cede to Warner Bros.

Certainly, Regency’s other successes will allow for plenty more photos for the Regency lobby — and as Matalon knows, those are the most expensive pictures to frame of all.

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