Priority hits its stride

With “Nina’s Heavenly Delights” out this weekend in U.K. cinemas, and selected for next week’s Chicago Film Festival along with their short “Stingray,” former Myriad exec Marion Pilowsky and ex-FilmFour topper Colin Leventhal have something to show for the first two years of their production company Priority Pictures.

It nearly didn’t work out that way. Their debut movie was supposed to be “Three Bad Men,” a U.S.-set comedy thriller written and directed by their silent partner, Paul Weiland.

But after they had painstakingly pieced together the cast (Woody Harrelson and Simon Pegg) and all but the last few cents of the $15 million budget, Weiland walked off to make his autobiographical script “Sixty Six” for Working Title instead, and “Bad Men” collapsed.

“It was very difficult dismantling $15 million, but Paul was within his rights,” Pilowsky says diplomatically. Suffice to say, Priority has no current plans to work with Weiland again, though he remains a shareholder in the company.

“Nina’s Heavenly Delights,” the directorial debut of Pratibha Parmar, wasn’t much easier. With U.K. distribs wary of this lesbian romantic comedy set in a Glasgow curry house, Pilowsky took the unusual step of going straight to satcaster BSkyB for a U.K. pay TV deal, which then enabled her to secure a theatrical release via Verve Pictures.

Priority also came on board during production of “The All Together,” a grotesque comedy starring Martin Freeman by another rookie writer-director, Gaxin Claxton, to help the movie get finished and secure a sale to distributor Lionsgate U.K. Pic’s set for release next spring.

But Pilowsky’s proudest of “Stingray,” because it’s written and directed by Neil Chordia, who started out as her assistant at Myriad four years ago.

Scraping a living as an indie producer in Blighty is never easy, even with the kind of contacts Pilowsky and Leventhal (and his wife, former Miramax acquisitions maven Trea Hoving) amassed in their long careers. Pilowsky ran film investment for Aussie pay TV outfit Showtime before moving to UIP in London and then on to Myriad. Leventhal went from FilmFour to Miramax’s HAL Films.

They launched Priority with a first-look deal at Focus Features, but that has now come to an end. Nonetheless, they have one project set up at Focus — “Mercury 13,” described as a female “The Right Stuff,” based on the true story of the aborted U.S. program to train women astronauts in the early 1960s. Brit writer Helen Crawley is penning the script.

The U.K. Film Council is backing development of “The Club,” inspired by director Brian Hill‘s documentary about the back-stabbing politics of an English golf club. Script is by Peter Bowker, writer of the Golden Globe-nominated miniseries “Viva Blackpool.”

Pilowsky also is stepping outside Priority to serve as one of the producers of “Sleuth,” Kenneth Branagh‘s remake of the Hitchcock thriller, which will star Jude Law and Michael Caine. Shooting of the Castle Rock production is set for early 2007.

Korean mystery stumps producers

There are many mysteries surrounding the Pyongyang Intl. Film Festival in North Korea, whose 10th edition wrapped Sept. 22. But one of the greatest is how the Western movies in its program actually found their way there.

Working Title execs had no idea that “Bean” and “Nanny McPhee” were screened at the fest before Variety reported it last week. Even then, they couldn’t discover how the fest had obtained the prints. Hollywood movies are banned in North Korea, but a British accent evidently helped Universal’s “Nanny McPhee” to slip through the net.

Pathe Intl. was equally stumped to explain the presence of “Bride and Prejudice.” German producer Bernd Eichinger was surprised “Downfall” had found its way into a country widely regarded as one of the world’s most secretive dictatorships, although he did find out the print was supplied by the Goethe Institute.

Paris-based Les Film du Losange at least obtained the permission of director Michael Haneke for the Pyongyang screening of “Cache.” But the first they knew the event actually had taken place was when Unifrance told them the movie had won a prize.

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