Distrib ties up prize pack

Featured Player: Valerio De Paolis

ROME — In the Italo arthouse jungle, where life isn’t getting any easier, BIM Distribuzione topper Valerio De Paolis has honed a killer instinct for Palms, Lions, and Bears.

Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” will be the fifth Palme d’Or winner in a row released by BIM, which also nailed the past two Venice Golden Lions, “Brokeback Mountain” and “Vera Drake”; and had 2004 Berlin Golden Bear “Head-On.”

Italy’s market is unique because RAI and Mediaset/Medusa, the dominant web duopoly, double as top theatrical distribs. This makes big-game hunting skills ever more crucial for the smaller buyers.

“Big buyers don’t have binoculars; unlike us, they can’t see prime fare three kilometers away,” says De Paolis. “But once a director gains visibility, we risk missing out on the catch.”

The trouble with having broadcasters as competitors in the theatrical arena is that it has blurred the country’s formerly clearer divide between distributors of arthouse and more mainstream cinema fare. “They are in the market for lobsters — as it were; but if they don’t find them, they end up going for prawns. And they can easily outbid us.”

Take Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” he says. De Paolis recalls getting an e-mail in his Rome office from Focus Features about the film when it was at script stage. Focus basically said the Mexican helmer liked the way BIM had handled his “21 Grams,” so the distrib was letting him see the script a week in advance of other buyers to allow him to make the first offer. “I did, and a few days later the film went to RAI. No negotiation, no give and take. There was nothing I could do.”

Also, asking prices for Italy — where ticket sales totaled a mere 100 million last year — are nevertheless on a par with France, Germany, and Spain, all of which have much higher admissions (France at 175 million, Germany 127 million, Spain 126 million). And local pay-TV, monopolized by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia, doesn’t defray much of the cost.

Still, Italy was the country that snapped up movies the fastest in Cannes, says De Paolis, who picked up John Cameron Mitchell’s sex-filled “Shortbus,” from Fortissimo, and the upcoming new cut of Wong Kar Wai’s largely unreleased 1994 kung fu romancer “Ashes of Time,” from Studio Canal. He beat RAI and Medusa to the pic thanks to his personal rapport with Wong, whose early works BIM had acquired.

One way to stay ahead of the game is to tap into European co-production coin. De Paolis has been pretty active on that front. BIM is the Italian co-producer of Francis Ford Coppola’s artistic rejuvenation project “Youth Without Youth,” making the most of the little known fact that the U.S. helmer has an Italian passport. The 1930’s drama starring Bruno Ganz as Professor Stancislescu, an academic forced to become a fugitive, is budgeted at roughly $5 million and co-produced by BIM with Gaul’s Pathe and its U.K. unit, Pathe Pictures.

De Paolis is keeping mum on other “Youth” details, beyond saying principal photography has been completed on this European co-production, which should be ready by next spring. BIM is also the Italian co-producer of the new Stephen Frears pic “The Queen,” about the squabble between Tony Blair and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in the aftermath of Diana’s death, and of the latest drama from Gaul vet Alain Resnais, titled “Private Fears in Public Places,” which is based on an Alan Ayckbourn play.

Both titles are tipped for slots at the upcoming Venice fest, where Italo industry pundits will be primed to check to see if De Paolis continues his prize-picking streak.

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