Columbia takes rights to ‘Night’

Gray's film nabbed for $11.5 mil at Cannes

Sony’s Columbia Pictures snagged U.S. rights to James Gray’s cop drama “We Own the Night” over the weekend in Cannes, ponying up $11.5 million for the fest Competition title.

Pic, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall, was the subject of one of those intense bidding wars that occasionally break out on the Croisette.

Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group, a unit led by Peter Schlessel that buys both films and TV shows for various Sony entities as well as partners with other companies, bested several other bidders, most notably Warner Bros., for the North American rights to the movie. John Sloss’ Cinetic Media handled the North American sale; Wild Bunch is handling France and 2929 Intl. the rest of the world.

“In short, we loved it,” Schlessel told Daily Variety late Saturday, adding that his bosses in Los Angeles — Amy Pascal and Jeff Blake — made a point of seeing the movie there on Friday and were enthusiastic.

Schlessel said that Columbia Pictures would probably release the pic Stateside in the fourth quarter. He also said he and his team were circling a couple of other titles premiering here in Cannes but would not be more specific.

Deal is the first major transaction on the Croisette during what’s been a slow-off-the-mark fest so far.

The $11.5 million pricetag is reckoned a fairly substantial sum for a film of indie provenance. It may even be adjudged eyebrow-raising for one from a director who has only made two other modest movies (“The Yards,” “Little Odessa”).

Some sources in Cannes suggested the pricetag could be considered hefty since P&A will likely cost some $15 million, especially if the film is released in December, when media is costlier. Phoenix has a major Oscar-hopeful role in DreamWorks’ “Reservation Road,” so using him to campaign for “We Own the Night” could be tricky.

Gray is a Cannes fest darling and is considered a consummate craftsman and dramatic storyteller. Pic purportedly cost $21 million to make.

Todd Wagner told Daily Variety that his and Mark Cuban’s company, 2929, enjoyed working with Gray — and they are already talking to him about another project. Cuban and Wagner took exec producer credits on “We Own the Night.”

“James is such a perfectionist. His attention to detail is amazing, and our experience with him was great,” Wagner said.

He also pointed out that the deal was the first with Sony Pictures on one of 2929’s movies.

A closed buyers’ screening unspooled Friday at noon and received mixed reviews from buyers; comments both pro and con may have been negotiating tactics. The impact of the film on audiences won’t really be measurable until Friday, when the film premieres in Competition.

Several pundits here said Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” which copped the best picture Oscar, has spoiled the chances of other such cop dramas at the box office; others were adamant that it opened the door for others to milk the genre. (Warners presumably saw the logic of having another cop drama, though this one is in an entirely different key from the WB-distribbed Scorsese pic.)

By evening on the cocktail circuit Friday, the list of likely contenders had been whittled down to three — Overture, Summit and Fox Searchlight. But then, that scenario got jettisoned and other contenders emerged.

All sorts of names were bandied about on Saturday, including the two Hollywood majors.

Schlessel had recently told Daily Variety that he specifically planned to use Cannes to snag some key titles for his bosses back home.

The picture has been in the Hollywood consciousness for a while. Universal did a pre-buy last year, but after its execs saw it this past March, they declined to commit any further and sent the rights back to 2929.

(Dade Hayes contributed to this report.)

A correction was made to this article at 1:54 p.m.

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