Sony gets serious about foreign films

Beyond borders, an appeal to local tastes

Sony is getting more serious about foreign films.

While the studio has already had its foot in international waters, producing such offshore fare as 2000’s Chinese Oscar favorite “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Sony Pictures Entertainment chairs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal rebranded their local-language production unit in April as the Intl. Motion Picture Production Group and made East Coast development executive Deborah Schindler the unit’s president.

Schindler was teamed with vice chairman Gareth Wigan, who had already been presiding over the division since his appointment by John Calley 10 years ago. In his oversight, Wigan established local production offices in Germany, the U.K., Spain and Asia and shepherded some 33 foreign-language pictures under the Sony label.

In recent years, local-language pics have become more commercial, encroaching on Hollywood titles abroad and upping their crossover potential outside their home turf. Such successes include foreign-language Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” which grossed $61 million outside the U.S. but reaped a third of that figure in its German homeland.

Last year alone, 10 foreign films grossed more than $45 million each outside the U.S., pushing their way onto Variety’s top 100 worldwide grossers chart, an annual list usually crowded with Hollywood fare. In 2005, only four foreign-language films charted.

With Wigan based in Hollywood and Schindler in NewYork, both are taking an aggressive approach in expanding IMPPG’s local-language business in India, Russia and Mexico — countries where the film biz is booming.

Since 2000, Russia’s theater chains have expanded, and the country’s box office along with it: 2006 B.O. clocked in at $425 million, up 30% over ’05. Even though local product represented a third of that total, the top-grosser was homegrown sci-fi franchise “Day Watch” at $32 million.

In response to Russian moviegoers’ taste for gothic fare, IMPPG is releasing horror pic “Trackman” on Sept. 7.

“Trackman” was co-produced with Monumental Pictures, a joint venture Sony shares with Russian exhibitor Paul Heth.

Tapping into Mexico’s recent cinema movement, IMPPG has gotten behind multihyphenate Issa Lopez by backing her teen coming-of-age comedy “Charm School” as well as her next helming gig, “Casi Divas,” about the struggles of four women in a national film talent search.

“Charm School,” IMPPG’s first production across the border, is already the second-highest-grossing Mexican film in ’07, with $7.1 million, outstripping titles like “Live Free or Die Hard” ($6.9 million) and “Ocean’s Thirteen” ($5.4 million).

Like the other majors, IMPPG has laid a stake in India, where 92% of the country’s 2006 B.O. was claimed by local pics. The division recently completed its first Bollywood musical, “Saawariya,” helmed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose “Devdas” topped the 2002 Indian B.O. with $9 million.

Aside from financing, frosh foreign helmers also reap the spoils of Sony’s global distribution marketing and distribution network.

“There are very few countries where a determined filmmaker can’t raise money for their film,” Wigan says. “However, having the film shown widely outside their parish is a different story.

“When we first worked with Zhang Yimou on ‘Not One Less’ and ‘The Road Home’ in 1999, he didn’t need our money (but) rather Sony’s distribution network. We showed the film in more than 20 countries.”

Since working with Zhang, a third of Sony’s offshore pics have sprung from China, where the studio continues to foster the latest wave of auteurs, most notably martial arts star Stephen Chow. IMPPG has an overall deal with Chow’s shingle, the Star Overseas, shelling out more than $10 million for 2004’s “Kung Fu Hustle,” its priciest film to date. The picture grossed $101 million worldwide.

“At the very least, we’re asked why our films cost so little,” says Wigan, who submits his projects to Lynton and Pascal for a final signoff.

“You can’t really compare the cost of doing moviemaking in these countries with the U.S,” Schindler adds. “It’s out of kilter.”

Schindler and Wigan both worked as development execs under former Columbia studio chief David Puttnam, who during his 16-month tenure in the late ’80s was known for his eclectic slate of Euro fare, i.e. Emir Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies.”

As the former topper of Julia Roberts’ shingle Red Om, Schindler boasts a strong producing resume of femme-centric fare like “Maid in Manhattan” — projects that Puttnam would have most likely overlooked. However, it’s obvious from her philosophy toward IMPPG that Puttnam had an impact.

“It’s about becoming more of a global community,” she says, “becoming aware of filmmakers that we didn’t know of before and exchanging stories and information. That’s the underpinnings of this division.”

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