Brutal 'Che' draws sales interest

PARIS  — For buyers, the most talked-about screening at this month’s Berlin Festival lasted just 10 minutes, and it wasn’t even in English.

Showcased by France’s Wild Bunch, the excerpts of Steven Soderbergh’s stylish, action-packed “Che,” with Benicio Del Toro as Guevara, was being talked up afterwards as a potential modern classic. The two-part, four hours-long Spanish-language Che Guevara bio speaks volumes about the tastes of Paris-based production-sales shingle Wild Bunch, a pacesetter on Europe’s film scene.

And it shows one road the high-end international indie biz is taking, into distinctive, director-driven event films, where star helmers and sheer artistic ambition are sought after.

Shot with a revolutionary Red One HD camera, the action-packed pic features brutal scenes like Che’s cold-blooded executions — and a “Traffic”-like style shifter. Wild Bunchtopper Vincent Maraval evokes Sam Fuller’s  “The Big Red One,” “Zorro,” John Ford, John Huston and Raoul Walsh, “but shot through with Soderbergh’s ultra-modern style, which makes us think we have a classic,” he says.

The pic sold in most major territories worldwide. For the U.S., Wild Bunch is asking in the $20 million range, buyers say. Berlin reports suggested three U.S. buyers are circling the film, though Maraval says Wild Bunch was in no hurry to close a U.S. deal.

Budgeted at $61.5 million, “Che” has been a big gamble, which seems to be paying off. And Wild Bunch loves nothing more than a gamble, defying conventional industry wisdom. It’s consistently sold hits breaking market barriers: sexually explicit “Baise-moi,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” anime “Spirited Away,” “March of the Penguins,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.”

“We even like the look on distributors’ faces saying ‘They must be crazy,’ ‘This time they’ve gone too far,’ and then we blow them away one more time, one last time,” says Maraval. He cites “Fahrenheit 9/11″: “The Italian distributors told me ‘Bowling’ didn’t work, proving documentaries didn’t work in Italy. But ‘Fahrenheit’s’ best territory was Italy.” And “Penguins”: “English-speaking territories told us animal documentaries never work there. They did 75% of ‘Penguins’ worldwide B.O.”

Wild Bunch is handling some 43 new or newish pics, ranging form event films with star directors to first-time helmers and animation. Only a third of directors are French. But Wild Bunch’s priority remains innovation, being “surprised, amazed and disturbed,” says Maraval.

These qualities were in ample supply in Berlin in films like Howard McCain’s $47 million “Outlander,” a Vikings vs. alien monster smackdown and “Interior Design,” Michel Gondry’s contribution to the three-part “Tokyo,” where an unloved Japanese wife turns into a chair.

Buyers were also dazzled by the first footage from Jaco van Dormael’s $50 million “Mr. Nobody,” a 120-year-old man’s recall of his three parallel lives, ready for Cannes 2009.

“The only thing I learnt from 10 years at UGC and StudioCanal is that there are no recipes, that it’s stupid trying to repeat success,” concludes Maraval.

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