Local arm readies ambitious slate

LONDON — With Lionsgate posting stellar first quarter profits, a 50% jump in revenues and a new $340 million credit facility, the mega-indie is ramping up the production activities of its U.K.-based operations.

Until recently Lionsgate U.K. functioned primarily as a distributor.

Now, however, the company — which enjoys a degree of autonomy from its U.S. parent when it comes to acquisitions — is aiming to become a prime destination for commercially minded Brit producers and helmers with plans to make three to four feature films a year.

Lionsgate U.K. currently has four projects set to go into production in 2009, with a further eight to 10 projects in various stages of development.

The projects include $15 million contemporary sci-fi thriller “83,” which current Brit film talent flavor-of-the-month Noel Clarke will write, direct and star in. Clarke, whose urban drama “Adulthood” has proved one of the U.K.’s biggest hits this year, is re-teaming with producer Damian Jones for the pic, which tells the story of 83 passengers on a train in London’s Underground who disappear mysteriously.

Also in the pipeline are laffer “Stiff,” from “Borat” writer Dan Mazer and producer Andrea Calderwood (“The Last King of Scotland”) about a 1980s rock star who falls into a coma onstage and wakes up 20 years later; romantic comedy “Emily-Jane Secret Mum,” a co-production with Elton John and David Furnish’s Rocket Pictures about a single mother who pretends she doesn’t have kids to get her dream job; and “The Choir,” from writer-director Debbie Issit (“Nativity”). “Choir” is based on a true story about a 60-year-old Welsh male voice choir who achieve unlikely stardom when their album reaches the top of the charts.

“We’re trying to see if we can grow the U.K. business to accomplish here what Lionsgate has achieved in the U.S.,” says Lionsgate U.K. chief exec Zygi Kamasa. “Our model is essentially similar to what Working Title has achieved. We can still only dream of being as successful as they are. They’ve been doing it for 20 years, but we’re trying to build on their success. We’re a U.K. set-up that is backed by a studio.”

Kamasa was, along with Simon Franks, the co-founder of U.K. distrib Redbus, which Lionsgate acquired in October 2005. Since then Lionsgate U.K. execs have been quietly building their business to become one of Blighty’s most successful indie distribs.

With Lionsgate enjoying a ripe period Stateside, Kamasa and Lionsgate motion picture group prexy Joe Drake felt the time was right to beef up the U.K. office’s production activities. Kamasa already has production experience thanks to his time at Redbus, which invested coin in Gurinder Chadha’s hit 2002 Brit comedy “Bend It Like Beckham” and also George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck.”

Lionsgate U.K. will focus entirely on British films that can find an audience in Blighty and also have crossover potential in foreign markets. Mandate Pictures, which Lionsgate acquired last September, will handle the U.K. office’s international sales. And while Lionsgate will get first dibs on any pics that come out of the U.K. office for U.S. distribution, the deal is not binding.

“We’re not going to make arthouse films or horror films,” says Kymasa in reference to his U.S. parent’s success with genre pics such as the “Saw” franchise. “We’re going to make films conceived out of the U.K. that we can release on 300-400 screens here and that also have breakout potential internationally. They’ll be filmmaker- and cast-driven projects. We’re not chasing awards. We’re still a commercial enterprise.”

While Drake will retain the ultimate power to greenlight projects, Kamasa and his U.K. staff will enjoy ample creative freedom when it comes to developing and financing films. Lionsgate U.K., for example, is fully financing “83.”

In recent years, U.S. studios have begun to pour more resources into local production divisions. Sony, which created an international film production department in April 2007, became the first major studio to maintain stand-alone, local-language production units throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America.

In February, Universal beefed up its ambitious foreign production operations with a number of key appointments under international production and acquisitions chief Christian Grass. The studio also has inked partnerships with shingles such as Fernando Meirelles’s 02 Filmes in Brazil, Mexican triumvirate Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Cha Cha Cha, to go along with its successful longstanding relationship with the U.K.’s Working Title.

In May, Fox Filmed Entertainment launched Fox Intl. Prods. to produce and acquire local-language films for key global territories, while this past July, Paramount created the Paramount Worldwide Acquisitions Group, a centralized acquisitions and local productions arm that will feed pics into the pipelines of Paramount Pictures Intl. and Par Vantage.

And while Lionsgate has seen its coffers swell thanks to the growing success of its television unit producing hit shows such as “Mad Men” and “Weeds,” the U.K. operations will be concentrating on the bigscreen for now.

“I’d never say never, but for now, TV isn’t something we’ll be getting into,” Kamasa says. “Personally, I want us to do all we can to support the British film industry. I want to give British writers, directors and producers a place they can come and have their films fully financed. We’re in the position where we don’t have to make films. We’ll only make them when they’re right.”

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