British producer puts 'Man on Wire'

LONDON Six months after Blighty’s Shed Media stumped up £20.4 million ($39.9 million) for fellow indie producer Wall to Wall, the acquisition is already looking like a savvy investment — even if that has yet to be reflected in Shed’s share price.

Best known in the U.K. for its celebrity genealogy TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” and cop drama “New Tricks,” London-based Wall to Wall is gearing up for what could be the busiest 12 months in its 21-year history.

Its debut feature documentary “Man on Wire,” helmed by James Marsh, is generating considerable buzz ahead of its summer release and its first U.S. network series, a locally made version of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, is in the works for NBC.

“It would be nice if the City reflected this in the share price,” notes chief executive Alex Graham, who founded the company with fellow Brit Jane Root in 1987. “In the current climate all we can do is focus on the fundamentals of the business and go on delivering the results. Hopefully somebody will wake up to the real value of the business.”

For Shed, which last month reported pre-tax profits of $19.7 million for the 16 months to Dec. 31 (the result of a change to its financial year-end reporting period), the prospect of healthy B.O. returns for “Man on Wire” should go some way toward making up for its lackluster performance on London’s stock exchange.

The story of French daredevil Philippe Petit’s illegal — and seemingly impossible — scheme to walk a high-wire suspended between New York’s twin towers in 1974 has won over festival audiences in the U.S., where it scooped the jury prize and audience award in the world cinema doc competition at Sundance.

“Some films go with a huge machine behind them,” says Jonathan Hewes, Wall to Wall deputy CEO and the film’s executive producer. “We arrived completely unheralded and just created an enormous buzz.”

Since then the doc has gone on to take the Tribeca Film Festival by storm, with a five-minute standing ovation for its opening screening, and has racked up sales to the U.K. (Icon Film Distribution), North America (Magnolia Pictures), Australia and New Zealand (Madman), Benelux (Cineart), France (Diaphana), Germany and Austria (Arsenal) and Spain.

Given the current state of the feature doc market, the raft of deals is all the more impressive, but Hewes was convinced the story would work on the bigscreen from the moment producer Simon Chinn first brought the idea to Wall to Wall.

“We absolutely had those ambitions from the start,” says Hewes, who describes the film as “a caper movie about a bunch of twentysomethings doing something impossible and illegal.

“We thought it was a great story and one that had cinematic potential.”

Produced with the BBC, the U.K. Film Council and Discovery Films, the film now looks set for a late summer release in the U.S., where Wall to Wall is also busy casting for a local version of “Who Do You Think You Are?,” which is being produced for NBC with Lisa Kudrow’s Is or Isn’t Entertainment.

“What’s exciting, and maybe even a little nerve racking, about doing this in the States is there is nothing quite like this,” says Graham. “I think the challenge for us is to up the emotional stakes of the shows in America but at the same time to hang on to the integrity that’s at the heart of the British shows.”

A regular ratings winner for the Beeb, the series focuses on a different celebrity each week and traces their family tree to reveal the stories of their ancestors — often with surprising results.

“I saw it as a popular way to do history,” says Graham, who came up with the idea over 10 years ago. “But I had no idea about the extent to which it was going to unlock the emotional side of their stories.”

A fifth series will air on BBC1 this year, with a line up of celebs including actress Patsy Kensit, London’s new mayor Boris Johnson and Jerry Springer, who helped to convince NBC execs to take a look at the show.

“Man on Wire,” meanwhile, will have its U.K. premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival this June before opening in cinemas on Aug. 1.

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