United States is anchor for global lifeblood

Vampire hit “Twilight” may have ushered in a new dawn for Summit Entertainment, the 2½-year-old company launched by international sales guru Patrick Wachsberger and studio veteran Rob Friedman. “We all love ‘Twilight,'” Wachsberger quips. But the gothic teen fantasy franchise is only one piece — though, of course, the most crucial one — in the fledgling company’s surprising rise during these tough economic times.

While many in the industry have lamented the sorry state of foreign sales, Summit has been consistently selling everything on its slate. At Cannes, the company did brisk pre-sale business on films ranging from “Fair Game” (a thriller starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts) to Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost,” animated pic “Astro Boy” and “Twilight” sequel “New Moon.”

Wachsberger says his international business is steady for a few reasons: “Part of it is trust on the part of our distributors and knowing the fact that all of our properties have domestic distribution in place,” he says. “When we go to the market, we give them a release date as well, so those are movies they can count on.”

There’s also the more indefinable factor. “There’s a certain level of quality,” Wachsberger say, but with that promise comes a very real economic commitment. “We don’t bullshit them,” he continues. “We stick to the budget.”

And every movie is set up with domestic and foreign risk shared equally, “so in the process of their development and greenlighting, we end up making movies with international potential,” he asserts.

Friedman touts the company’s diversity of relationships — not just a single distrib in each territory — and the eclectic slate. “It creates a real opportunity, for them and for us, to be able to offer a variety of titles to choose from that appeal to a wide variety of audiences.”

For overseas distribs, the fact that Summit can guarantee a Stateside release on its own productions is something few other international sellers can offer. “This makes it far easier to get exhibitor support and also makes planning our own releases far easier,” otes Robert Slaviero, CEO of Oz’s Hoyts Distribution, who has pre-bought 10 recent Summit projects.

If much of Hollywood has been running scared from midrange-budgeted films, Summit has carved out a niche in that $30 million-

$50 million zone. “But the way we make our movies,” Friedman says, “our 30s to 50s are other companies’ 70s to 80s.”

In addition to “Twilight,” the company has scored domestically with a trio of pics across a range of budget levels and genres, from action thrillers “Knowing” and “Push” to festival acquisition “The Hurt Locker,” a bomb-diffusion thriller that is one of the year’s breakout indies.

But Summit has had its share of low points, too. Its first year was rough going with a series of flops. And more recently, horror pic “Sorority Row” and comedy “Bandslam” underperformed.

The company’s upcoming slate shows continued commitment to mixing it up. After Cannes, it

unveiled Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver,” a $25 million offbeat dramatic comedy starring Foster and Mel Gibson, which effectively sold out overseas in a matter of days, according to Summit Intl. prexy David Garrett.

“Because there is so little good product in the marketplace, it ultimately creates more demand for an enticing prospect like this,” he says. “And we don’t try to kill our distributors on these deals. If we were trying to sell this with a $60 million budget, I’m sure it would be very different.”

Summit’s big AFM title, “Red,” however, is just such a bigger-budgeted project. Based on the DC Comic property and produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the ensemble action comedy begins production Jan. 11. Like Summit’s already-announced “Highlander” reboot, to be directed by Justin Lin, the company is hoping the pics will evolve into franchises on the order of the “Twilight” films.

“This is a function of what our international distributors want,” Wachsberger says. “They are really looking for big studio movies that, unfortunately, are not often available to them from the independents.” The co-topper says Summit plans to do at least one or two quasi tentpoles every year.

But Friedman dismisses the notion that Summit may be escalating beyond its means.

“Because of our foreign sales components and our relationships around the world with distributors, it allows us to make some of these (larger) movies,” he explains. “We always err on the side of caution, and we’re not going to swing for the fences regardless of how the ‘Twilight’ franchise is performing. It’s all about minding your p’s and q’s, and making sure that you don’t make any stupid mistakes.”

For Friedman, this prudent approach underpinned the company’s founding in April 2007. “We always felt there was going to be constriction and consolidation in this business. Our model was to build a studio for the future, with a much more efficient operation; leaner, meaner and with more transparency in the process.”

Since then, not much really has changed at Summit, Friedman says. “We’re just better at it.”

IN THE PIPELINE

A peek at what Summit has in the works

RED

Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman topline for helmer Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan”). Based on the WildStorm/DC Comics series, “Red,” scripted by Jon and Erich Hoeber, tells the story of a retired black-ops CIA agent who gets pulled back into the trade when a hi-tech assassin tries to kill him. (Active development)

HIGHLANDER

Justin Lin (“Fast and Furious”) helms this latest installment of the late-1980s franchise. Story chronicles the adventures of an immortal Scottish swordsman who must confront the last of his kind, a murderously brutal barbarian. (Active development)

IF I STAY

“Twilight” helmer Catherine Hardwicke directs a drama about a classical musician who is torn between her art and her indie-rock-star boyfriend. She’s then forced to make an even starker choice between life and death when she and her family are caught in a fatal car crash. (Active development)

ARENA

Penned by first-time writers Toby Wagstaff and Darren Howell, story is about a group of soldiers mysteriously transported to a terrain-shifting landscape where they must fight the best warriors of all different eras in a gladiatorial fight to the death or be killed by the all-powerful operators of the “Arena.” (In development)

OSTERMAN WEEKEND

Scribe Simon Kinberg adapts Robert Ludlum’s novel about a man who discovers the friends he has invited to a weekend retreat are plotting a conspiracy that threatens U.S. national security. (In development)

SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI

Helmed and written by Jeff Nathanson (wrote “Catch Me if You Can”), this nonfiction account of Houdini’s extraordinary life documents his rise as a magician along with his covert involvement with the Secret Service. (Early development)

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