Film's cume currently over $163 mil worldwide

Best picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” is the ultimate independent film, proving a bonanza for foreign distributors who gambled on the project even when “Slumdog’s” domestic release was in doubt.

Produced for $15 million by Britain’s Film4 and Celador Films, “Slumdog’s” worldwide cume was north of $163 million through Sunday, meaning generous profit margins for producers and disrtribs. International cume is $65 million; domestic, $98 million. Box office observers believe the film is headed for $200 million.

Director Danny Boyle and the producers are devoting some of those returns to a trust fund set up for two Indian children who starred in the film. Because of safety concerns, they’re not specifying the amount of the fund, only that it is substantial.

“These films are important because they defy conventional wisdom and show that someone can do something completely original and succeed, when so much of the movie industry has been commoditized. ‘Slumdog’ is the anti-’Paul Blart,’ ” said a Fox Searchlight exec.

Just before Cannes, Warner Bros. announced it was shuttering Warner Independent Pictures, which had bought domestic rights to “Slumdog” for $5 million in late 2007. It became apparent that big Warners couldn’t accommodate releasing the film in 2008, between its own films and recently added New Line titles. Boyle and producers were left scrambling, but soon came up with an alternative in Fox Searchlight.

Hollywood may have been cautious, but foreign distribs didn’t miss a step in buying up rights to the indie film. They were so keen they pre-bought rights at its script stage at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, while remaining territories were sold off at Cannes. At the latter fest, Pathe execs screened a promo reel made up of the pic’s hyperkinetic first act featuring the main characters as children.

“It wasn’t difficult to sell at all, even though we had no major stars,” said “Slumdog” producer Christian Colson of Celador. “The combination of (Simon Beaufoy’s) great script, (director) Danny Boyle and the price we made the film for meant it was a tantalizing prospect for buyers.”

Many international distribs are feeling as if they’ve hit the jackpot.

Pathe, which retained rights in the U.K. and France, has seen “Slumdog” draw huge numbers in Blighty, where it has grossed $30 million. In France, it’s at $7.5 million after five weeks.

Foreign distribs have either used the marketing campaigns devised by Fox Searchlight and Pathe — or a variation of both — while others have created their own. Some territories, particularly in Asia and South America, are waiting until after the Oscars to open “Slumdog,” hoping to use the cachet of a best pic win to lure auds.

In the U.K., “Slumdog” was released wide on the same weekend as the Golden Globes, resulting in a strong opening. In Italy, pic was released in December by Lucky Red in time for the Christmas season, even if that resulted in a somewhat idiosyncratic poster campaign. The film is one of the hits of the season in Italy, where it has grossed more than $4 million.

If there is anywhere that symbolizes the wide appeal of “Slumdog,” it’s the Middle East.

Dubai-based distrib Gulf Film released the pic in the wake of its Golden Globes success and has since seen it generate more than 100,000 admissions in only four weeks. “Twilight,” on the other hand has taken 11 weeks to get to 140,000 admissions.

Gulf Film execs, who also pre-bought the film at Berlin, have devised their own marketing campaign targeting various local demos.

“It is appealing to everybody, including the Arabs, the expats and the Indians,” said Gulf Film’s Salim Ramia.

“Slumdog” has even done decent business in India, where Indian films always top the box office. The pic came under criticism for exploiting the country’s poverty, but while the protests likely didn’t affect box office in India, piracy may have.

Beaufoy’s script, adapted from Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q and A,” was developed at Film4.

Swarup’s book does not directly cite the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” shown in the film, so Film4 topper Tessa Ross approached Celador about partnering on the project. It was a shrewd move, as Colson’s shop is the feature film arm of the company that owns the rights to the TV gameshow.

In the time since, “Slumdog” hasn’t just become a millionaire — but a multi-millionaire.

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