Pair to partner on production, distribution

Following the merger last Wednesday of Universal Pictures Intl. Studio and Focus Features under the new banner of Focus Features Intl., Universal announced Monday that it had acquired a minority stake in leading Italo indie production stable Cattleya in a multipronged deal.

It marks the first time a U.S. studio has invested directly in local production in Italy.

The groundbreaking agreement also sees U’s Focus Features Intl. unit forge a multiyear production/distribution partnership with Rome-based Cattleya under which at least eight titles, either self-financed by Cattleya or co-produced with Focus Features, are expected to go out in Italy via Universal Pictures Intl. over the next four years.

Furthermore, Focus will have first option to handle international sales on future Cattleya productions.

Combined, the pacts create a commitment structure arguably unlike any other by a Hollywood major in continental Europe.

Universal, Italy’s top 2008 distributor with a 20% local market share, is acquiring a roughly 20% stake in Cattleya, which produces between four and six films per year, including last year’s local hit “Tell Me About Love,” helmed by Silvio Muccino, and recent export “My Brother Is an Only Child.”

“It’s a strategic move for us into the Italian market,” said Focus Features Intl. co-chair Christian Grass. Cattleya founding partners Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini and Marco Chimenz are retaining ample control of the company, which they started in 1997. Italo media conglom De Agostini and investment bank IMI each hold an 8% stake.

Cattleya prexy Tozzi said that while “there is no exclusivity bind, it’s clear that Universal and Focus are becoming our strategic partners.”

That said, Cattleya will continue to produce pics for release via leading local outfits Medusa and RAI Cinema. Tozzi said he also expects to maintain the company’s longstanding rapport with Warner Bros. Italia, with which Cattleya has two projects in the works.

The first title to go out in Italy via UPI as part of the pact is “Diverso da chi?” (Different From Who?), a comedy centered around a young gay Italo pol. Helmed by first-timer Umberto Carteni, it will be released in March.

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