Low-budget actioner prepped for franchise potential

The low-budget World War II actioner “Age of Heroes,” which premieres at AFM, is set to become a franchise just 18 months after rookie producers Lex Lutzus and James Brown first dreamed up the concept.

With sales way ahead of target and distributors clamoring for more, Lutzus and Brown are now preparing two sequels — “Age of Glory” and “Age of Honor” — to shoot back-to-back next spring.

That’s a notable success story in a tough market, proving that distribs still have a large appetite for product tailored precisely to meet their needs. Lutzus and Brown both come from a background in distribution, and they conceived “Age of Heroes” to match what they felt buyers were looking for.

The pair previously worked together at defunct U.K. distrib Tartan, where Lutzus was COO and Brown was head of acquisitions. When Tartan folded, Brown moved across to the same role at Metrodome, while Lutzus tried to make her way as an indie producer. The idea for “Age of Heroes” germinated at Cannes in 2009.

“There was a lack of product out there to buy,” Brown recalls. “Lex asked me what I needed, and I said a WWII story starring Sean Bean and Danny Dyer, but no one was going to walk through the door with that.”

So they decided to make it themselves. They backed up that initial hunch with some exhaustive research to confirm an untapped demand for low-budget war movies. Pics with no stars such as “Saints and Soldiers” and “Passchendaele” had posted disproportionately strong DVD numbers. They also noted the success of the “Call of Duty” vidgames among the younger male audience.

With Dyer’s strong DVD fanbase in the U.K. and Bean’s international profile, Lutzus and Brown reckoned they could put together a commercially compelling package for financiers.

But first they needed a script. They sketched out a rough outline, and handed it to writer/director Adrian Vitoria, himself a WWII fanboy. “We wrote a very terrible action movie, and he came back with a proper war movie,” says Brown. “That’s when we realized we were in spitting distance of making this work.”

The script was based on the true story of a Norwegian raid by James Bond author Ian Fleming’s commando unit. The budget was $4 million including deferments, roughly $2.5 million without.

“It’s easiest to make a film that could be theatrical but that’s priced appropriately for video,” says Brown. “In no way did we want to make an exploitative piece of crap that worked only in a commercial sense. We wanted to make a film we were proud of on a creative level, but that would still have a commercial outcome regardless of whether we achieved the creative outcome we were aiming for.”

“We knew from the get-go we wanted a trilogy, so had to over-deliver with the first film,” explains Lutzus. “So how do we get extra production value on the screen? Setting something in snow gives those beautiful vistas. When we sat down to do the plan, we said, ‘No. 1, snow; No. 2, desert; No. 3, jungle.’ “

This clear-eyed approach clicked with financiers. The coin came together from Metrodome, sales agent ContentFilm Intl. and equity from Matador, Magna and post house Prime Focus. Metrodome invested equity as well as buying the U.K. rights, which meant the other financiers could share the U.K. upside while Metrodome participated in any foreign value.

“The financiers certainly found it refreshing dealing with producers who had a clear understanding of the financial reality of releasing a film in any given country,” Brown notes.

At Cannes this year, their hunch that the rising U.K. demand for war films would be mirrored abroad proved correct. Content exceeded all pre-sale expectations by hitting asking prices in multiple territories, even Germany.

“On our first film, we wanted to be developing relationships with Rolls Royce distributors, and we’ve got people like Transmission in Australia, Svensk in Scandinavia, Ascot Elite in Germany,” Brown says. “Having been involved in distribution for so long, we know the difference between the Rolls Royce distributors and the others.”

The AFM premiere will reveal whether they have delivered on the screen. Some territories, notably the U.S. and Spain, have been held back. But Metrodome has already expanded its U.K. release plans next February to 75 prints, and several of the foreign buyers have already said they want to exercise their sequel options.

During production, Brown remained at Metrodome, but he has now joined Lutzus as full-time partner in their shingle Neon Park. They have a deal with Metrodome, where Brown still serves as an acquisitions consultant, which keeps him close to market trends and coming filmmakers.

As well as prepping the sequels, they have another trilogy up their sleeve, though they are keeping the subject matter a secret for now. “We’re trying to build a company, rather than being producers who just make one project at a time,” Brown says.

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