Blighty arm invests in homegrown indie fare

LONDON — While Lionsgate has been occupied with the acquisition of Summit Entertainment and the global launch of “The Hunger Games,” its U.K. arm has emerged as a prolific investor in British indie filmmaking.

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” released April 20, is just the first in a hefty slate of upcoming Brit features backed by Lionsgate U.K. under chief executive Zygi Kamasa.

So far in 2012, the company has already invested in six more local projects, even though Kamasa previously said his target was to get involved with just one or two such productions a year.

The flurry of activity has been sparked by his conviction that demand for quality Brit pics among U.K. and international audiences is reaching new heights.

“Our increased investment in production is dictated partly by the success of British movies in the past two years, and by the fact that American movies have not been doing so well in the U.K.,” Kamasa says. “We did some research a year ago, and people told us they much preferred British films and wanted more of them. And a significant minority said they were getting fed up with American films, which they found increasingly derivative.”

That’s been borne out by the run of homegrown hits at the U.K. box office, such as Entertainment Film’s “The Inbetweeners Movie,” Studiocanal’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Pathe’s “The Iron Lady,” Momentum’s “The Woman in Black” and Fox Searchlight’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” produced by Shine Pictures, looks set to continue that trend, with a healthy $7.2 million after three weeks.

That’s not quite at the level of the other recent Brit hits, but it’s a strong result nonetheless for a gentle romance starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, directed by Lasse Hallstrom. In any case, Lionsgate, which put up nearly half the $14.5 million budget for worldwide rights, was already in profit before the U.K. release, thanks to strong foreign sales including a U.S. deal with CBS Films for more than $5 million. Co-investors BBC Films and the BFI have also recouped.

Since backing “Salmon Fishing,” Lionsgate U.K. has co-financed and exec produced four more British films, and pre-bought two others.

The production slate includes:

“Keith Lemon: The Film,” the bigscreen debut of the TV comedy character created by Leigh Francis, in post for release in August on the same date as “The Inbetweeners Movie” last year. Lionsgate U.K. developed the project from scratch with Francis, and put up most of the $6 million budget for worldwide rights, alongside Northern Ireland Screen.

“Great Expectations,” based on the Dickens novel, directed by Mike Newell, starring Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter, in post for likely release in November. Lionsgate U.K. bought U.K. rights, but also worked with producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen to bring the project together by investing equity and funding pre-production.

“Filth,” starring James McAvoy and directed by Jon S. Baird, is based on “Trainspotting” writer Irvine Welsh’s comic novel about a terrible Scottish cop having a very bad day. Pic is in post, with no release date set. Lionsgate U.K. exec produced, taking U.K. rights and providing pre-production finance.

“Hummingbird,” a London thriller by Steven Knight, starring Jason Statham. Lionsgate U.K. has British rights while parent Lionsgate has North American rights; pic is shooting , with a spring 2013 release planned.

“The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the true story of Eric Lomax, who survived torture as a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII, and decades later was reconciled with one of his captors. Lionsgate U.K. has worldwide rights, with Lionsgate Intl. handling international sales, and CAA repping the North American deal. Pic started shooting April 30 in Scotland.

The Invisible Woman,” the second directing effort of Fiennes, whose helming debut “Coriolanus” was released by Lionsgate U.K. in January. “Invisible Woman” is based on Claire Tomalin’s nonfiction book about Nelly Ternan (to be played by Felicity Jones), the secret teenage mistress of Charles Dickens (Fiennes). Lionsgate pre-bought U.K. rights; shooting started April 23.

“It just happened that all these projects we liked came together at the same time,” Kamasa says. “I’d love to keep doing more British films, and if I could find another four or five next year, I’d do them. It just means I’ll do a couple fewer American films.”

Kamasa notes that making films with local talent has advantages when it comes to marketing, since the actors and filmmakers are more available for publicity.

“With ‘Coriolanus,’ Ralph Fiennes was everywhere for weeks. You can’t get that with a George Clooney. With ‘Keith Lemon,’ we’ve already got Leigh (Francis) booked for 12 days.”

Lionsgate U.K. was created through the $35 million acquisition in October 2005 of U.K. indie distrib Redbus, which Kamasa co-founded. It retains a degree of autonomy from its U.S. parent with its own projects, which don’t typically go through Lionsgate in the U.S. It releases Lionsgate’s American productions in the U.K., but this supply has diminished as Lionsgate moves toward making fewer, bigger projects.

In the past 12 months, Lionsgate U.K. has released just three Lionsgate movies — “Warrior,” “Abduction” and “The Hunger Games” — leaving the U.K. shingle to fill out its slate of 15 releases a year with acquisitions and local productions. Summit’s slate goes through a U.K. output deal with rival distrib eOne.

Lionsgate U.K. is also investing more in developing films. Its slate includes royal romance “Girls’ Night Out” from Ecosse Films, which is being rewritten, and a feature remake of 1970s cop series “The Professionals.”

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