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Pleskow, Spikings partner for pix

Former Orion Pictures chairman Eric Pleskow and former Nelson Entertainment head Barry Spikings have received a three-picture commitment from French financier Initial Group.

The two industry stalwarts have formed the Pleskow/Spikings Partnership to produce two to five major “event” movies each year.

To augment its Initial push, three projects originally developed by Spikings have been put on fast-track development at the newly formed bicoastal partnership.

The list includes a screenplay by Oliver Stone titled “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa,” a project from “Deer Hunter” screenwriter Deric Washburn titled “Yamashita’s Gold” and David Shaber’s ‘Chinese Bandit.” Each project is budgeted in the $ 35 million range.

The rise of the Pleskow/Spikings Partnership is significant because of the track record of the two principals. Spikings earned an Academy Award as producer of “The Deer Hunter” and has either produced or co-financed such movies as “Tender Mercies,””Elephant Man,””The Last Emperor” and “Hamlet,” while Pleskow was involved in 13 Best Picture Academy Award winners over 41 years at United Artists and Orion Pictures.

The partnership meshes Pleskow’s long-established international and industry contacts with Spikings’ reputation as a solid packager and producer, according to one studio executive.

According to terms of the Initial deal, the French production and distribution rights company will come up with at least 50% of the budgets for each Pleskow/Spikings project. Additional equity partners will push the total international commitment above the 65% marker. At present, development costs for the first three Pleskow/Spikings projects are financed by Initial, while future development costs will be borne by the partners. For Initial, the three-picture commitment to Pleskow/Spikings underscores its rapid expansion into entertainment. Initial’s primary shareholder is La Caisse Des Depots, which has $ 277 billion in assets under management.

Under the aegis of Initial prexy Jean Cazes, the company paid an estimated $ 57 million for the 1,500-title Weintraub catalog and is co-producing the $ 2 million film “Bank Robber” with I.R.S. Media.

“It looks like Initial is trying to follow in the path of Studio Canal Plus and CIBY 2000,” said an observer. “The French are increasingly interested in trying to tie themselves to Yank films, but so far the results haven’t been 100% successful.”

With an international partner already in tow, the Pleskow/Spikings Partnership will likely commit to a major studio for domestic distribution by the end of the year. While TriStar Pictures was considered an early front-runner for domestic distribution of Pleskow/Spikings product, the current status of studio negotiations was not clear. TriStar is still believed to be among the competitors for domestic distribution.

To attract top directors, the Pleskow/Spikings Partnership contemplates cutting “back-end deals that really mean something,” Spikings said. “Because we’re able to present the majors with an opportunity to have major event movies without 100% risk, we can cut preferential deals, which ensure a greater share of revenues flow to bottom-line profits.”

In fact, Pleskow and Spikings are in active negotiations with Tony Scott to helm “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa.” Scott would likely direct the project once his current movie, “True Romance,” is delivered to Warner Bros.

“We hope this demonstrates our commitment to working with top filmmakers,” Spikings said. “In addition to (Scott’s) creative qualities, he’s also the third-highest-grossing director of the decade.”

The structure of the Partnership points up the industry trend toward primarily foreign financing of bigger-budgeted movies, which has taken shape with Arnon Milchan’s New Regency Prods. and James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. Foreign financing has become increasingly viable for established producers because of growth in international markets.

“Because the international marketplace is growing at a fast pace … it has become more and more important for international distributors to get high-profile films,” Pleskow said. “We feel it is the proper time to step into this situation.” In fact, foreign theatrical rentals are expected to equal domestic theatrical revenues within four years, according to research firm Paul Kagan Associates., growing from $ 2 billion in 1991 to $ 2.9 billion in 1995. (By contrast, domestic theatrical rental revenues were $ 2.3 billion in 1991 and are expected to hit $ 2.9 billion over the next four years.)

As the Pleskow/Spikings partnership moves forward, it is contemplated that future projects will be 50% financed by foreign pre-sales and so-called “equity top-up” financing from end users will cover the other 15% of the budgets internationally.

Details of projects in development by the Pleskow/Spikings Partnership are as follows:

o “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa”: Scripted by Stone based on anovel by Clifford Irving, project is about the relationship between the future movie star and the leader of the Mexican revolution.

o “Chinese Bandit”: Based on the novel by Stephen Becker, with a screenplay by “Warriors” screenwriter David Shaber, the project is an epic adventure set during the collapse of Nationalist China, about an American Marine sergeant taken prisoner by a notorious Chinese bandit.

o “Yamashita’s Gold”: Based on a true story, this Philippines-set pic is about secret tunnels that hid tons of gold captured by the Japanese during World War II. Years later, two American adventurers are hired by Ferdinand Marcos and the CIA to find the treasure.

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