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Woods inks Penn for killer ‘Nixon’ picture

Shingle marks fest debut

VENICE — As Cary Woods’ Independent Pictures marks its official festival debut with two noncompetition pics in the Venice Film Festival, the Gotham banner is moving forward on its future slate, inking Sean Penn to star in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” for tyro director Niels Mueller.

Pic, originally titled “Killing Dick,” will be produced by Woods and Independent’s West Coast production head Gina Mingacci. Alexander Payne (“Election”), who attended film school with Mueller, will exec-produce the pic about a down-on-his-luck salesman who comes to the conclusion that President Nixon, as the figurehead for capitalism, is responsible for his troubles and plots to assassinate him.

Mueller and Kevin Kennedy penned the script, which is based on the 1974 true story of would-be assassin Samuel Byck. “Richard Nixon” centers on a bumbling, paranoid furniture salesman who ultimately sets about assassinating the President — albeit unsuccessfully.

Reteaming with Vaughn

Independent also is moving forward on “Prime Gig,” the black comedy starring Vince Vaughn (whose breakout film, “Swingers,” was exec produced by Woods) and Ed Harris under Gregory Mosher’s direction. “Prime Gig,” which is slated to go before the cameras in November, follows a young telemarketer (Vaughn) who goes to work for a polished con man. When they plan to steal an elderly woman’s life savings, the telemarketer has second thoughts. William Wheeler, a former telemarketer himself, penned the script. Woods and Mingacci are producing.

“Richard Nixon” and “Prime Gig” will be released by New Line Cinema (or its specialized label Fine Line) under Independent’s five-year output deal with the Time Warner-owned company.

Independent inked its pact with New Line in May 1998, when New Line put up a $10 million (25%) equity stake in the company and guaranteed distribution of four films per year. Soon after, Woods also inked a $50 million revolving credit line with Chase Manhattan Bank, bolstering Independent’s war chest, which already had secured $30 million in equity investments, including New Line’s investment. That financing aids Woods in holding onto all international rights to Independent’s films and helps him build a library by obviating the need for foreign presales.

While New Line controls all North American rights to a minimum of four pictures a year on a quasi rent-a-system basis, Independent retains foreign rights to all its films. Independent also finances the marketing for its pics, including all prints and advertising costs.

Strong Lido showing

Woods and his Independent execs are making a strong showing on Venice’s Lido to support its first two productions: Mark Hanlon’s “Buddy Boy,” starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Aidan Gillen, and Harmony Korine’s “Julien: Donkey Boy,” starring Chloe Sevigny and Ewen Bremner. The producers and filmmakers have been a ubiquitous presence in the local hotel bars as much as at the myriad press interviews conducted during the fest.

“It was important for us to create an international identity,” Woods told Daily Variety. “And since they weren’t ready for Cannes, Venice was the next international festival where we could launch the films.”

Woods said he would ultimately like to release up to 12 films a year, as well as move into television and onto the Internet in the coming months.

Woods also announced that Rebecca Kearey, formerly head of marketing for U.K.-based foreign sales outfit the Sales Co., has joined Independent as head of marketing, based in Los Angeles.

“Buddy Boy” marks Woods’ first production since hanging out his Independent Pictures shingle in 1997, after his three-year agreement expired with Miramax Films, where he produced eight films, including “Swingers,” “Cop Land” and “Scream.”

Among the other projects Independent is developing is the biopic “Liberace.” Written by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the script is now undergoing a rewrite supervised by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”). Johnny Depp is reportedly interested in starring as the bejeweled, candelabra-lighting pianist.