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Artisan gets ‘Demented’ with honors

Prod'n company taking new directions

CANNES — Artisan Entertainment, with three pics in official sections at Cannes this year — “Felicia’s Journey,” “The Limey” and “The Blair Witch Project” — is giving itself a pat on the back and making forays into new territory.

Company’s latest move is to acquire U.S. rights to “Cecil B Demented,” from director John Waters.

The pic, which begins shooting this summer, will be financed by Studio Canal Plus. It’s about a group of indie filmmakers who kidnap a star in order to make the ultimate Hollywood pic. Canal Plus has all rights outside the U.S.

Library ventures

Artisan, whose “Blair Witch” screens today in Directors Fortnight, is also set to produce a host of TV skeins based on films from its library, including “Blair,” “The Substitute” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Toppers Amir Malin, Bill Block and Mark Curcio feel that they have transformed the company in the last 18 months, leaving behind its past as the video-driven Live Entertainment and moving into higher-quality pics as Artisan.

The distrib is now one of the leading indies for films between $5 million and $30 million. Its stable of helmers includes Roman Polanski (“The Ninth Gate”), Steven Soderbergh (“Limey”), Atom Egoyan (“Journey”), David Koepp (“Stir of Echoes”) and Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”).

Though “Gate” is said to be well over its $30 million budget, the rest of the field has come in under budget, including “Limey,” which was meant to cost $8 million but was made for just over $7 million.

Artisan is releasing 12 to 15 pics per year with a partnership and a minority stake in Summit Entertainment, which handles the foreign for most of Artisan’s offerings.

In addition, the company has set up overall foreign output deals, including pacts with Alliance Atlantis (Canada) and Highlight (Germany), and an ongoing pact with Showtime for domestic TV.

This, the execs claim, is a far cry from its days as Live. The company became Artisan in 1997 after a consortium headed by Bain Capital bought it out.

“This company was so unbelievably mismanaged,” Curcio said. “People were not working as a team. There was no single strategy.”

Driven to respect

When they started, the Artisan team was desperately trying to get Hollywood to take it seriously. “We sent limousines out to the agencies to get them to come out to Van Nuys,” Block recalled.

Now, company execs said, Artisan’s library yields as much as $75 million per year, with more than 6,000 titles at its disposal, including pics from Carolco, Vestron, Hallmark, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Cabin Fever, the Shooting Gallery and Republic.

The company also views DVD as a lucrative business for it to exploit. “We made a decision upfront and said we’re going to be very aggressive with it,” Malin said.

The company has been able to ship more than 3 million units to date of DVD and expects to move beyond 5 million by the end of the year, resulting in a $30 million business.