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Production gamble

Sales firms sometimes risk all to enter prod'n

HOLLYWOOD – How hard is it for a seller to become a producer? Over the past two years a lot of them have found out the answer is: very hard.

Sales companies that moved into the production business, such as Largo or Rysher, hit the skids due to a number of factors, including lack of domestic distribution and poor performance of their pics.

Now, some of them see a new source of product on the horizon and a new chance to make a go of producing. Studios are beginning to trim their housekeeping deals and sellers are anticipating a flock of homeless producers swarming into the indie sector on the lookout for foreign coin.

In theory, it’s a perfect marriage. The ex-studio producers deliver their new indie masters credibility in the marketplace and, possibly, some decent projects. The sales companies, meanwhile, pay for the producers’ overhead and development costs, in return getting foreign distribution rights to their pics.

Joining forces

“It makes sense for a lot of smaller sales companies to team up with a (studio) producer,” says Rick Sands, chairman of worldwide distribution for Miramax Films. “The studios are cutting back on their development deals, which means that a lot of good product could become available.”

There are already some indications that producers are setting up studio projects at indies:

  • Producer Craig Baumgarten has approached several sales companies with his $35 million supernatural thriller “Sin Eater,” written and directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Antonio Banderas. Pic is in turnaround from Fox.

  • Robert Redford’s $70 million “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is being co-financed by Beta Theatrical Motion Pictures (a division of the Eureka media alliance between Kirch Group and Mediaset) and Icon Entertainment Intl., with DreamWorks taking domestic. Redford’s production outfit Wildwood Enterprises, formerly based at Disney, is holding talks with Beta about a longer-term financing arrangement.

  • Ron Shelton, the director of “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup,” has set up his next pic, “Play It to the Bone,” starring Woody Harrelson and Banderas, as an independent production. Shelton and his partner at Shanghai’d Films, Stephen Chin, will produce and Buena Vista Film Sales will handle foreign distrib.

Other newly orphaned producers that indies could tap include Steve Golin (“Sleepers”), Michael Besman (“The Opposite of Sex”), Moshe Diamant (“Timecop”) and even the Zucker brothers (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”).

Of course, some will find new studio deals. And few likely are to settle at a sales company without a domestic studio partner.

Numerous hurdles

Most sales companies are not benefiting from this trend yet. The majority of them still face numerous hurdles in securing A-level producers and/or projects. And when they occasionally do get one — such as Interlight Pictures’ “Standing Room Only,” starring John Travolta — it easily can backfire. While Interlight still is involved with “Standing,” the pic’s start date has been delayed until the end of the year.

Obstacles also exist for the producers. Many of them, even indie producers without studio experience, have doubts about the “sales company culture.” Put bluntly, they are wary of sales companies’ track records in production and their desire to change a pic’s casting or its script in order to satisfy buyers.

According to producer Alan Mruvka (“Digging to China”), sales companies often make poor producers because they are focused on “big names that they can sell, rather than great movies.”

A sense of popular culture

Producing, Mruvka believes, is “a talent just like directing or acting. You need to have a nose for material and a finger on the pulse of what people want to see.” And sales companies, accustomed to waiting for producers to bring them projects, aren’t traditionally set up for that, he says.

Although he held talks about forming a joint sales venture with Overseas Filmgroup last year, Mruvka opted to establish his own moniker, Filmtown Intl. Sales.

“My No. 1 priority is to be in control of the project — both financially and in terms of how it is presented in the marketplace,” he says. “I’ve never had a good experience with (a) sales company. I think that producers and sellers have a mutually exclusive agenda. It’s a different mindset.”

Anant Singh’s Distant Horizon, which is based in South Africa but maintains offices in London and Los Angeles, produces between two and four pictures a year, such as “The Theory of Flight” and “Bravo Two Zero.”

Distant Horizon may sell some territories directly itself (it maintains sales booths at most markets), but usually Singh sets each pic up with another company, such as IEI (“Bravo”), or Summit Entertainment (“Face”).

As with Mruvka, Singh’s setup enables him to be involved in the sales process, but keep a distance from it when he wants to focus on filmmaking. “I decide when it is strategically right to do a deal,” he explains. “It might be when we’re shooting, it might be when we’re mixing. The idea is to maximize the revenue stream for each film.”

Like many hands-on producers, Singh is suspicious of pre-sales. “It means that you spend a lot of time dealmaking and financing, rather than working on the creative aspects of the picture.”

Global sales

Even on pics that it co-produces or acquires, Distant Horizon usually sells the world to other companies. For the gay British comedy “Get Real,” for example, Distant Horizon sold U.S. and U.K. rights to Paramount Classics and the rest of the world to Alliance Atlantis Intl. Singh hasn’t set distribution arrangements for his Nelson Mandela biopic “Long Walk to Freedom,” which has Shekar Kapur attached to direct.

Large indie players such as Miramax, New Line Cinema, Artisan Entertainment and USA Films have foreign sales divisions or long-term arrangements. But these companies approach the market not as sellers who dabble in producing, but as powerful domestic producer-distributors who wish to leverage a portion of their risk in the foreign marketplace.

“(Miramax) is still an independent,” Sands claims. “We’re still hotfooting deals in the foreign marketplace. We still need to convince buyers, just like anyone else.”

Sands says Miramax’s producer-distributor approach is synergistic with that of its partners. “We get early access to a lot of the films being produced by our sales clients,” he observes. Last year, Miramax bought worldwide rights outside Italy to “Life Is Beautiful” from its Italian distrib partner Cecchi Gori.

New York-based Good Machine Intl., which had a joint venture with October Films for international, is unaffiliated on the domestic front. October has been folded into USA Films, but Good Machine, headed by prexy David Linde, is expected to maintain its relationship with USA on the foreign side.

“Good Machine Intl. sees itself as the only sales company that is a real producer,” Linde says. He cites Good Machine-produced pics that GMI has sold, such as “Happiness” and “Ride with the Devil.”

At the same time, Linde agrees that there is a new opportunity for sellers in the acquisitions business. GMI is gearing up its relationships with other producers, including the Entertainment Film Distributors (“This Year’s Love”), Zentropa (“The King Is Alive” and “Dancer in the Dark”) and Greenestreet/SKE Films (“Sympathy for the Devil”).