Sony Classics houses ‘Mirth’

'X-Files' thesp Anderson stars in fest-acclaimed pic

NEW YORK — After down to the wire negotiations that saw Showtime plan, then cancel, marketing efforts for Terence Davies’ Edith Wharton adaptation “The House of Mirth,” the cabler has agreed, in principle, to sell pic’s theatrical rights to Sony Pictures Classics.

Until Wednesday, the future of the film hung in the balance, with its U.K. co-producer Granada Television desperate to find a theatrical window for what could prove to be the first hit for Davies, whose arthouse-skewing pics include “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Neon Bible.”

“Mirth” features “The X-Files” star Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart, a Guilded Age social climber who slowly slides into poverty and tragedy.

Shrinking window

Granada, like many production companies with a Showtime co-production deal, had a window of roughly two months to find theatrical distribution before the cabler retains rights to bow it on the small screen.

When that window closed in May, Showtime began preparing for a fourth-quarter air date, confident it had an original hit on its hands — much to the producers’ distress. If the film went straight to cable, said a source close to Davies, the director would have been “devastated.”

But that wasn’t Showtime’s concern.

Showtime prexy of programming Jerry Offsay told Daily Variety he expected it, as a Showtime original, to earn notice from the Emmys and Golden Globes, raking in $5 million to $7 million in free publicity from press alone.

All that will be lost with a theatrical release, said Offsay. “When it comes to Showtime a year later, we’ll get no press and no publicity. There will be a collective yawn.”

Showtime gets very little back when it sells theatrical rights to co-productions, Offsay told Daily Variety. “The reason we make originals is to enhance our viewers’ enjoyment of the service. One more theatrical movie doesn’t improve our business one iota.”

But the ground began to shift when “Mirth” emerged from the Edinburgh Film Festival with high marks from some critics, and invitations to Toronto and New York. Sony Classics made an offer — one that Showtime was under no contractual obligation to honor. And until Wednesday, the cabler seemed unlikely to budge.

Reassessing strategy

What finally changed Showtime’s tune?

A business strategy that has little to do with “The House of Mirth.”

Selling theatrical rights now and again allows the cabler to rope in more co-productions, said Offsay. It’s been two years since such Showtime pics as “Down in the Delta” and the Oscar-nommed “Gods and Monsters” saw theatrical runs. If Showtime refused to sell “Mirth,” it risked discouraging producers from bringing other projects to the cabler. Had Showtime sold theatrical rights to another film in the last six months, “Mirth” would have gone straight to the small screen.

“It’s wonderful what happened with ‘Gods and Monsters,’ ” Offsay added, “but I don’t think the Showtime viewer got anything out of it. What ‘Gods and Monsters’ got us was ‘House of Mirth.’ “

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