Samaha fires up Dante

Stallone, Brosnan, Banderas, Gooding pics in pipeline

CANNES — Hollywood producer and Franchise Pictures chairman Elie Samaha has rebounded from his messy legal spat with German distributor Intertainment to partner with Paris-based financier and producer Tarak Ben Ammar to form Dante Entertainment, a production and sales company based in Los Angeles.

Dante is expected to invest $250 million-$300 million annually to produce and distribute three or four event titles. The movies will be financed through a combination of Dante’s pre-sales and backing from the Kirch/Mediaset joint venture Epsilon and from Quinta Communications, Ben Ammar’s Paris-based financing, production and distribution entity, in which Kirch and Fininvest hold a 40% stake.

Dante will take over sales on all Franchise-produced titles.

As part of a first-look arrangement, Dante’s titles will be distributed in Europe by Epsilon, mirroring Kirch’s current relationship with Franchise.

Dante’s slate includes the Sylvester Stallone starrer “Avenging Angelo,” now in production, the Renny Harlin-directed thriller “A Sound of Thunder” with Pierce Brosnan, the Antonio Banderas starrer “Ecks vs. Sever” and the Cuba Gooding Jr. starrer “Psychic,” all in pre-production and slated for distribution through Warners. The completed “Zig-Zag,” starring Wesley Snipes, is available for domestic distribution.

Dante also is handling foreign sales on the Quinta-produced teen movie “Boys on the Run,” which stars Ron Perlman and is now in post.

Jointly owned by Samaha and Quinta, Dante will fund pics with budgets between $30 million and $70 million and distribute another three or four films a year produced by Franchise.

Samaha and Ben Ammar will be co-chairmen of Dante, with Lisa Wilson, formerly head of sales for Franchise, named Dante’s president of international sales and distribution. Andrew Stevens, who remains president-CEO of Franchise Pictures and head of Franchise Classics, will work with Samaha in Dante. CAA’s John Ptak served as a consultant in the deal.

Samaha and Ben Ammar told Daily Variety that Dante may strike a U.S. distribution deal with a major studio for its product, though no deal is yet in place. Franchise has a first-look distribution deal with Warners.

Ben Ammar, currently producing Brian de Palma’s “Femme Fatale” for Summit Entertainment, dismissed Franchise’s Intertainment imbroglio, in which the German distributor has accused Samaha of fraudulently inflating budgets on movies including “Get Carter,” “The Art of War” and Cannes competition selection “The Pledge.”

“I’ve done extensive due diligence into this as a matter of course, but regardless of that, Epsilon and I are totally comfortable that there is no case against Elie,” Ben Ammar told Daily Variety.” “We don’t believe in Intertainment’s threat.”

Ben Ammar said he first discussed the partnership with Samaha at Cannes last year, adding, “Elie is one of only a handful of producers capable of packaging event motion pictures for international audiences.”

“Tarak understands production very well and it gives you more confidence to be in business with some one who’s hands-on,” Samaha told Daily Variety.

Ben Ammar has a long list of producing credits to his name, the latest being “Fatale,” now shooting in France. But as far as Dante is concerned, the strongest ace up Ben Ammar’s sleeve is his financial and business know-how.

A billion-dollar dealmaker who is on a first-name basis with some of the world’s most powerful media barons, Ben Ammar has served as senior media adviser to Leo Kirch and Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he formed Quinta in 1990, as well as to Prince Alwaleed, whom he has been advising on media investments since 1995.

(Cathy Dunkley contributed to this report.)