HOLLYWOOD — The lesson learned from the fable of the tortoise and the hare is not lost on Gareth Wigan, the erudite vice chairman of Columbia Tri-Star Motion Picture Group.

Slow and steady wins the race. For Col and its production offices in Germany, Asia and Spain, which are dedicated to local-lingo pics only, it’s a race for B.O. that begins with careful planning and building relationships with the talent community.

“This is very crucial,” stresses Wigan: “The decision was made when we (decided) that we were going to go into the territory with a five-year business plan, because many, many times companies have gone into places to make a movie and then say, ‘Oh, this one worked and we’ll be back,’ but they’re not.

“We believe that if we were going to establish ourselves successfully with the local community of filmmakers, we had to say, ‘We’re here, and we’re going to make it work.’ ”

The far-flung offices have produced B.O. winners such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and will be repped at Cannes this year by Chen Kuo-Fu’s “Double Vision,” which will unspool in Un Certain Regard.

Bringing a studio mentality and extreme caution — Wigan cites “learning from our mistakes” as an important tool — Col opened its German office first, in 1998. It had its first success in 2000 with teen-targeted pic “Anatomie,” which had a $4 million budget and grossed $14 million. Deutsche Columbia is prepping a sequel.

Eclipsing that B.O. success, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia scored big with Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger” ($211 million worldwide), while Tsui Hark’s “Time and Tide” hit its target at $2.2 million and comedy “Big Shot’s Funeral” has just started its run.

Lee, meanwhile, has submitted a treatment for a “Crouching Tiger” prequel.

Strength training

The key to the Spanish arm is not Sony’s financial muscle but its development capacity.

Many small producers in Spain hurry movies into production so as to tap subsidies and TV pre-buys to cover year-round production overheads. Spanish films very often seem underworked in the script department.

Backed by Sony, Columbia Films Producciones Espanolas will be able to mature projects for months or more.

Topper Iona de Macedo hopes to put one film into production toward the end of 2003 and several in 2004.

“Time means quality,” says de Macedo.

Despite the common language, only a few recent Spanish films have been mainstream hits in Latin America. De Macedo is cautious about the Latin American potential for the projects she will produce: “I’m not looking for a sudden big splash but to build steppingstones to create exposure to Spanish films in Latin America.”

In Brazil, Col has co-produced, with local partners, seven films and has four on deck. It’s also in talks for “Carandiru,” from director Hector Babenco.

The company is testing the waters in Mexico, where it has acquired the buzzed-about “El Crimen del Padre Amaro,” from helmer Carlos Carrera, and has invested in hot property “Sin ton ni Sonia,” by helmer Carlos Sama.

Global gamble

And while Col doesn’t guarantee distribution outside the home country of the film (the studio holds worldwide rights), if it thinks it has a winner, it makes “every effort to get these films seen,” says Wigan, who is passionate about getting global exposure for the talented filmmakers Col works with.

The studio sensibility is the key to Col’s local-lingo success: modest objectives, good local relationships and a five-year business plan.

Wigan is effusive and genuine when giving credit to the execs who run the production offices abroad: Barbara Robinson in Hong Kong; Andrea Willson, Germany; and de Macedo, Spain. Production choices are guided by the local managers, all veterans in their respective territories.

“They each have a foot in Hollywood and a foot in the local markets,” Wigan says. “The concept would have not worked without people of their caliber. With them wooing people, it shows that we’re serious.”

“Each one of those companies is set up as little profit-and-loss entities,” says Paul Smith, exec VP of worldwide marketing and distribution for Col TriStar Motion Picture Group. “Gareth and I give them what they need to realize their visions.”

Wigan and Smith are involved every step of the way as well, both creatively and financially. “We are not at arm’s length; we want filmmakers to know that we care,” Wigan says.

Careful moves

The Col execs stress caution and deliberate moves as the key to success, an approach taken in Mexico and now in the white-hot market of South Korea, where it has picked up worldwide rights to “Shilmido Island.”

Parent Sony had tried to set up dedicated overseas production before. In 1996, Col and France’s Canal Plus partnered to build the Bridge, which collapsed in 1998.

“It was the wrong concept,” Wigan says.

But Sony still had a worldwide distribution pipeline that needed to be filled. And, as Wigan points out, there’s a limit to how much can be produced and released in the U.S. “So how do you make up the difference?” Wigan asks.

The studio also saw local-lingo pictures gradually grabbing a bigger market share at the home B.O.

“We then structured (our plan) on a financial basis where the overhead is low, the costs are low, and we try to choose productions carefully,” Smith explains.

The budgets range from $3 million to $7 million. The arms also benefit from subsidies and tax breaks overseas.

Choosing which markets to exploit also takes careful planning.

“The rationale was essentially economic,” Smith says. “We looked at territories with established local product, at the actual economics of producing in that country, the subsidies, the incentives, the ancillary markets, the prospects of growth.

“Basically, you make movies at a level in which you can get the money back in the local territory,” he adds.

And although Col has made five films in the U.K., there are no plans to open an office there. “There is no language problem. There is already an interchange between Los Angeles and the U.K.,” says the British Wigan, who jokes that he still remembers some people over there.

That U.K. relationship notably resulted in “Snatch,” from Guy Ritchie, and Ritchie’s remake of “Swept Away,” starring his wife, Madonna.

The offices offer a revenue stream and a talent stream.

“You see, we can’t make German arthouse movies, or Chinese arthouse movies — we have to make popular movies,” says Wigan, pointing to Corey Yuen’s “So Close” as an example.

It’s a Hong Kong action movie starring “three incredibly beautiful Chinese actresses — it’s not an arthouse movie, it’s an everybody movie.”

Wendy Kan in Hong Kong, Simeon Tegel in Mexico City, John Hopewell in Madrid and Marcelo Cajueiro in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.