Despite being owned by a publishing group with little stomach for the movie business, Spanish distrib Aurum rode the storms buffeting its territory in the past couple of years better than any of its rivals.

While other distribs paid the price for an unsustainable acquisitions frenzy, Aurum adopted the minimalist but highly profitable strategy of buying “The Lord Of The Rings,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “The Passion Of the Christ” and not much else.

So last week’s news that Grupo Zeta has sold Aurum for $54 million to Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Distribution, the Canadian owner of U.K. distrib Momentum Pictures, sent a tremor of trepidation through Spain’s other indies.

Already trailing in its wake, they now face the prospect of competing against a newly fired-up Aurum, with a pushy North American parent and a beefy British sibling.

There was also a hint of envy. The likes of Manga, Filmax and Tripictures might not have been averse to adoption into the Alliance Atlantis family themselves.

“There are a lot of companies in Spain either looking for a cash injection or are up for sale,” admits Momentum managing director Xavier Marchand, who now oversees Aurum as well. “There were quite a few dossiers on our table.”

But Aurum, which Alliance has been circling for 18 months, always looked the neatest fit. When Alliance floated its distribution arm in Toronto last fall, the terms of the IPO meant that it could only acquire companies with a minimum operating margin of 11.5%.

While Spain’s other indies are battling with mountains of debt and struggling to sell TV rights, cash-positive Aurum has the bedrock of a strong pay TV deal. It reported earnings of $13 million on revenues of $86 million in 2003.

Its management structure also made it a clean candidate for takeover. Since the resignation of John Gibbons a year ago after Zeta nixed his expansion plan into Germany, Aurum has not had its own topper. Instead staff reported directly to execs at the parent company. A change of ownership should, in theory, bring little operational upheaval.

“A lot of independent distributors in Spain are family-run, but Aurum was fully owned by a third party, so this was a great opportunity to change the upper layer,” says Marchand. “They just went from being owned by a publishing company to an entertainment company.”

Aurum focuses on studio-level pics, together with mainstream Spanish movies. Marchand says it won’t be moving into the kind of arthouse/crossover fare that Momentum also handles, largely because that wouldn’t fit within its Spanish TV deals. But for the bigger movies, Momentum and Aurum will be pitching to buy both territories together.

Within a year, Alliance Atlantis is also hoping to get into either Germany or France.

If Aurum has a weakness, it’s the shallowness of its library. The company was only founded nine years ago, and has been very sparing in its acquisitions since then. Marchand says that he’s actively scouting for libraries in Spain.

To date, Aurum has succeeded through a combination of luck and caution. Having an owner so wary of the film biz ended up being its trump card when its rivals were undone by gambling too high. The question now is whether it can sustain its winning streak with a bolder parent.

Grant sets up directing debut

“Wah-Wah,” the long-mooted writing and directing debut of Richard E. Grant, is finally ready to go, with shooting set to start this month in South Africa.

Emily Watson, Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson will star in this autobiographical account of Grant’s own eccentric boyhood, growing up in colonial Swaziland with a drunken father and an American stepmother (Watson). The young Grant will be played by Nicholas Hoult, the kid from “About a Boy.”

Grant has been touting the script for a few years, but the production finally came together as a result of his role in last year’s Anglo/French movie “Monsieur N,” produced by Marie-Castille Mention-Scharr. She has now set up “Wah-Wah” as a co-production between France, the U.K. and South Africa. The Works is handling international sales.