Equinox hits winning streak

Indie distribbery doing boffo business

MONTREAL “Etoile Filante,” the title of an upcoming Equinoxe Films release, translates literally as “shooting star.” It refers to the young women in the film who’re dreaming of winning an “American Idol”-like talent contest. But “shooting star” also happens to be a pretty apt description of Equinoxe itself.

The Montreal-based indie distributor was not even a player in the national film sweepstakes just a few years back. Called France Film at the time, it was a small French-language distrib. But Equinoxe has been on quite a roll for the past couple of years, thanks to a trio of savvy acquisitions. You might call it a Big Fat Greek success story.

Equinoxe’s box office hat trick began with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which grossed C$30.5 million ($23 million) for the company two years ago, making it one of the biggest indie hits ever in Canada.

Last year, Equinoxe pulled off what many thought was an impossible feat: It made some serious cash with an English-lingo Canadian pic. Gay-themed comedy “Mambo Italiano” made $4 million in its home territory, making it the top-grossing English-Canadian film since “Porky’s” way back in 1981.

The boffo business continued early in 2003 thanks to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which has so far generated $18 million at the cash register for Equinoxe.

The odd wrinkle is that two of the big Equinoxe smashes — “Greek Wedding” and “The Passion” — were pics that almost all Canadian distribs passed on. Like most American execs, the Canadian film folks didn’t see the potential of “Greek Wedding” and were scared off by the controversial “Passion.”

Michael Mosca, senior VP at Equinoxe, isn’t quite sure how to explain his company’s recent magic touch at the B.O. When he first saw “Greek Wedding” at AFM two years ago, the Italian Montrealer could relate to the ethnic comedy, and he figured he could make $500,000.

With “The Passion,” his thinking was just as straightforward.

“The first thing I thought after seeing it was that it was a Mel Gibson film, a film from an Oscar-winning director and, for an independent distributor, that’s great to have,” Mosca says.

Now Equinoxe’s problem is how to keep the hits coming, and Mosca and his right-hand-man Yves Dion, veepee of distribution at Equinoxe, know you don’t find “Greek Weddings” and “Passions” at every film market.

Landing product is even harder for Canuck distribs, since the majors distribute their own pics in the Great White North and almost everything else is controlled by Alliance Atlantis via its output deals with mini-majors like Miramax and New Line.

That’s why Mosca set-up a production company in February. He was tired of taking the Alliance scraps and figured his company could better compete by developing properties itself.

Equinoxe took over seasoned Quebec production house Lyla Films and tapped former Lyla topper Lyse Lafontaine as VP of Equinoxe Prods.

The production arm has several pics in development, most notably “A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali,” a Rwanda-set drama based on the bestselling novel by Montreal author Gil Courtemanche.

Equinoxe also has high hopes for “Etoile Filante,” being produced by “Mambo” and “The Barbarian Invasions” producer Denise Robert, with Equinoxe taking all world rights. Based on an original idea by Dion from Equinoxe and “Mambo” helmer Emile Gaudreault, it features popular Quebec comic Claudine Mercier playing four different women competing in the TV talent contest “Idole Instantanee.” Pic shoots in July and will be launched on 125 screens in Quebec Dec. 3.

In addition, Equinoxe picked up Canadian rights to “Something Borrowed,” starring Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney, and to the Martin Short comedy “La La Wood”.

One of Equinoxe’s strong suits is that it’s owned by France Film, a Montreal company with interests in real estate (including a couple of Montreal multiplexes), live theater and a ticket sales network (Tel-Spec). France Film has deep pockets, so Equinoxe can sit it out between hits.

The good news, says Mosca, is that everyone is knocking on his door, and they’re seeing much better projects.

“Now we can be more selective,” says Mosca, who worked for years at exhibitor Cineplex Odeon before moving to Equinoxe in 1995. “So there’s less pressure. Even though lightning struck twice, we’re keeping our feet on the ground. We’re working hard and we just have to make sure we don’t spend all of that money (from ‘Greek Wedding’ and ‘Passion’) in one place.

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