Spring showers

Deeper pockets spur buying spree for niche player Wellspring

In the generally conservative acquisitions climate of the specialty film business, eight theatrical pickups in as many weeks would indicate a voracious appetite. When those acquisitions come on the heels of new corporate ownership, as is the case with Gotham-based Wellspring, they signal a company with an aggressive growth agenda.

Since being acquired in February by Las Vegas-based investment group American Vantage Media, Wellspring also has appointed new head of distribution, Ryan Werner. The former Palm Pictures executive will work closely with acquisitions chief Marie Therese Guirgis as the company transitions from its roots in foreign-language niche releases of 5-10 prints into the broader specialty arena.

A number of key upcoming releases will launch on 15-30 prints, with the scope to go considerably higher depending on audience traction.

These include French erotic drama “Nathalie,” with Gerard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Beart; Quebecois comedy “Seducing Doctor Lewis,” a Sundance audience prize winner; and Cannes Directors Fortnight selection “Tarnation,” which Wellspring boarded as co-producer to finance rights clearance and further post-production, including a blowup from HD video to 35mm.

“The new structure enables us to put all of the company’s resources toward a deal like ‘Tarnation,’ from the co-production department to the worldwide sales division to theatrical marketing and distribution to video/DVD release,” says Wellspring head of corporate communications and marketing Julia Panely-Pacetti.

Up to now, Wellspring’s major breakout hit was Alexander Sokurov’s experimental time-traveling tour-de-force, “Russian Ark,” which grossed an impressive $3 million. Company brass sees “Tarnation” as a similarly groundbreaking work it hopes will break even wider.

“That film really represents the kind of statement we want to make about where we are as a company and where we’re headed,” says Wellspring president/CEO Al Cattabiani. “The new owners have put rocket fuel in our tank, giving us the tools to step up and build on our auteur-driven library with films of bigger magnitude and scope.”

In addition to an $8 million cash infusion over the next four years, the American Vantage buyout brings entertainment company Hypnotic Media into the Wellspring fold. That outfit’s library of short films, together with Wellspring’s 1,000-title catalog, provides the company with a solid filmmaker base upon which to expand.

“In terms of international filmmakers and producers, there’s a very strong legacy of people the company has worked with,” Werner says.

“We’re definitely a filmmaker-focused company, and one of the advantages in that is being able to get involved early as those filmmakers move up to bigger projects,” Guirgis adds.

Wellspring will bump up from six theatrical releases in 2003 to approximately 10 this year. But where possible, the company will angle for more wide-ranging deals such as the “Tarnation” buy. Guirgis and Werner acknowledge Wellspring has a long way to grow, but point to Sony Pictures Classics as the kind of company they wish to emulate.

“We’re not there yet, but definitely in terms of their taste and the breadth of their release slate, I think that’s our model,” says Guirgis.

“We also really respect the way they release and market their movies without overspending,” Werner offers.

The core business of Wellspring has always been its home entertainment arm, which last year grossed $13 million with 70 releases. Titles include everything from Godard’s “Breathless” and classics by Truffaut, Rohmer and Fassbinder to the Margaret Cho concert films “Im the One That I want” and “Notorious C.H.O.” Approximately 80 new titles will be released this year, with projected revenues of $20 million as the company expands on its foreign film base as well as English-language indies, documentary, performing arts and wellness programming.

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