Brad & Angelina: A honeymoon for Regency?

Low-profile studio turns out high-profile project

Given all the tabloid space devoted to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is arguably the summer’s second most-buzzed film.

But as audiences shift their attention from “Sith” to “Smith,” folks in the film biz are not so much buzzing with are-they-or-aren’t-they speculation, but instead focusing on the players behind the scenes.

After flying slightly below the radar for several years, Arnon Milchan’s New Regency is banking on a big comeback, with its biggest annual slate (eight pics) and its highest-profile film ever.

“It is the highest budget of any movie we have made, financed and produced, anywhere,” Regency prexy David Matalon says.

“Smith” also marks its biggest screen count — 3,000 domestic locations will screen it starting June 10. The pic will unspool day-and-date in English-speaking territories and will hit most of Western Europe later this summer, after the “Star Wars” hysteria subsides.

Regency execs peg the budget for the violent actioner at $110 million, saying they fully financed the film — a genuine anomaly for an indie company.

Rivals say the budget was even higher. In an era of carefully co-financed deals among entities anxious to spread the risk, it seems a major gamble for an indie to swing for the fences with one pic.

But, given the two sexy stars and a grab-’em premise — two assassins are trying to kill each other, despite the fact that they’re married — it would seem like a safe gamble.

More important, the company has much of its downside covered, given the resources of domestic distrib Fox as well as the fact that cash-rich territories like Japan and Germany have been sold off. (Fox distributes overseas, except for the six territories that were pre-sold.)

Though the film has garnered plenty of attention, buzz doesn’t necessarily translate into critical approval or, more crucially, box office. Though the ads treat it as a sophisticated comedy-thriller, pic is more of an in-your-face, over-the-top actioner — a star-driven S&M love story.

Regency has high hopes for the pic, hoping Milchan will find his biggest box office since 1990’s “Pretty Woman” raked in $438 million worldwide.

Since Milchan formed New Regency in 1991, the company’s biggest hit has been 1999’s “Entrapment” (see chart). Two years ago, Regency chalked up its best year yet, with $327 million worldwide from four pics: “Daredevil,” “Down With Love,” “Wrong Turn” and “Runaway Jury.”

The following year, however, it dropped 52% to $172 million after “The Girl Next Door” and “First Daughter” eked out $31 million and $10 million, respectively, though “Man on Fire” ignited a $131 million worldwide gross.

Execs are confident that 2005 will mark a bounce-back.

Regency’s slate mixes tyro filmmakers with vets and popcorn pics with smaller fare; its annual output ranges from three to eight pics. As a result, the game plan seems fuzzy to outsiders. Execs say that doesn’t matter.

As Matalon states flatly, “Our policy and philosophy is to have no policy and philosophy. In other words, we only make movies that we want to make. And if they happen to be bunched together, then fine. We don’t have to produce to meet a release schedule.”

Sanford Panitch, prexy of production, doesn’t think it’s contradictory to mix big and small pics. “The business has become one where middle-priced movies have become riskier,” he says. “We’re been trying to get ahead of that by doing niche-oriented (pictures) on the lower end, or all-audience films, which come with a much bigger pricetag.”

The company is run by two men who are a study in contrasts. Though Milchan and Matalon are both Israeli-born industry vets, they have sharply differing philosophies and lifestyles.

Milchan is a slender and fit tennis player who’s a world traveler, always turning up at pleasure spots around the world.

Matalon is a chain-smoking numbers guy who tends to stay at his desk.

Milchan built up Puma and made $676 million from the June 2003 sale of a 39% controlling stake in the German athletic shoe and apparel company. (Interestingly, Puma shoes have a prominent product-placement deal not in “Smith” but in another summer actioner, DreamWorks’ “The Island.”)

Regency was formed in 1991. Milchan maintains a 54% stake; the rest is divided between Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine (26%) and Fox (20%).

Regency was ensconced at Warner Bros. until 1997; it moved to Fox the following year. It’s based on the Fox lot and the majority of its releases go through the studio. (Warner Bros. is releasing Regency’s Darren Aronofsky-helmed “The Fountain” later this year.)

Regency’s upcoming slate includes “The Sentinel,” a Michael Douglas-Kiefer Sutherland thriller from sophomore film helmer Clark Johnson (“SWAT”). It’s also co-financing Fox Searchlight drama “Bee Season,” the second studio pic from “The Deep End” helmers Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

Meanwhile, Regency has stayed the course on “Stay,” a $1.8 million spec sale that went from being a Michael Bay to a David Fincher to a Marc Forster pic over the last few years. The pic is now in the can; Regency is fiddling with its ending but a release is planned for this fall, exactly three years after it bought the David Benioff script in a bidding frenzy.

Regency also has a first-look deal with Luke Greenfield, who directed “Girl Next Door.”

“In a town where everybody gets pigeonholed,” says Greenfield producing partner Matthew Seigel, “they see Luke as he aspires to be, not as he’s been.”

Some studio vets argue their “interference” in a project — long periods of development, plenty of second-guessing — is beneficial to filmmakers, particularly tyros. But that’s not Regency’s style.

With “Smith,” the company placed a big bet on director Doug Liman, who was just coming off a highly publicized, contentious shoot on Universal’s “The Bourne Identity.”

Liman burst into filmmaking in 1996 with “Swingers,” which wound up grossing 20 times its $250,000 budget. Since then, he has moved into tentpole territory with “Bourne,” with a shooting experience that he described as “a fucking nightmare” to the Wall Street Journal.

Liman tells Variety, “I am not afraid to speak my mind when I think people aren’t acting properly, but I had an amazingly positive experience with Regency. They’re a small company that can write a huge check. They’re operating in a world that’s normally reserved for big studios, but they bring an intimacy to the process that (major studios) just can’t match.”

Like others who’ve worked with the company, he says Regency is disciplined but not inflexible and, refreshingly, its thinking isn’t opaque.

“Not only do you get to sit face-to-face with the decisionmakers,” says Liman, somewhat incredulous, “they’ll even explain to you how they’re making their decisions.”

Liman points to a tricky action scene in which Pitt is chasing Jolie through a suburban neighborhood. He wanted to make it bigger and louder — and Regency listened to him.

“This whole movie is a domestic spat blown out exponentially,” he says. “These things need to be huge and over-the-top to get that point across; it needed to be big enough that you got it was metaphor and style. Regency never lost sight of what we were trying to do.”

Tyro filmmakers agree that they get the same treatment.

Screenwriters Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (“Wimbledon”) are making their helming debut on kiddie love story “Little Manhattan.”

“We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Flackett. Levin added, “It never did.”

“Smith” comes at a pivotal moment for Regency.

On one hand, the project highlights the best qualities of independent studios: Tenacity, resourcefulness and hiring of edgy filmmakers.

But the film also reflects the knotty problems associated with enormous studio pictures, including hefty budgets and pricey gross players.

The film had a difficult gestation and a complicated shooting schedule. The missus role initially was to have been played by Nicole Kidman, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts; so, too, with Catherine Zeta-Jones. Then Pitt ankled, returning only after Jolie signed on when her role in “Alexander” wrapped earlier than expected.

But the shooting was delayed when Pitt’s previous commitment to “Ocean’s Twelve” meant “Smith” had to shut down and reconvene months later.

In addition, the split of Pitt and Jennifer Aniston fueled rumors that the “Smith” co-stars were an item; suddenly, the film publicity took on a life of its own.

Another 2005 release had similar birthing pains.

Regency had a three-year slog to get Aronofsky’s time-travel romance “The Fountain” made. First it was a $75 million pic with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; then it abruptly shut down and was reimagined as a $35 million pic with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.

(The company also brought John Grisham’s novel “Runaway Jury” to the screen in 2003 after eight years.)

Milchan’s performance in the film business has ebbed and flowed, but the film side is buttressed by Regency’s robust TV biz.

Regency’s TV operation — a joint venture with News Corp.’s Fox TV Studios headed by prexy Robin Schwartz — will essentially have its own night of programming this fall. Fox Broadcasting is scheduling three shows from the studio on a single evening.

In addition to returning comedies “Malcom in the Middle” and “Bernie Mac” (a co-prod with 20th Century Fox TV), Fox will fill its Friday night with the Regency-produced crime drama “The Gate,” from “CSI” exec producer Josh Berman. (Admittedly, Friday is one of the toughest and least-watched nights of the week.)

And as if that weren’t enough, the WB has renewed Regency’s Fran Drescher laffer “Living with Fran” for a second season. It is scheduled on Friday, natch.

Regency is also getting into cable production with “Thief,” the Andre Braugher drama it’s co-producing for FX.