Fox’s Panitch puts accent on local films

Studio scores with pics in India, China

A secret staircase leading outside from Darryl Zanuck’s former conference room isn’t the only unique thing about Sanford Panitch’s cream-colored, first-floor office in Bldg. 88 on the Fox lot.

The international newspapers fanned out on the carpet next to his chair, along with his Russian and Chinese cell phones, seem more suited to a diplomat’s den. Not very many people in Hollywood read the Jakarta Post.

Nearly two years into his gig as president of Fox International Prods., Panitch, 42, has amassed an array of tools in helping the studio establish a production foothold in key foreign territories.

He’s just as happy showing off those tools as he is the legendary staircase, whose purpose is the focus of endless speculation.

Aided by Fox’s practiced international distribution arm, Panitch’s unit has been forging foreign partnerships in territories that were once far off Hollywood’s radar.

He struck a deal for Fox’s first Chinese co-production, “Hot Summer Days,” which in recent weeks has become the most successful Hollywood local-language production of all time at the Chinese B.O.

Also in recent weeks, Fox finally got into the Indian market in a sizable form with its acquisition of local-language production “My Name Is Khan,” from Indian multihyphenate Karan Johar. Pic also has done well in the U.S. and several other territories.

Other highlights: “The Admiral,” the second-highest grossing Russian film of all time; Brazilian romantic comedy “If I Were You 2,” now being remade in Hindi; and Spain’s top comedy of 2009, “Spanish Movie.”

In Germany, Fox Intl. Prods. will team with Christoph Waltz on the romantic comedy “Auf und Davon,” which will mark the helming debut of the Oscar-winning thesp.

Panitch, whose weekly reading list also includes the Bollywood trades, started his Hollywood career immersed in production with some of the biz’s significant players.

His first job in Hollywood after graduating from Tulane U in New Orleans was working for James Cameron at Lightstorm Entertainment on “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Next, he linked up with Arnold Kopelson, working on films including “The Fugitive,” “Seven” and “Falling Down.”

He then joined the production ranks at Fox, where he was the junior exec on Cameron’s “Titanic.” (“It was a nice bonus that I knew him,” Panitch recalls.) From there, he jumped to Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, Fox’s prolific production partner.

Panitch became head of filmed entertainment of Regency, and, along the way, began learning about the foreign sales biz. On movies it fully finances, Regency sells off foreign territories.

The opening of Regency’s “Jumper” was a catalyst for Panitch’s change in direction from Hollywood to international production.

“The weekend the movie opened, I remember getting an email from Fox Korea, where the film was one of the highest openings ever. But we were still No. 2 for the weekend. I thought, ‘How is that possible?’ Sure enough, a local Korean film, ‘The Chaser,’ was No. 1,” Panitch said.

It was around that time that Panitch began huddling with Fox toppers Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman about launching Fox Intl. Prods.

The studio knew it was late to the table; Disney, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. were already established players. But Fox Intl. Prods got the greenlight and Panitch took the job.

One of his first deals: He signed with “Chaser” director Hong-jin Na to direct Korean local-language production “The Yellow Sea.”

Panitch constantly watches videos of foreign movies, and often touches base with Fox’s network of foreign offices (there are 28 in all). He’s primarily focused on territories where local films dominate, such as India, Japan, France, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Italy and the U.K. He’s particularly focused on Italy these days. “I’m on the road a lot. I’m home from Hong Kong on Thursday, and leave for Russia on Sunday. I was in Japan every six weeks for a year. I’ve gotten these terrific development people,” Panitch says.

His development team serve the same function as creative execs at a studio. They scout out talent, send him scripts and videotapes of local fare. Once a project is underway, each is the go-to person.

Not even a recent broken ankle slowed him down.

Panitch doesn’t speak any foreign languages himself, so he relies on translators to get the nuances right.

“When you are doing business in these places, it’s more important that you communicate precisely, vs. being only three-fourths good at the language,” Panitch says.

The margins on local-language productions are significant.

“My Name Is Khan” cost just $2 million to produce, and has grossed north of $20 million in China. Panitch first noticed this strong cost-to-grosses ratio at New Regency, when the company produced Japanese/American remake “Shutter” for $5 million and the pic went on to gross more $48 million worldwide.

Panitch believes conventions and appetites are changing in many territories, including in China and India.

“What’s happening in China is that you are seeing these new genres emerging. It’s the same thing in India. The idea of doing a non-singing, non-dancing movie would have been unthinkable. ‘Khan’ was the first movie to have done that,” Panitch says.

Thought the exec began his career working on Hollywood blockbusters, he wasn’t a novice traveler. He grew up in Los Angeles, where his mom was a teacher, and his dad, a business manager. They spent summers in different European cities. Today, one of his sisters lives in Paris, teaching English.

For now, though, he’s got his family topped in accrual of frequent flyer miles.