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New equity players

Cannes Film Festival 2012 - The Money

DIGNITY FILM FINANCE

Dignity Film Finance is the new banner of finance, marketing and distribution specialist Maggie Montieth.

Montieth is a Los Angeles-based Scot who worked for two decades in international distribution for the likes of Columbia Tristar and Lucasfilm, before parlaying that expertise into a career raising finances for indie production. She launched Magnet Media Group with Jeanette Buerling in 2008, exec producing pics such as “13,” “The Experiment” and “Dark Tide.”

Dignity aims to fully finance eight to 10 films a year in the $6 million-$15 million budget range by providing a mixture of equity, gap and cashflow funding, as well as accessing tax breaks and other soft money. Montieth has raised an equity fund from private investors all around the world, with the capacity to invest $10 million-$20 million a year. Dignity also has an ongoing relationship with debt financier Mediabiz Capital of Montreal, owned and run by Karine Martin.

Her focus is on comedy and family projects, with potential for spinoff consumer products in fashion, merchandise, mobile apps, games and music.

Montieth says her outfit is committed to finding a way to market films that engage the consumer, with a range of methodologies that don’t cost the earth. “We will take a serious role with publicity and marketing during production. Part of my responsibility as an equity provider is to find a way to engage audiences,” she adds.

Dignity’s first project is “Theater of Dreams,” the story of a young boy who dreams of playing soccer for Manchester United, with the legendary coach Matt Busby played by Brian Cox

SOLAR PICTURES

New financing and production outfit Solar Pictures, based in Los Angeles, brings together several of the most experienced players in the indie business.

Jared Underwood, who headed Comerica’s film lending operation for the past 18 years, joined with the billionaire Romanian industrialist and film producer Bobby Paunescu to launch the company in March.

Kearie Peak, who spent the past nine years as Dean Devlin’s partner in Electric Entertainment, and Christopher Taylor, formerly head of acquisitions and business affairs at Largo Entertainment, are co-CEOs.

Amy Beecroft also joined from her previous role as senior VP of international sales at FilmNation to become Solar’s head of distribution.

The venture is backed by Edward Lawson Johnston, founder of London-based merchant bank LJ Group.

Solar aims to finance and produce four or five films a year, budgeted up to $30 million, aimed squarely at the international commercial marketplace. Peak will take charge of production, with Taylor responsible for business affairs.

Paunescu is the heir to a financial empire founded by his father. He went to film school and directed his debut movie, “Francesca,” in 2007. He also set up the production company Mandragora, which produced Romanian pic “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” In 2010 he launched a Romanian studio in partnership with Italy’s Fandango, whose first film, “Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood,” premiered at Berlin. It has another four pics in post, including “Closer to the Moon.”

PARTICIPANT MEDIA

Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media may be riding a wave of successes, but the production and financing shingle won’t be spending too much time resting as it sets its sights on expansion in the international and TV arenas.

“We don’t want to just be a U.S.-centric company,” says CEO Jim Berk. “On the international front we aspire to open up in one territory a year from 2013 and are keen to have an expanded presence on a global front.”

The outfit, launched by eBay co-founder Skoll in 2004 with the remit for making commercially viable and socially relevant pics, also made its first foreign-language film investment in February, financing Gael Garcia Bernal starrer “No,” from Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain. Pic will unspool in Directors’ Fortnight. Funny Balloons is handling international while Participant Media is shopping U.S.

Berk says that Participant is already developing an international development team and is the process of actively looking for partners in territories across the globe to set up joint ventures for the production and finance of local films in local markets.

“We’re looking for partners that have local and regional credibility,” says Berk. “The worst thing you can do as an American company is walk right in and expect you can do it by yourself. Our interest is to partner with media companies that have expertise in those areas.

“Partners bring something into the table — we’re not going into a foreign market without a local partner because that makes no sense at all.”

Berk says the company, which already formed a five-year $250 million joint venture fund with Image Nation Abu Dhabi back in 2008, has particular interest in expanding to Europe, India, China and Latin America.

“We’re always looking for entertainment that inspires and is about some kind of social issue,” Berk says. “So first and foremost, we’re looking for good stories that have a regional element and are not necessarily global. We want to look at product that is relevant in specific territories and if it plays beyond that, even better.”

The boffo B.O. and kudos love garnered by “The Help,” which it backed with DreamWorks (after many studios passed on the project), helped raise Participant’s profile. Pic took $206.7 million at the worldwide box office and spent four weeks at the No. 1 slot in the U.S. before being knocked off by another Participant pic, “Contagion,” which has taken $135.5 million to date. It now has “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in theaters. Pic has grossed some $75 million worldwide so far.

The company, which was one of Summit Entertainment’s investors, cashed out on the Lionsgate/Summit deal for an undisclosed sum back in January.

Participant, after hiring former IFC and Sundance topper Evan Shapiro to lead its TV arm, bought an equity stake in Cineflix Media, repping its first major push into television.

Berk indicates that the company plans to double in size over the next year is it moves more heavily into the TV world.

“We aspire to be a global media company operating across all platforms and we want to do it through partners and international fare,” he says. “And Jeff’s (Skoll) vision was to set out to make the world a better place. So let’s swing for the fences.”

SWAROVSKI ENTERTAINMENT

Carlo Carlei’s “Romeo and Juliet,” adapted by Julian Fellowes from Shakespeare’s iconic teen tragedy, is the first movie to be backed by Swarovski Entertainment, the new film division of the Austrian crystal company.

“Having worked with creative talents in costume and stage design ever since the early days of Hollywood, Swarovski’s move into production is a natural evolution,” says Nadja Swarovski, the brand’s head of communications and an executive board member, who also chairs the movie arm.

Swarovski Entertainment invested a substantial slice of the $15 million budget for “Romeo and Juliet,” produced by Ileen Maisel of Amber Entertainment U.K. Camela Galano’s Los Angeles-based Speranza13 Media is handling sales, with Entertainment Film Distributors picking up U.K. rights.

“We were looking around for a film to invest in, and Julian Fellowes called me,” recalls Swarovski. “I know him, I appreciate his work and I appreciate his values. So that was the starting point. These were people we had faith in. My first reaction to their idea of making another ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was, why? They said, every generation needs its own version of this story.”

Fellowes and Maisel, a former New Line and Paramount exec based in London, had the concept of mounting Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed teenage lovers in its original time and setting during the Italian Renaissance, but with its language simplified and made accessible for today’s “Twilight” audience.

They hired Carlei to direct, and cast Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth as the young leads, with support from Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti and Lesley Manville. Shooting took place in Italy earlier this year.

She says that while Swarovski Entertainment hopes to recoup its equity investment the film, the company has a larger motivation in getting involved in film financing. “I believe that backing creativity has an impact that goes beyond the commercial return. That’s my business philosophy.”

She emphasizes the company’s support of creativity, starting with the writer and the producer and going on to the costume designer. “Our vision is to discover amazing talent, just as in the fashion business we do a lot of work to discover young and emerging designers,” she adds.

The brand has long been involved with costume and set designers in film and ballet, most recently with the new Broadway production of “Evita,” which uses 160,000 Swarovski crystals for Eva Peron’s ballgown alone.

The importance of the frocks in “Romeo and Juliet” is highlighted by the fact that triple-Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero is credited as a co-producer.

Swarovski is planning to work Canonero to develop merchandizing for the film, based on her jewelry designs.

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