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How Sanford Panitch’s Move Shakes Up the International Production Scene (Analysis)

Sanford Panitch’s move from Fox to Sony is a huge loss for Fox, with the potential to change both studios’ approaches to the international film production business.

Panitch was president and founder of Fox Intl. Prods., a unit formed some six years ago at the depth of the global financial crisis, and at a time when other studios were reining in their specialty divisions.

FIP’s mandate, as defined by Panitch and his mentor Jim Gianopulos, was to get into the trenches and become deeply embedded in the local production industries around the world.

As such, Panitch (and FIP) represented the friendly face of Hollywood in territories where American studio product had little impact (such as India) or where it was treated with suspicion and trepidation (such as France and China).

That required FIP to cultivate meaningful relationships at levels normally considered too small for the Hollywood majors’ mainstream production operations. FIP has relations with dozens of independent producers in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and with festivals and project markets. And Panitch will take with him enviable talent and international production relationships.

Unlike a Hollywood classics division that might typically track foreign-language titles and acquire them as finished product, Panitch’s FIP is a multi-territory production operation. It has had to teach the craft of script development to many of its overseas partners, and it has had to learn the nuances of co-production and local film finance a dozen times over in each of the 12 territories it has operated in to date.

Nevertheless, that has put the company on the ground as a producer in the cinema industry’s key growth markets — China, Russia, Mexico, Russia, Brazil and Korea.

Successes have included Gregory Levasseur’s horror film “The Pyramid,” Korean thriller “The Yellow Sea” and its biggest budget effort, Indian production “My Name Is Khan,” funded in large measure with cash from Abu Dhabi.

Under Panitch, FIP has also reshaped the corporate environment around it. In India, FIP was instrumental behind the scenes in the merger between 20th Century Fox and Star Television to create Fox Star Studios. FSS now has a large mixed slate of Hollywood and local Indian movies, is producing in Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam languages, and appears to be a robust standalone unit.

In late 2013, FSS signed a multi-year deal with U.S.-backed Asian investor Ivanhoe Pictures, giving FIP $130 million of production finance, a commitment similar to the passive co-financing deals that many of the studios enjoy for their mainstream production pipelines, but unheard of for such a diverse, indie-flavored and multi-lingual slate.

The most fundamentally different approach pioneered by Panitch and Gianopulos with FIP has been the unit’s ambition of making movies that that can recoup in their local markets alone. That is subtly different from earlier internationalization strategies adopted by Hollywood, where the aim was to back crossover fare or at least hope that movies could work in other territories. And it is different than the international production outputs of Disney and Universal, which have expanded and contracted.

Sony was another such studio that also tried Fox’s approach. In 1998 it opened Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, a Chinese-focused unit based in Hong Kong, only to shutter it ten years later.

Panitch may now find fertile ground at Sony, where its revived Chinese production operation – this time based in Beijing – has half a dozen major projects in different stages of development and production.

The understanding that today’s international markets are big enough to sustain vibrant local industries, and produce hits that do not even open theatrically in North America, is a legacy that Panitch will take with him to Culver City.

As president of international film and television, Panitch will report directly to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, and sit alongside newly appointed motion picture group chairman Tom Rothman and Doug Belgrad, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group.

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