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Sanford Panitch

Fox International Productions president Sanford Panitch tells Jeremy Kay about lessons learned from the company’s 40 films in three years, and its plans for English-language European co-productions.

Like many in the film business, Sanford Panitch has taken note of French smash Intouchables. It is mid-April when we catch up in the Los Angeles offices of the Fox International Productions (FIP) president, and the Gallic breakout has registered around $300m from select European territories. Panitch’s thriving division has not shared in the success of this particular local-language hit, but his admiration says it all.

“Companies are choosing to be local in certain parts of the world, which speaks to the growth of this market,” he says, shifting in his seat with typical energy. “You take the most exciting film-makers and see where they are coming from, not only for the potential for remakes but for the ability to tell new stories. Look at Intouchables — it’s not only English-language movies that travel.”

Exploring global film culture

Since FIP launched in 2008, the company has scored palpable hits such as South Korean smash The Yellow Sea, Astral City: A Spiritual Journey (Nosso Lar) in Brazil and What A Man in Germany. Panitch has embraced an exhausting travel regime that has seen him hop on a plane to India at least six times a year and visit other regions with daunting regularity.

The process has allowed Panitch and his team to observe global film-making culture, unearth local talent and forge lucrative relationships.

‘We’ve acquired a handful of projects we are considering making as English-language European co-productions’

Sanford Panitch

Take India. The sub-continent, he says, is “changing at such a pace that you cannot define rules as to how things work”. The region houses several hundred languages and local content accounts for approximately 90% of total box office. Indian box office in 2011 reached $1.4bn according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s annual spring report.

“Last year there were five films that grossed more than $20m and the year before, there were three. The big adaptation for Hollywood is the way stories are told… they call it a ‘masala film’, which means a film that offers the full experience — you have love, song, crying; you have sweet taste and a sour taste. That in itself is already quite different from Western stories, which are all about consistent tone, single genre. That’s not how Indian movies are made.”

After Fox worked on My Name Is Khan, Panitch learned Tamil films, known as ‘Kollywood’, grossed $750m last year. “Bollywood’s only part of the story. The other regional languages produce great films. This year we released our first Tamil-language film Anywhere, Anytime (Engeyum Eppothum), a co-production between Fox Star Studios and AR Murugadoss.”

The film achieved $3.5m at the box office and film-maker Murugadoss has become FIP’s guide of sorts to Tamil film-making. “[News Corp sibling] Star, by being the largest cable and satellite operator in India, has been able to help us so much in terms of the regional languages. Star has a Tamil channel and it was a great resource for us when we made our first Tamil film.”

Local links open up markets

That relationship model has applied elsewhere. The Yellow Sea grossed $15.6m in South Korea and FIP has not only signed up director Na Hong-jin for another film but also has begun to assemble a development slate in the territory. When Chinese co-production Hot Summer Days broke out at the box office, FIP was there to make Tony Chan and Wing Shya’s follow-up Love In Space, which took around $10m.

The collaboration with German multi-hyphenate Matthias Schweighöfer created the $17.6m hit What A Man in 2011, while the $13m smash You Are The Apple Of My Eye, which FIP did not produce, contributed to a 20% increase in local-language box office in Taiwan in 2011 and earned $25m in territories where Fox distributed. Astral City grossed $20.9m in Brazil and Federal Bank Heist (Assalto Ao Banco Central) took $11.8m. Meanwhile August. Eighth has amassed $9.9m in Russia.

“Between acquisitions, distributions and co-productions, we have made more than 40 films in three years in 11 countries,” Panitch says. He declares himself pleased with FIP’s early progress, noting the performance of the nascent arthouse label Fox World Cinema, which provides a US DVD and digital platform for fans of international or international-flavoured fare such as Miss Bala and the re-release of Slumdog Millionaire, and the in-house sales unit led by Shebnem Askin-Schreger.
Askin-Schreger is at Cannes touting FIP’s Spanish-language Argentinian thriller Everybody Has A Plan, starring Viggo Mortensen, which is in post.

There have been challenges. “As markets expand there’s a frothiness that happens in terms of talent asks and appetite, so it’s balancing a bit of the growth potential with also being prudent about budgets and having realistic expectations at the box office,” he says. It has taken time to adapt to certain business cultures, one example being Japan, where the high cost of distribution has given rise to the consortium structure with partners sharing the risk.

When a challenge becomes a “stumble”, as Panitch calls it, he is quick to highlight the upside. So Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s adventure film Hayabusa “wasn’t a disaster but we had bigger expectations for it”. He continues: “But I don’t really look at it negatively because in adapting to the consortium process you see why they invented that system, so we got to share the benefits of being protected by many partners.”

FIP strives to secure remake rights to its films and the word on the street is that Panitch has been exploring English-language European co-productions, to exploit ownership of potentially lucrative properties. When pressed, he reveals FIP is building a slate and wants to structure these remakes as European co-productions that accrue tax breaks and qualify for subsidies. The partners will be ventures like FIP Germany, FIP Russia “or wherever we set up local entities”. It seems the trick here is to reverse-engineer a local hit into a package that is palatable to audiences more familiar with the Hollywood format.

“International production doesn’t only mean non-English,” Panitch says. “On the production side for FIP, it’s a natural and new initiative to utilise the full machine of worldwide distribution. I view English-language European productions as an additional weapon in the arsenal. The European co-production entities we created for local films are well suited for overseeing films that would shoot in those territories — in any language. We’ve been acquiring a handful of projects, primarily in the action or thriller space that we are considering making as English-language European co-productions this autumn.”

Upcoming titles include Federal Bank Heist, which as in the case of the Portuguese-language original will use real events as its source. FIP is also preparing a remake of The Yellow Sea. “One of its great merits is the film has so many qualities that would lend itself to something that could work in a Hollywood format.” A third project may be the first to go in the autumn, though Panitch prefers to keep mum for now.

SANFORD PANITCH

  • Began his career in 1989 working at Pacific Western Productions on films including The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Moved on to run Arnold Kopelson Productions from 1993-96.
  • Named EVP at 20th Century Fox in 1997 and served as the executive on Titanic. In 1999 he was also named president of production at Fox-based New Regency Productions.
  • Has overseen more than 75 feature films including The Fugitive, Alvin And The Chipmunks, Big Momma’s House and Mr & Mrs Smith.
  • In 2008 launched Fox International Productions.

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