Sony Pictures Entertainment's local-language activities have been consolidated under the newly minted International Motion Picture Production Department, with a new president in Deborah Schindler. Mike Goodridge spoke to Schindler and the group's godfather Gareth Wigan about new moves into Russia and India.

Gareth Wigan and Deborah Schindler have just concluded a four-month period of extensive travel, taking in Paris, Madrid, London, Cannes, Mumbai and Moscow, assessing Sony Pictures Entertainment's (SPE) local-language production activities.

Now consolidated under the International Motion Picture Production Department (Imppd), these activities have been numerous and wide-ranging over the last decade. In fact, Sony was arguably the first Hollywood major to launch an aggressive local-language production initiative under Wigan, who is vice-chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group and Ken Lemberger, who was then president of the same group but has since left the studio.

Since the first production units were established in Germany, UK, Brazil and Asia, the studio has moved into 12 territories and produced 33 films including, most memorably, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) from Asia.

Earlier this year, Schindler was brought in as president of Imppd. A movie veteran most recently in charge of Sony's East Coast production division, the New York-based Schindler began her career as an assistant to Martin Scorsese before becoming a producer on films such as Waiting To Exhale and, as Julia Roberts' partner in Red Om Productions, Maid In Manhattan and Mona Lisa Smile.

'New set of eyes'
'What we have to do every year or so is a general reassessment and we're paying particular attention to Russia and India,' explains Wigan, who first worked with Schindler at Columbia in 1987 under the David Puttnam regime. The round-the-world assessment has been a vital experience for Schindler who says she is 'seeing everything with a whole new set of eyes'.

In Russia, SPE has a one-year-old joint venture company, Monumental Pictures, in which it is teamed with German-born distributor Michael Schlicht and exhibitor Paul Heth, whose Soquel Ventures is a partner with National Amusements in fast-growing multiplex circuit Rising Star Media. Monumental has already completed two films, Yevgeny Bedarev's Awaiting A Miracle and Igor Shavlak's horror thriller Trackman which is set to open on September 7.

'There's now an awareness in that community that Monumental is making films, and producers and film-makers have started coming to us,' says Wigan.

Meanwhile Sony has completed its first Indian feature film, Beloved (Saawariya), produced through Sony Pictures Releasing India with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Devdas, Black) and a cast including Salman Khan and Rani Mukherjee. Sony is no stranger to Bollywood, having been involved in the global distribution of Lagaan in 2001 through SET Pictures, a division of Sony Entertainment Television, but this is the first film which is an in-house production.

'It was a 152-day shoot and the production values are extraordinary,' says Schindler, 'but it was all shot on stages and came in at under $10m.'

'So far we've done one film and it's a very big and important film,' adds Wigan. 'It's 100% financed and owned by Sony and, while we're planning to do three or four films a year in India, we want to get this one out first and get it right.'

Sony Pictures Releasing International (Spri) will handle distribution day-and-date with India on Beloved to the global Indian diaspora in North America, UK, Australia and other territories.

In Asia, where longtime Sony executive Barbara Robinson is still in charge of Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, the group recently signed a multi-picture production deal with Stephen Chow's outfit The Star Overseas, kicking off with Stephen Fung's Jump. Earlier in the year, Sony had picked up worldwide rights, excluding China, to Chow's latest comedy CJ7 (formerly A Hope).

In Mexico, Columbia Pictures Producciones Mexico recently wrapped its second feature, Road To Fame (Casi Divas), a comedy about a nationwide talent search directed by Issa Lopez and, like the first film Charm School (Ninas Mal, pictured above), based on an idea by Spri executive vice-president of creative advertising Ignacio Darnaude. Charm School is now the seventh highest grossing Mexican film on record.

UK union
Local production in continental Europe, mainly in Spain and France, is overseen by Iona de Macedo, excluding the UK where SPE has signed a three-year first-look deal with Matthew Vaughn and Kris Thykier's Marv Films to supply UK films.

Wigan had worked with Vaughn's previous producing outfit Ska Films on Snatch and Swept Away. 'We haven't licked the UK yet but Matthew is the kind of partner we need to get on top of it,' he says, adding that the group will only make lower budget films in the UK, leaving Columbia Pictures to back bigger budget films based on the territory.

As for Schindler, Wigan says she brings the same qualifications as he to the international production group. 'The experience we've had making films in the US is relevant and helpful, but that doesn't mean we want people to tell stories our way,' he says.

He stresses that he and Schindler are sensitive to cultural differences, while bringing to bear their experience in story structure and development. 'We all know about development hell and the endless writing and spending of money that goes on in Hollywood,' he says.

'The other side of that coin is the producer and writer overseas, who have to pay the rent, who rush a film into production. We can say, 'It's OK, let's spend more time on it if we need to.''

Conversely, Wigan says none of the film-makers who have worked with the group have used the Sony connection to piggyback into Hollywood. 'We meet a lot of people,' he says, 'and so far we have yet to meet one person who says, 'How do I get a job in Hollywood'' What they want to know is how we can help them make their movie better and get it seen more widely''