It has been an exciting year for Summit Entertainment. The company - with ex-Paramount executive Rob Friedman - tapped into a $1bn financing fund via Merrill Lynch to move into US distribution and in-house producing, making it a fully vertically integrated studio with development, financing, domestic distribution, production, and foreign sales and distribution.
In 2006, the company had about 45 employees; since the April 2007 financing deal that has grown to more than 100 staff.
David Garrett, the London-based president of sales arm Summit International, is accustomed to growth after decades at the company. He got his start in the business producing documentary films, before moving into cable and satellite TV while the platforms were in their infancy. He joined the newly formed Summit Group back in 1991, and with his partners Patrick Wachsberger and Bob Hayward bought out the company's founding investors in 1993 and renamed it Summit Entertainment Group. Since then he has worked on titles ranging from American Pie, Memento, Babel and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
UK-born Garrett has always been insistent that Summit keeps a base in London while most of the company is run out of the Santa Monica headquarters.
"It's incredibly important to have a foot in both camps because obviously Los Angeles is the centre of the film universe for the creative production side of the business, but our core business has always been international sales and distribution, and production, and it's important to have a strong presence in Europe," he says. "You need that global perspective."
Back in the early 1990s, Summit focused on financing, development and sales. "The core business was those relationships with high-profile producers like Constantin and Mandalay," Garrett says. "We started putting some of our money into films as well, that was financed out of our own pockets. We grew the business pretty successfully over those years to where we are now."
While Summit's US business is obviously on the rise, that does not mean other markets are being neglected, Garrett emphasises. "The real cornerstone of our business has always been our expertise in the international arena. Obviously now that we've set up this domestic operation, we have the funding to fully finance our own productions, but we still need a keen eye to make sure we do films that also work in the international market."
The international market is important not just in theory, but for the bottom line as well. "We're a bit like New Line in that, if we're fully financing the film, we allocate a certain amount towards the domestic rights and then we mitigate the risk by selling off the international rights. It's a very important plank in our business plan that we still have films that are viable in the international market."
The new Summit aims to handle 10 to 12 films annually, both in-house productions (about two-thirds) and third-party productions (about a third) taken on for sales. Likewise, Summit's new US distribution arm will release Summit productions but also acquire third-party films for US distribution only. Summit will concentrate on $15m-$45m productions although there will inevitably be projects above and below that range.
The company has signed a number of output deals for its own productions, with SND in France, TeleMunchen in Germany, Entertainment One/Contender Entertainment in Canada and the UK, and Nordisk in Scandinavia. No others are imminent.
Garrett is optimistic those output deals will not eat into too much of the international sales arm. "We're very keen to keep relationships with distributors as well," he says. "We still want one or two films at each of the major markets that aren't Summit productions that we therefore offer to the market at large. It's a level playing field for the other titles."
There are certainly plenty of projects to discuss, as Summit has a full line-up of productions and projects to sell.
Completed films in the sales line-up include Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh's Berlinale competitor about a woman's ups and downs in London. That film has already been pre-sold to Momentum for the UK but the US and most other European territories are still available. Another finished title is The Great Buck Howard, which premiered in Sundance and stars John Malkovich.
Also screening in the Berlin market are The Tourist starring Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams (opening in the US on April 25 through Fox), dance sequel Step Up 2 The Streets (which Disney will release on February 14 in the US), and teen underground fighting story Never Back Down (formerly titled Get Some). The latter will be released on March 14 through Summit, which is the company's first true test as a US distributor of its own productions (its earlier theatrical releases are 2007's thriller P2 and pick-up Penelope starring Christina Ricci).
In post-production is Push (with Icon), directed by Paul McGuigan and starring Djimon Hounsou; raunchy teen comedy Sex Drive; Germany's likely next top export (via Constantin) The Baader-Meinhof Complex starring Moritz Bleibtreu, Bruno Ganz and Martina Gedeck; Gil Kenan's fantasy City Of Ember (with Walden) starring Bill Murray and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan; and another Walden family film Nim's Island starring Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler.
Other films on the slate in production now include John Woo's epic Red Cliff and Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight, based on the bestseller by Stephenie Meyer which could turn into a lucrative franchise, about a girl in love with a vampire.
Just announced is Alex Proyas' Knowing, a $70m disaster film to star Nicolas Cage that will shoot in Australia. Also in pre-production is Will (working title) with Walden about a battle of the bands; and Roman Polanski's adaptation of Robert Harris' The Ghost (the pair are working on the script now).
Mix and match
Garrett enjoys the mix of films, not just the big-budget titles that grab headlines. "Some people probably view us as just having bigger-budget films, but we did Perfume and Babel. We can handle Resident Evil: Extinction and also Once, which I picked up last year just before Sundance." This year's bigger US projects are serious films that have played well internationally, such as Oscar nominees Michael Clayton and In The Valley Of Elah.
Garrett says the company had a strong AFM and is looking forward to an active Berlin as well. Having films in active production now, such as Twilight, might set them apart from competitors affected by the writers' strike. "Berlin should be good for us," he says. "The market may have got tougher but if you have the right films, you'll sell them. There's always a paucity of good productions."