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King, Schlessel, Berney Talk FilmDistrict, Plan to Release Depp’s Rum Diary, London Boulevard

King, Schlessel, Berney Talk FilmDistrict, Plan to Release Depp's Rum Diary, London Boulevard

When a market contracts, it offers opportunities to fill the void. As expected, having imported Sony heavyweight Peter Schlessel as president, producer Graham King of GK Films, backed by his financing partner Tim Headington, is pushing forward to fill the current distribution gap with FilmDistrict.

King has experienced the vagaries of production and distribution for 20 years, and is tired of being at the mercy of other forces with such films as the long-shelved R-rated Hunter S. Thompson flick The Rum Diary, starring frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, which King hopes will go out through FilmDistrict next fall. UPDATE: An earlier release, possibly among the first to go out next March or April, will likely be crime drama London Boulevard, starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley and written and directed by William Monahan, which FilmDistrict will look at in the next few days. 

King will send his bigger-budget films through his six-slot deal with Sony, which has two years left to run. But later on, he’s hoping to put all his films through FilmDistrict. “My motivation is control,” he told TOH. “I don’t want to spend three years making a movie and send it over to a distributor. I want to control my movies from production all the way to the end user. I’m not putting money at risk: with the right team, there’s success to be had. You never know what’s round the corner. We’re open for business. If I go down, I go down, and I don’t have to blame someone else for it.”

FilmDistrict–described in the press release as a “multi-faceted acquisition, distribution, production, and financing company,” and by King himself as a “studio within a studio, on the 50s UA model,” couldn’t come at a better time, as more and more filmmakers find themselves at sea with not enough funding and no release port. FilmDistrict seems well-positioned, with ex-Apparition chief Bob Berney (as expected) joining the GK team as president of theatrical distribution (reporting to FilmDistrict CEO Schlessel), to help provide that missing link between financing and distribution. By offering movies a North American safe harbor, FilmDistrict will make it easier for filmmakers to raise gap funds.

Initially, FilmDistrict plans to release four to eight commercial films a year, “aggressively,” says Berney (who felt he didn’t get enough P & A backing at Apparition), on from 1500 to 2500 screens. Each film will follow its own scenario. Some will go through Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar and Triumph labels. Sony Pictures will own ancillary rights (including home entertainment and television) to FilmDistrict films. Schlessel and Berney–who all have close ties to Sony Worldwide Acquisition Group, headed by president Steve Bersch–will consult with them and they in turn will share info with FilmDistrict. “Sony was the way to do it,” says King, who has been working with Headington and Schlessel to find the right business plan since May. “I wasn’t throwing this into the wind.”

Getting his old friend Schlessel to leave Sony after two decades was King’s first step in this process. With the success of District 9 and Area 51 behind him, Schlessel had run through various president titles, his contract was coming up, and he was feeling antsy and ready to move on, he says. “I didn’t see the next challenge there,” he says. “Graham and I had always talked about doing stuff together. It was the right time to take my entrepreneurial shot.”

FilmDistrict’s success will ride on putting together the right projects, says Schlessel. “There’s a lot out there. We can help people be creative.” Each individual movie will dictate the budget, investment, and level of print and ad commitment. And Schlessel sees fewer pictures going wide each weekend. There’s room to play.

And Berney isn’t walking away from the indies. The recent Toronto Fest was rife with films ranging over a diversity of genres that could benefit from a FilmDistrict release, he says. And there are plenty of filmmakers seeking higher budgets for accessible films. Schlessel and Berney aren’t ready to announce any films yet. They’re aiming for a spring launch. “Now we’re gearing up to build the infrastructure,” says Berney, who will stay NY-based while hiring some of his regular team from Apparition, Picturehouse, and Newmarket. “It will be a mix, some old, some new.”

King’s riding high on the success of Ben Affleck’s The Town and also produced The Tourist, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and starring Depp and Angelina Jolie, for Columbia release December 10, and Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango, starring Depp, for a Paramount opening in March 2011. King’s currently in production on Martin Scorsese’s 3-D film Hugo Cabret. Coming up is Peter Morgan’s Freddie Mercury biopic starring Sacha Baron Cohen. King is also pursuing TV; GK-TV is run by president Craig Cegielski and is currently filming the miniseries Camelot for Starz, starring Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green.

Update: GK Films had sold the US rights of London Boulevard to IFC Films.

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