European productions have ear for English

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BERLIN -- Walking around the European Film Market you hear just about as many accents as there are sellers. But step inside the screening rooms and it's hard to mistake a new lingua franca emerging from the foreign films on display: English.

Whether it's double Oscar nominee "The Last Station," produced by Berlin's Egoli Tossell Film; "Brighton Rock," StudioCanal's adaptation of the Graham Greene novel starring Helen Mirren and Sam Riley; or Joel Schumacher's "Twelve," co-produced by Gaumont, the trend is clear. European production companies from Madrid to Munich are moving into English-language features in a big way.

Some of the hottest new projects at the EFM this year are English-language features financed out of Europe.

Take "Ivanhoe," a new big-screen adaptation of Walter Scott's classic medieval tale that Egoli Tossell and Spain's Morena Films are producing. The Euro shingled picked up the project, which has Iain Softley attached to direct, from James Jacks, who will also write and produce. That a U.S. producer of Jacks' stature – he was responsible for "The Mummy" franchise -- had to come to Europe to get "Ivanhoe" made, speaks volumes.

"Equity financing has dried up for independent productions in the U.S.," said Mark Horowitz, president of H2O Motion Pictures World Sales. "Which is why you see this trend toward Europe, where you have other possibilities, especially with soft money."

H20 has tapped that European soft money though a production and services agreement it has with Cologne-based studios MMC. H20 is looking to shoot Samuel L. Jackson starrer "Running Wild" and Alex Winter's "The Gate" at the German studio and secure financing from regional subsidy board Filmstifftung NRW.

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Soft money played a big role in the greenlighting of "2 Days in New York," Julie Delpy's follow-up to her first directing effort, "2 Days in Paris." France's Rezo Films and Germany's Senator Film have teamed on the English-language sequel, which Delpy will also produce and star in. Senator is producing via its new English-language shingle Senator Film Koln Production.

"We are operating on a more even playing field now," said Senator Koln head Ulf Isreal. "It's not as if we are saying to American companies -- 'come over here and get easy financing.' We are instead taking control of the development and production of any English-language film we do."

StudioCanal has perhaps been most active in the English-language sphere, beefing up its local productions, particularly in the U.K., with recent titles like "Attack the Block," financed with Channel 4, and "Brighton Rock," co-financed with the BBC.

"This is basically the direction we're taking," StudioCanal Harold Van Lier said of production in the language of Shakespeare, adding: "We're moving our lineup to much more English-speaking films and benefiting from the fact that we're a major distributor in three European territories."

StudioCanal plans to produce three or four English-language titles a year out of it's U.K.-based Optimum, in addition to its 10-12 local titles in France. The company also boasts a German distribution outlet in Kinowelt.

"Our ambition is to operate as a European studio that can bring to the international marketplace films that do not need the co-financing of a U.S. partner, which is difficult to find these days," Van Lier said.

Even more difficult to find can be a U.S. distributor. Despite being easier to finance now, European-produced English-language features have the same problem getting onto screens in the U.S as domestic indies.

"That's the real issue and a real challenge for us," Jens Meurer of Egoli Tossell said. "Not just getting these films made but getting them into the cinemas."

"It's the bottleneck that everyone has to go through," said Robert Kulzer, head of the L.A. office of Germany's Constantin Film. "Distribution is the biggest hurdle."

But despite the obstacles, the move toward more English-language production in Europe is being welcomed Stateside. As the studios produce fewer films and with the indies still struggling, U.S. agencies are excited about the prospect of a rise of Anglo productions.

The agencies are coming to Europe with more serious agendas than they have in the past. On the flip side, European execs are making more trips to America. Both want to build relationships.

"There will be an uptick in these international productions," one top agent said. "Whatever system we have here, we'll see the rise of an equivalent in other parts of the world. There is no reason why they can't compete with us."

Rebecca Leffler in Paris and Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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