Toronto 2012: 'The Physician' Attracts Market Buzz

1:59 PM PST 09/10/2012 by Scott Roxborough
Ben Kingsley

The period drama starring Ben Kingsley and Stellan Skarsgard has been nearly 25 years in the making.

TORONTO -- The usual suspects -- Harvey Weinstein, FilmNation, CBS Films -- took the time to check out the trailer of The Physician at a private buyers screening in Toronto this week. The period epic starring Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgard, Oliver Martinez and up-and-coming British actor Tom Payne still is shooting and won't be finished until late next year. But a quiet buzz is building around the production.

Beta Cinema, a co-producer and the world sales agent for the film, presold The Physician to multiple territories in Cannes including Spain, Poland and Latin America. Universal will release it in Germany, where the film is set up as a holiday tentpole for the territory. Beta says it expects to close several big territories soon, either here in Toronto or at the AFM. Even with no U.S. deal yet on the table, The Physician already has the makings of specialty breakout title.

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This is all the more surprising since, for a quarter of a century, The Physician seemed cursed. Noah Gordon's 1987 novel about a medieval doctor and his journey to the Middle East was a global best-seller -- particularly in Germany, where it has became one of the most-read novels of all time. And when the book hit the best-seller charts, there was a scramble for the adaptation rights.

"As soon as I read it -- this is 25 years ago -- I tried to get the rights, but it was too late," said Wolf Bauer of Berlin-based production group UFA Cinema. "Someone got there first."

Bauer eventually got the rights, but only after The Physician had gone through several other companies, multiple scripts and an army of directors, producers and potential financiers. By the time the rights came up again, Gordon had been burnt so many times he was loath to trust his book to anyone. It was only after Bauer and UFA Cinema's Nico Hofmann made four separate visits to Gordon's home in Boston that the writer agreed to give them a chance. UFA cobbled together the film's $35 million budget entirely from German sources -- no mean feat -- with production partners ARD/Degeto, which picked up German TV rights, and Beta Cinema, which put up a major minimum guarantee in exchange for world sales rights.

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Even then the road to production was bumpy. A planned shoot in Morocco was put on hold during the Arab Spring uprising and assigned director Roland Suso Richter (The I Inside) jumped ship to another project. UFA replaced him with Philipp Stolzl, a German director who has earned a solid reputation on the art house circuit with North Face (2008) and Young Goethe in Love (2010) -- period films with a modern visual aesthetic.

"With shows like Game of Thrones or The Tudors, audiences now have a different expectation for period films," Hofmann told The Hollywood Reporter. "Our idea was not to give the same old European historical movie but with Philipp to do something new -- more exciting, more cinematic and visually a very modern approach."

It's too early to say whether that approach will pay off. U.S. distributors likely will hold off until they see the finished film, probably in late 2013. But after 25 years of setbacks, disappointments and delays, the prospects for The Physician are, finally, looking bright.

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