Zaillian finds Mandate for auteur pics

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Writer-director Steven Zaillian and Mandate Pictures are teaming to produce modestly budgeted, character-driven films and have inked a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Under the pact, Zaillian's company, Film Rites, will produce projects he writes and/or directs as well as films from emerging writers and filmmakers. Mandate will co-finance and handle international sales for the titles covered by the pact, and Sony will handle marketing.

The move is expected to fill a void for Sony, whose specialty label Sony Pictures Classics focuses mainly on acquisitions rather than developing in-house productions. And though Sony boasts a roster of on-the-lot producers including Sam Raimi, Will Smith and Adam Sandler who feed the distribution pipeline with expensive tentpoles, the studio lacks a steady stream of small, auteur-piloted content.

However, the deal raised eyebrows because Zaillian most recently directed "All the King's Men," which was a critical and boxoffice disappointment for Sony despite its all-star cast and was released one year later than it was originally scheduled. Furthermore, Mandate is best known for such horror movies as "The Grudge" and "Boogeyman." The company, though, has begun to branch out in a more artistic direction via projects like last year's "Stranger Than Fiction" for Sony.

Columbia Pictures co-president of production Doug Belgrad said Zaillian, who won an Oscar for penning "Schindler's List," brings the right sensibility to the job of developing and producing highbrow fare. "His deep understanding of character-based storytelling makes him the perfect guy to mentor emerging writers and directors," he said. "As a producer, we expect him and the team at Mandate Pictures to encourage new voices and help young filmmakers fully realize their creative vision."

Zaillian, whose writing credits include "Gangs of New York," "Awakenings," "The Falcon and the Snowman" and the upcoming "American Gangster," also wrote and directed "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "A Civil Action."

"We're hoping this is a place where the story is the driving force and that it's an opportunity for writers and directors as eager as I am to get distinctive films made," Zaillian said. "Mandate shares this goal with me, and, having worked with the people at Sony on a number of projects, I can say they are responsive, supportive and thoughtful."

Mandate president Joe Drake lauded his new partner, Zaillian.

"Steve is an exceptional filmmaker who has a true gift for engaging audiences with his writing and directing," he said. "This collaboration opens the door to an innovative business model that aligns all our creative and financial interests, allowing us to focus on our main priority: bringing quality films to the marketplace."

Endeavor's Ari Emanuel and Chris Donnelly repped Zaillian alongside attorney Lawrence Rose. Rob McEntegart brokered the deal on behalf of Mandate.
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