Is Summit's strategy up for it?

'Down' first test for rookie distributor's output plan

Last April, when it was announced that foreign-sales agent Summit Entertainment would evolve into a full-fledged production and distribution entity, executives said the company would aim to be a "truly modern studio built today for a changing future."

Nearly a year later, Summit is set to undergo the first real test of that model. The company on Friday will open Jeff Wadlow's "Never Back Down," both a template and litmus test for an unusual Hollywood experiment.

But can Summit succeed in a landscape that has been littered with distribution casualties?

Under international guru Patrick Wachsberger and former Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman, Summit has a goal of trying to combine studio reach with mini-major efficiency. "We want to deliver studio-quality product at a reduced cost," Friedman said in an interview, noting that films will be budgeted in the $20 million- $60 million range. "But that doesn't mean we're going to shy away from spending on marketing."

The midrange "Down" (with a budget said to be in the $20 million-$25 million range), which centers on teenagers and mixed-martial arts (think "Fight Club" meets "The O.C."), will provide a critical referendum on the Summit approach.

As the company's first original production, the movie will show how Summit could fare producing as many as eight original films per year. "Down" also aims to follow a strategy that Summit seeks with other releases: target a specific demo, often a young one, using subject matter more than stars. A second big bet, Catherine Hardwicke's teen-vampire drama "Twilight," also has few top names but looks to capture an audience familiar with the literary source material. The college-oriented comedy "Sex Drive" also is targeting younger viewers.

The PG-13 "Down" hopes to capitalize on the youth crowd by opening just as school is letting out for spring break as well as serve as a model for what execs see as studio experience combined with indie scrappiness. "(Never back down) is a good motto for us to take on," Friedman said last week at the film's premiere, standing in the corner of Goa, a modest but intricately decorated Indian-themed Hollywood nightclub.

"Down" is actually not the first Summit release. Two earlier pickups, the low-budget genre movie "P2" and orphaned fest film "Penelope" — which with $4 million and $6 million in domestic grosses, respectively, have had mixed boxoffice performance — enjoy that distinction.

But the mixed-martial arts film's bow will kick off a period of important dates for the company. In the next eight months, it plans on releasing "Twilight"; the animated interstellar insect film "Fly Me to the Moon"; the Nicolas Cage thriller "Knowing"; and the Rian Johnson con-man movie "The Brothers Bloom," a high-seven-figure acquisition from Endgame Entertainment. A teenage battle-of-the-band feature titled "Will," starring Lisa Kudrow, is set for next year.

Summit has long enjoyed success in foreign sales with movies ranging from "The Blair Witch Project" to "Babel." But over the past few years it steadily has been ramping up its production with such movies as the "Step Up" franchise, "Vanilla Sky" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" before deciding that sales and production were complementary enough to warrant the transition. "What we're trying to do with foreign sales is make sure enough sales have happened that by the time we get (to a domestic release) we reduce our exposure," Wachsberger said.

It's not an unblazed trail. Companies like Focus Features have savvily used foreign sales to finance domestic production and distribution. (Summit reps point out that, like Focus, the sales arm is run separately from the studio.) But the skill sets are very different, and some in the industry point to the difficulties of evolving.

Although Summit often has been lumped with fellow startup Overture, Summit has more differences than similarities with the Chris McGurk-run outfit. Overture has been on a veritable buying spree, picking up three movies at recent festivals. Summit, without output deals and seeking greater upside, wants two-thirds of its slate to come from original productions. Unlike Overture, Summit also has no television output deal, which many in the industry believe can offer a needed cushion in the turbulent world of distribution.

The financing also is structured differently, with Summit funds coming from Merrill Lynch instead of Liberty's John Malone. As a result, Summit's success with its first crop of films will indicate something else: whether private investors can enjoy success — or at least fewer hard times — financing a full-on company than they have in many cases with slate financing.

The creative community, eager for a new entrant, has welcomed Summit, in part because of its commitment to releasing as many as one movie per month. Several agents and producers have said that the company's creative mandate and slate direction hasn't been entirely clear to them so far. But those who've worked with the studio, at least, have endorsed it for what they say is a fluid model.

"Summit's not this bloated corporate studio," Wadlow said. "They are in the major leagues, and there is only handful of them, and they really care. They make decisions from their gut, and I think they are going to have success because of it."

Steven Zeitchik reported from New York; Borys Kit reported from Los Angeles.