Niels Juul to Revive Cecchi Gori Pictures With Projects From Scorsese, More (Q&A)

Niels Juul Headshot - P 2012

Niels Juul Headshot - P 2012

Now in his third year as CEO of the European studio responsible for "Il Postino," "Life is Beautiful" and "Seven," Juul tells THR he's lined up an impressive slate of projects in the wake of its legal victory over former president Gianni Nunnari.

Evidenced even by the company’s own recent press release, Cecchi Gori Pictures’ legacy is not what it once was: despite being the producer and distributor for countless award-winning films including Il Postino and Life is Beautiful, not to mention commercial fare like Seven, the onetime standard-bearer for European filmmaking is now a tarnished brand, thanks to legal battles with a former company president and years of misappropriated funds. But acting CEO Niels Juul has spent the past three years rebuilding Cecchi Gori as both a brand and a studio, attracting high-profile talent such as Martin Scorsese and others while condensing older properties and new acquisitions into a lean and mean slate of films that should put the company back on the map.

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Juul, a partner in the international brand recovery firm, Nofatego LLC, recently spoke to THR about his efforts to rebuild Cecchi Gori. In addition to discussing the company’s checkered past, Juul explained his current and future plans, and offered a few insights about its upcoming slate of films.

The Hollywood Reporter: The press release announcing your work with Cecchi Gori doesn’t shy away from the troubled history of the company. How important was it to acknowledge that in rebuilding the company’s public image?

Niels Juul: Basically we were brought in not knowing much about what really had been going on in the company in the past, and so it’s a bit like firefighters when you kick in the door -- you don’t really look how big the flames are behind it. So we did uncover a lot of things and obviously the company going back into the ‘90s had been managed sometimes well and sometimes not so well and that there’s problems with some things that dates back to those days and more recent also tied into the very big bankruptcy matter in Italy, which is almost to the tune of $1 billion Euro. And basically we found ourselves as the only surviving entity of all entities that we were brought in to fix, and then did so without touching other aspects of the company.

THR: Are you working on a corporate level to improve the public perception of the company, or do you come in and restructure things completely?

Juul: This is an overall restructuring job. We work both on brand sides but we also on the backend. This is about assets and structure, organization, scripts, treatments, which are both the bulk of the assets of this company, intellectual property, meaning all the books and scripts and rights and re-make rights and films the company owned so we are accustomed to do that kind of work as well. Basically what we do is sort of map out and take a snapshot of the immediate situation of the company and therefore also all of its assets. And in this case, we had a learning curve of about 3 months where we were studying the business throughout and then map out a strategy both for reorganization and then for litigation because we had to litigate to get a lot of our rights back. We had to sadly sue the former management and that’s a public trial case that we had in Los Angeles courts. And we obviously also had to assess where are the best potential scripts and rights for future purposes, and where can we best take this company to where it came from, which was producing high quality movies like Il Postino and Life is Beautiful and you know, bring it to where it was, which is a company known for making Oscar-quality big human stories -- which it’s done for 35 years before we came in.

THR: What came most naturally in terms of the work you’ve done before with other companies, and what maybe took you a while to wrap your head around it in terms of the specifics with this particular company?

Juul: You always know that it starts and ends with people, so it was really always about looking on where are the main problems and issues and where have they had trauma -- and it’s generally always a people issue -- and we assess that first. I’d never operated in media before so much; mostly I’d been in apparel and luxury goods and luxury brands. But we learned pretty quickly and we did what we had to do in reorganizing and storing various assets, and most importantly trying to get to the root of what were the underlying problems in the business with the company. So in this case there had been some, shall we say “grey” transactions and things, in the past that weren’t so kosher. So we basically bring in a team of experts -- a good team of people that are in the media field. And then I think with the financial reward through the adjustment that we got for the $18 million, and then obviously all the rights back and being able to now monetize the film library much better, we’ve gone out to sort of explore core production opportunities for all these re-make rights and scripts and we own that right.

THR: In the '60s and '70s the Italian film business was so dominated by sort of genre knock-offs, making westerns and horror movies which American companies sort of appropriated and started making respectable versions of them. What plans do you have to incorporate that into your output? Or will you expand your repertoire?

Juul: We are, but Vittorio really wanted to bring [the company] to the quality of material it’s always been known for. A lot of the material we’re sitting on and exploring is in the same vein as Life is Beautiful and Il Postino. There’s a number of comedies that we’re looking at -- comedies with a human heart. We don’t really have much as far as franchise material, that sort of big blockbuster type of material, [but] I think it’s important for us as a company and as a brand is to stay with what we really are known for as a company worldwide. The company Cecchi Gori is more known in Europe and parts of Asia than in America, and it’s key that we stay rooted in Italian high-end cinema, and then [return to] productions that we did here in America originally as well like A Bronx Tale and Seven, and titles of that nature which has a decent amount of quality to it. So that is where I want to take the company in the future, and collaborate with people that are like-minded in that field.

THR: The press release about the decision in the court case said Cecchi Gori was awarded box office revenues from a number of films including four upcoming ones -- Cyclone, Ferrari, Taming Ben Taylor and Martin Scorsese's Silence. Does that mean that those are the movies that are being made next or have they been made?

Juul: We signed a contract with Martin Scorsese to produce Silence -- that’s already a done deal and we’re very pleased with that because it’s been many years in the making to get to that point. It’s been in pre-production for a while we don’t know the schedule quite yet, but that’s definitely a signed deal and that would probably be our first feature back in the swing of things. Cyclone, we’re also talking about co-producing that, which [is based upon] one of the biggest blockbusters in Italy of all time. It’s a lovely story about this tango troupe that gets stuck in this small town and really turns it upside down and it’s been re-written to modern-day America by Scott Buck, who’s a writer on Dexter. And there’s a whole number of great scripts that we own, and the beauty is that back when the company was a little company they basically bought the whole scripts outright, so they’re actually fully developed scripts and fully paid for. That’s what I find now, that development money is sort of hard to come by for a lot people, so at least for that we’ve narrowed it down. There was about 120 scripts from the company and we’ve narrowed that down to about 20 that are really worth pursing -- and out of that, we think that about 10 have very strong legs right now, so those are the ones we’re focusing on at the moment.

THR: Can you talk a little more specifically about those upcoming films?

Juul: Cyclone, as I mentioned before, is really a funny, lighthearted, great story and remake of an Italian film, and that one we have in the pipeline now -- we’ve done some re-writing on it and it’s in good shape. We’re working on Ferrari, and that script was supposed to actually be done by Sydney Pollock directing it right before he died, but we still have the script that we own, and now have a wonderful script by Kennedy Martin. And we have a number of others that we’re working on -- Taming Ben Taylor is one, which is great. We have Me And My Sisters, which is great. Gallow is another one, a crime story with a lot of heart in it. We’ve got a good roster I feel like right now.

THR: Are you working on them with screenwriters or do you have a director or any actors attached?

Juul: No, we just wanted to get the signers deal first. We wanted to complete our restructuring of the company and the assets and get fully through this first part. We just finished about three months ago so we haven’t really gone full on out yet with all our projects, because the company was in bad shape. We went from lying down to crawling and then from crawling to walking. And we’re finally walking now. We’re sort of like a patient that just got out of the hospital so we are in much better shape now. I’m still the CEO of the company and I’ve been asked to stay so now we’re just contemplating the next few moves.

THR: I saw that you were hired as the temporary CEO, but you’re still the CEO right now?

Juul: I guess temporary in Italian means three years. You can print that. They said, “Oh, it’s just going to take a little while,” and I said, what’s a little while? And they said, “Oh, maybe six months to a year.” And it’s been three years.

THR: Are you waiting for them to find someone to take on that role, or do you want to remain in that position?

Juul: I’m contemplating it. I do think that as a company we would be best off co-producing -- not taking anything on ourselves, and not biting off more than we can chew. So I would like to see us going in co-producing roles. And Vittorio Cecchi Gori himself will take a more active role as producer and on the creative side, and then we’ll probably bring in some help on the creative side as well. I might stay on as the CEO, I’ve been offered to stay on as the CEO, and yeah, I’m thinking about it. I’m trying to think of what will be more fun or more sort of normal. I’ve been fixing companies now for about 8 years in a row, so it’d be nice for some normality.