Strapped Senator seeks help

Company to scale back, seek outside funding partner

Indie company Senator U.S. is scaling back its distribution operations, throwing the release of two of its biggest bets into question.

President Marco Weber acknowledged Tuesday that the company was undergoing a financial crunch that would squeeze its ability to release its high-profile titles.

"We're not in a position to locate the P&A for the bigger pictures, so we have to form alliances and adjust our release schedule," Weber said. "We have to adjust our expectations from when we first started this."

But it is not clear even with those adjustments how and when the most prominent movies would see the light of day -- the Michael Sheen-Samuel Jackson thriller "Unthinkable," which it produced, and Antoine Fuqua's cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest," which it negotiated to acquire at Sundance and has been heavily tweaking in post.

The movies originally had been scheduled as Senator fall releases -- "Unthinkable" for October and "Finest" for November. But funding for P&A fell through, and the films, which are deemed to have broader commercial potential than Senator's other releases, will require that other companies help distribute them -- and that's in a best-case scenario.

The two movies are in very different places. "Unthinkable" was produced by Senator, and its North American rights are controlled by the company. Releasing the pic involves the relatively straightforward matter of locating the P&A -- not easy, but not legally complicated -- and then finding someone to help release the pic, since the company's marketing and distribution staff have been depleted.

"Finest," which was produced by Avi Lerner's Millennium/NuImage, is in a much trickier situation. While the deal was negotiated at Sundance, the MG, or upfront fee, for the pic was not paid, and the fact that the film has not hit release-date targets puts in a legally contentious spot.

It's believed Millennium is seeking rights back to the picture. Weber, meanwhile, contends he has rights to the pic and says that he is seeking partners to release it, just as he is "Unthinkable."

Making matters more complicated is that Senator spent a lot of money on postproduction tweaks that the company and director Fuqua -- but not Millennium -- wanted. The money came out of the pot that was otherwise to be used to release other Senator pics, sources said, further tying the company's fortunes to the "Finest" release.

Senator still will go out with at least one its smaller releases -- the Julia Roberts drama "Fireflies in the Garden," which is set for late summer.

Meanwhile, Weber said that and the two-part French con-man drama "Public Enemy No. 1" would come out in early fall, but people involved with the pic said that plan was called off and there was no release currently scheduled.

The release cutbacks come on the heels of a retrenchment on the part of the once-ambitious Senator, as well as questions about the financial health of the company.

The company also recently shuttered its New York office, which had been charged with handling a bulk of the distribution responsibilities, and has sent the roughly half-dozen employees packing.

On the exec level, former ThinkFilm topper Mark Urman had come on in the fall to run the newly created Senator Distribution arm. But after an open-ended stay in Los Angeles, Urman has returned to New York and has severed his ties, at least for the moment, with the company, because of the company's lack of P&A funds and consequent inability to release films. He is currently working on distribution strategy on other, non-Senator projects.

Weber, for his part, dismisses the idea that the Urman move was a change from any existing arrangement. "What we always said with Mark is that we will formulate our plans with him for each film," he said.

The production side also has seen a scaling back from about a dozen employees to about half that -- a visit to the offices suggested a small staff in a quiet environment -- but Weber said he will continue his efforts on the production side.

"I've produced 14 movies, and I don't see myself stopping anytime soon," he said.

The shift is not dissimilar in some respects to another standalone that at one time had high-flying plans -- the Weinstein Co., which because of a possible P&A crunch also might have to rejigger its release plans. (In a sign of how interdependent the indie distribution world is, Senator picked up a movie Weinstein once had, the horror comedy "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane." That movie remains undated at Senator.) The company also has yet to give a date to Pierce Brosnan starrer "The Greatest," which it picked up after Sundance.

Born as part of the German-based Senator Entertainment, the U.S. outfit formally split in August, with Weber acquiring all shares from former partner Helge Sasse. At the time, the company had grand plans to form a distribution operation for both its own English-language films and titles it acquired, a promise the company seemed to be making good on when it hired Urman in September.

But the company was never positioned to finance its own distribution. So when the finance crunch hit later in the fall, potential funding sources -- and, with it, hopes for P&A -- dried up.

The company was further buffeted several months ago by the dismal performance of the Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger '80s tale "The Informers," which it opened wide on more than 400 screens but which earned less than $700 per engagement.

And it saw a significant drain on resources when money from Senator began to be poured into the postproduction of "Brooklyn's Finest."

Some who have worked with the company said the distribution entity was an overreach in the first place. "Marco's not a fundraiser. He's a producer, and he should go back to just doing that," said one person who has worked with the firm.

The company continues to have an arrangement with Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group, a deal that covers DVD and other ancillary revenue for existing projects. But the deal does not go beyond the current slate of pictures, throwing into question its relationship to future projects.

Senator does have several projects in development and at least one scheduled to start later this summer. But even here, its proprietor acknowledged a tectonic shift.

"The last 12 months have been some of the toughest in the business," Weber said. "I love movies. So the question is, where do we go from here?"