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Once-swaggering wild bunch confronts big debt, big flops: the cash-strapped distribution and sales company seeks to regain its standing.

SINCE ITS INCEPTION nearly 15 years ago, Paris-based Wild Bunch has prided itself as a bold player willing to embrace provocative films and unconventional ways of doing business. Its 2015 merger with Germany's Senator was trumpeted as a major step toward creating a pan-European distribution and sales giant, Wild Bunch AG.

A year and a half later, the once-swaggering company is struggling to raise capital, pay off its debt, and recover from a series of high-profile flops. Its share price has plummeted 83% from its post-merger high, producing partners have fled, and rumors are rife that company co-founder and creative force Vincent Maraval could exit within a year.

Wild Bunch's financial health has been the subject of speculation since results from the first half of the 2015-16 financial year showed net debt of 84 million [euro] ($94 million). The company is months behind in releasing its latest numbers, which were due July 1; it now says it will publish them this month.

Although it remains a pillar of France's auteur film world, with nine Oscars and six Palmes d'Or under its belt, Wild Bunch had so much trouble securing financing for its 2016 lineup that over the summer it sought the help of a consultant to put together a deal, Variety has learned. Wild Bunch's French banking pool was reluctant to commit because the company failed to raise 15 [euro] million ($16.7 million) in equity by the end of 2015; it just succeeded in doing so during the first quarter of this year, CEO Vincent Grimond says.

By then, Wild Bunch's ranks of partners had thinned. Past partners Dimitri Rassam ("Playmobil") and production firms such as The Film ("Lolo") have no projects lined up with the company. Housekeeping deals with well-known French players Rectangle Prods, and Fidelite Films were not renewed last year, Variety has learned (though it is unclear which side chose not to continue the agreements).

"That delay in getting our credit line for 2016 acquisitions approved has certainly encouraged some producers to work with other companies," Grimond acknowledges.

In interviews with Variety, Grimond and Wild Bunch COO Brahim Chioua insist that the company is back on track and working on getting financing for its 2017 lineup. It is eager to raise 20 million [euro] ($22.3 million), possibly from a significant Chinese investor--so eager, in fact, that "we'd be willing to lose some of our independence," Grimond says.

That would mark a major change for a company that has touted a maverick approach to the movie business. In its heyday, Wild Bunch sold "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Pan's Labyrinth," and "Blue Is the Warmest Color" (which it also produced and financed). On the distribution side, its slate boasted prestige indies such as "The King's Speech" and genre pics like "Paranormal Activity."

These days, the company appears both too cash-strapped for heavyweight movies and too mainstream for arthouse pics. Its international sales cupboard is mostly bare of the upscale English-language movies that helped it stand out from other French sales agents. And its distribution lineup has been reduced to smaller films and to comedies such as Nicolas Benamou's "A Fond."

In addition to "A Fond," the biggest films on Wild Bunch's slate are Jerome Salle's "The Odyssey" (to be co-distributed with Pan-Europeene) and Radu Mihaileanu's "The History of Love." They follow a string of big-budget flops: "Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia," and "Nicholas on Holiday!' Those fiascos--on top of the loss of Citibank as a significant financial backer in 2013-- have forced Wild Bunch to sharply rein in its ambitions. Recently, it has sought to limit risk by splitting rights on movies with other outfits, such as Gaumont, Pathe, Other Angle, and Studiocanal.

One bright spot is Insiders, the L.A.based sales company in which Wild Bunch holds a 45% stake. (Insiders is now known as IMR after consolidating its sales operations with Mad River Pictures in May.) In contrast to Wild Bunch, IMR's profile is rising; in Toronto, it scored worldwide deals on "Jackie," one of the festival's hottest tickets.

But IMR is also a source of concern. Wild Bunch co-founder Maraval is dedicating more than half his time to IMR and could leave Wild Bunch in about a year, several industry sources say. (Chioua and Grimond dismiss this possibility.) Despite his polarizing personality, Maraval has been seen as the guardian of Wild Bunch's rock-and-auteur reputation, and his presence has allowed the company to maintain relationships with high-profile directors, festival programmers, and producers such as Pascal Caucheteme of Why Not Prods.

Mandarin Prod, is making the French comedy "Welcome to Gondwana" with Wild Bunch. "If Maraval were no longer a key man at Wild Bunch, it would have an impact on the company, because his personality and taste have shaped it and gave it a very strong footprint," says Mandarin's Eric Altmayer. "We're also in an industry where emotional, artistic affinities play a large role in collaborations."

Going forward, Chioua and Grimond say, Wild Bunch will limit its yearly distribution slate to about 15 films and will likely avoid financing big English-language movies.

"If you ask me whether we'd fully finance a film above $10 million like Steven Soderbergh's 'Che' today, I'd tell you no, we wouldn't," Grimond says. That co-production, a two-part movie from 2008, cost $40 million to make, and tanked at the box office.

The company will try instead to bolster other parts of its business. It will soon launch a distribution firm in Australia, its first outside Europe. (Wild Bunch currently distributes in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Austria.) The company is in discussions with a major international banking group about financing the acquisitions of its foreign distribution outlets, says Grimond, who cites digital distribution as another potential driver of growth.

Also promising is the TV division. It launched last year with "Medici: Masters of Florence," which stars Dustin Hoffman and is an international sales hit, and "Four Seasons in Havana." The division has three new shows coming out: "Mama's Angel," "Tytgat Chocolate," and "The Exchange Principle."

Olivier Albou, co-founder of Other Angle, which has been collaborating with Wild Bunch on sales of French comedies like "A Fond," warns not to write off the company just yet.

"It's run by people who know the film business inside and out," he says. "You never know what will happen."

Coming Soon

Wild Bunch is banking on three key titles after a number of disappointing releases.

A Fond

The French comedy comes from director Nicolas Benamou.

(1) The Odyssey Jerome Salle's cast includes Audrey Tatou

(2) The History of Love The adaptation of Nicole Krauss' best-selling novel features Gemma Arterton and Elliott Gould.
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Title Annotation:TOP BILLING: NEWS
Author:Keslassy, Elsa
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 11, 2016
Words:1109
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