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An Unlikely Trio: Merchant, Ivory and Disney : Movies: The ‘Howards End’ team agrees to a three-year deal that will give their artful fare wider distribution. The studio will also release ‘Sarafina!’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The New York-based team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, known in the film industry for artful, low-budget movies, is entering a three-year distribution deal with an unlikely partner: one of America’s leading merchants of pop culture, Walt Disney Studios.

Disney’s deal with Merchant Ivory Productions means that, for the first time, the makers of such specialty films as “Howards End,” the Oscar-winning “A Room With a View” and Oscar-nominated “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” will have a U.S. and Canadian theatrical distribution arrangement that allows their films to be given wide release and major advertising support.

Merchant Ivory Productions had previously found distribution through smaller companies. Only recently, the company signed with Columbia Pictures to distribute its next movie, “Remains of the Day.” That film, to start shooting in September, will star Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and James Fox. It’s written by Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro.

The company’s first film for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division will be “Jefferson in Paris,” a historical drama by longtime Merchant Ivory screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the experiences of Thomas Jefferson when he was the American ambassador to France.

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Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg said Merchant Ivory “make incredibly beautiful and ambitious movies,” and Katzenberg, who is Hollywood’s well-know champion of lower production budgets, hailed Merchant Ivory’s ability to produce for “modest” costs. “We don’t want them to change,” he said.

The current “Howards End,” was made for $5 million, and has grossed $10 million in a limited run, while “Room With a View,” was made for $3.5 million and grossed $17 million.

Katzenberg said the Merchant Ivory product may be “a bit of a reach for us,” noting Disney’s mainstream reputation. But with its Touchstone Pictures division, the company has embarked on more adult themes. “As much as we may be moving into films that are slightly off the center of the road,” he said, “they are moving into an area that is something we can market and distribute.”

Ismail Merchant, the co-founder and partner with director James Ivory of the company, agreed the link with Disney is an “enormous step.” He said: “From time to time, the popular culture has to think about something distinguished. How big an appeal these films will have, will be proven by the ability of Disney to market them.”

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Merchant said the deal, which actually begins after the Jefferson project, is an exclusive, first-look arrangement. He said Disney and Merchant Ivory will go “dollar for dollar” on production costs, yet Merchant Ivory will keep its independence.

In another announcement, Disney said it will distribute a Whoopi Goldberg musical drama, “Sarafina!,” this September. The deal continues a partnership with the actress who stars in Disney’s current box-office hit “Sister Act.” Katzenberg said Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division will distribute the South African-set film.

While some in Hollywood speculated that Disney picked up the film as a way to sooth Goldberg’s well-publicized feelings about her experience making “Sister Act,” Katzenberg would not comment. “We thought it was simply an inspiring movie,” he said.

Goldberg’s personal manager, Keith Addis, said Disney did not need to distribute “Sarafina!” for “political purposes with Whoopi. . . . They (Disney and Goldberg) had a rough time, no secret about that. But there has been a complete reconciliation.”

The domestic distribution deal was made with Miramax Films, which had signed for the world rights earlier this year from producer Anan Singh.


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