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FILM CLIPS

Hug Brings Pippi To Hollywood

July 19, 1985|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

Everybody knows what it takes to close a movie deal in Hollywood: money, connections, deceit, half a dozen lunches and enough lawyers to fill out a summer softball league.

Here's an exception. In Stockholm, 8-year-old Romy Mehlman recently closed a deal with a hug.

"That's what did it; that's how we got it," says producer Gary Mehlman, who credits his daughters Romy and 7-year-old Alexandra with winning over 78-year-old Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, from whom Mehlman had been trying, unsuccessfully, to acquire movie rights to the fictional character Pippi Longstocking.

Mehlman had gone to Stockholm to meet Lindgren and make a final pitch for rights to the Pippi stories. The books, written between 1945 and 1948, have been translated into 25 languages, and freckled, pony-tailed, redheaded Pippi herself ranks among the 25 most popular characters in children's literature.

A Swedish producer turned out three Pippi movies in the early '70s, crudely retelling the tales of a little girl with magical powers who lives with a horse and a monkey in a ramshackle house called Villa Villekula. It was his daughters' fascination with those low-budget, dreadfully dubbed films--rented over and over at a local video store--that got Mehlman interested in the first place.

"There aren't many movie characters that hook them that way," says Mehlman, also the producer on Columbia's "Yellow Jersey," a bicycle racing film that will star Dustin Hoffman. "I sat down and started watching Pippi with them. She is a wonderful, very contemporary heroine."

Mehlman wrote his first letter to Lindgren in November, 1983, and got a nice note back. Thanks, it said, but Pippi is not going to Hollywood.

"She thinks of Pippi as a daughter," Mehlman says, "and she wasn't about to let her daughter go to Hollywood."

Also, the movie rights belonged to a Swedish company, Svensk Filmindustri, and technically weren't available.

Persistence finally got Mehlman a meeting in Stockholm with both Lindgren and representatives of Svensk Film. He said Svensk was willing to relinquish non-Scandinavian rights as part of a co-production arrangement, but Lindgren was still dubious about turning Pippi over to a Hollywood producer.

Enter, by chance, Romy and Alexandra.

"I had spent all morning and lunch hour with Astrid and her representatives, but she wasn't moving," says Mehlman, who had been given an autographed copy of Lindgren's latest book, and that's all.

"When they dropped me off at my hotel, I saw my daughters running toward us. I thought, 'Oh, no.' You never know what kids are going to say. . . . It was an awkward moment, I didn't know quite how to introduce Astrid. So, I just said, 'This is Pippi's mother.' Romy actually leaped into the woman's arms and started hugging and kissing her and saying, 'Thank you, thank you.'

"That afternoon, one of the others called and told me I had the rights. He said Astrid told him in the car as they drove off that the encounter with Romy made up her mind."

Way to go, Romy. Now, all Mehlman needed was the money to make the first film, "The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking." He says that as much as he hated the idea of losing control to a studio, that's where he planned to shop the project. But his luck hadn't run out yet.

Shortly after he returned from Stockholm, Mehlman was discussing Pippi over dinner with his best friend, investment consultant Walter Moshay, and one of Moshay's clients, Saudi investor Mishaal Kamal Adham. Adham had never invested in a film before, but, like Mehlman, he has two daughters who fell in love with Pippi by watching those Swedish movies on tape.

The question he asked was, "How much will it cost?"

Mehlman said a studio could make the movie--which will have large special-effects requirements--for from $12 million to $15 million, depending on how many teak wastebaskets were charged to the production. He figured that he could make it for half as much.

Adham handed Mehlman an empty wine bottle at the end of the meal and told him to write the date on the label and take it home as a memento. He would finance the film completely, he said, and would even pay the cost of marketing it when it's finished.

Since then, Mehlman, Moshay and Adham have formed a partnership--Longstocking Productions--and opened up a bank account. A big one.

Veteran director Ken Annakin ("Swiss Family Robinson," "The Longest Day") has been hired to direct; TV writer Paul Haggis, a former story editor for "One Day at a Time" and "Diff'rent Strokes," is adapting the screenplay from Lindgren's first book, and marketing consultant Mark Baron, who was involved in the search to find a young actress for Columbia Pictures' "Annie" a few years ago, is about to launch an international search for a youngster to play Pippi.

Mehlman, who also has the merchandising rights to Pippi, says production will begin by January, with a target release date of Thanksgiving, 1986. Astrid Lindgren, who has script approval, will be brought over for the production.

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