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Mamoudou Athie, star of breakout feature film Patti Cake$, is to star in and produce a feature film set in the Sahara Desert.
Athie, who is also set to star in Jurassic Park: Dominion, has teamed up with Vespucci Group to develop Chighali, a project based in Mauritania, the North African country where he is from. It is based on an audio story, produced by Vespucci, and written by journalist Sahar Zand.
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The story follows Sidi, whose first memories including camels, sand storms, scorpions, and sand dunes towering like buildings. Raised in a nomadic tribe on the far edge of the Sahara desert, Sidi doesn’t have a father like the other kids. He dreams of meeting him, even after his mom explains he’s gone away to heaven, a journey from which he won’t return. When Sidi discovers that many years ago a foreign documentary crew had visited the tribe, he sets out on a quest to recover this lost footage and see his father’s face—a journey that takes him far from the only home he has ever known. Along the way, he begins to feel a lifeline connecting him to his father, Chighali, across distance, time, and memory.
Athie came on board after forwarding the story to his father, who was emotional when he listened to it and attached himself as a producer and agreed to play the lead.
“I was so immediately moved by hearing this tender and passionate story from my home country, I knew I had to be involved by mid listen,” Athie told Deadline.
It is the latest example of a new business model being driven by Vespucci Group, a company founded by Daniel Turcan, a Swiss producer living in New York who has worked on films including Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins-fronted Marjorie Prime, and Johnny Galvin, a U.S.-based Brit who has worked on series including Amazon’s Hand of God.
The pair are working with a slew of journalists around the world to develop, create and unearth new IP that can be used for film, TV and podcast projects.
They set up the company after discovering a book Confessions of a People Smuggler, co-authored by Giampaolo Musumeci and Andrea Di Nicola, traveling to Italy to acquire the rights and teaming them with top French screenwriter Noé Debré (Dheepan) and Claudio Cupellini (Gomorrah) to develop it as a film.
This led to a broader strategy, particularly with working with a network of 160 journalists and writers, all of whom are dealing with dwindling budgets from newspapers and magazines.
“A watershed moment for us was when we started talking to journalists and authors, it was not necessarily about the book that was being published, but the stories that were in the back of their drawers and the reaches of their minds or the half-baked ideas on their hard drives,” Turcan (left) said. “We said ‘What if we came to you early and gave you the cash to actually go write that, or go make that, and you don’t have to go to an editor, straight away, but we’ll partner with you on the audio visual [rights]. That’s ended up igniting our company.”
They have set up a slew of projects based on articles including One Click, a podcast about a deadly diet drug hosted by Elle Fanning that is based on an article from former Newsweek science editor Jessica Wapner and Daphne, a TV series in development with Topic Studios based on the investigation into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Partners on these types of projects, which are often joint ventures and partnerships, include Endeavor Content, Audible and Blumhouse.
The Mamoudou Athie-led project Chigali, however, is example of its growing audio IP business.
Vespucci, which is backed by Dorfman Media, essentially, takes an article or piece of work, and turns it into an audio article, generally ranging from 20-40 minutes in length, that it can use to create buzz as it takes to filmmakers, talent and studios. In addition to Turcan and Galvin, the push is being spearheaded by the company’s head of development Bridie Bischoff.
“We say to the journalist, we’re going to pair you with a podcast producer and work to create a really gripping piece of audio – it’s not simply just a narrator reading out your article – it bit of a soundscape, a bit of a soul, and there is a narrator in there and it’s more cinematic. Then we will take that to studios, writers, directors and actors,” said Turcan.
“If you’re A-list talent, a creative exec, a studio executive or you work in development, would you rather get a PDF of 8,000 words to read at your desk? Or would you like it being a very well put together digestible piece of audio that’s rich and captures the story in a bit more of a cinematic,” added Galvin (right).
Another example of this is Night Walk, a story written by journalist Danny Gold. It tells of a Reverend in St Louis, pushed to his limits when a series of brutal murders are committed in his community. But as he walks the streets by night, his own son is out on those same streets, immersed in gang life and drug dealing. While the Reverend advocates for peace among drug addicts and gang members, ready to face his own death rather than leave anyone out in the cold, the person he wants to save the most is the one who feels furthest out of reach: his son.
“It’s a very moving story about the violence in St. Louis, especially affecting African American men and is about a father and son,” said Turcan. “The journalist [Danny Gold] pitched it to us as a doc and we said to listen there’s something very specific about this relationship we wanted to focus on, about the father and the son, and so we created the audio story with the journalist and we put it out there [in the market].”
It is now in development with Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media.
Vespucci Group is repped by WME.
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