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A bonus for Boyle and a bonanza for the distributors: how the millions are shared

As the elated cast and financial backers of Slumdog Millionaire woke up to savour their triumph yesterday, they could begin the sobering task of calculating just who will pocket the hundreds of millions of dollars the movie is racking up at box offices around the world.

The film’s very existence is an extraordinary tale in its own right. It cost £9m to make – relatively meagre by film industry standards – after Film4, Channel 4’s film-making unit, took on the project with £1.5m of its own cash. Slumdog Millionaire, shot in Mumbai and British-produced, has taken $100m (£68m) at the American box office, and £23m in the UK since its release on 9 January.

But it is not Film4 and the independent production company Celador – which championed the film nearly three years ago – which stand to make the greatest profits, but cinemas, multiplexes and the distributors, Fox Searchlight and Pathé.

As much as 50 per cent of the US takings could go to fill the coffers of Searchlight, a subsidiary of News Corp – chairman one Rupert Murdoch. The bounty is a reward for backing the film when it stumbled between production and distribution. Much of the remainder of revenue in North America will go to the cinemas.

In Britain, the £23m will be shared between the cinemas (which will get as much as 70 per cent), Pathé and finally Film4 and Celador, which are expected to split around £4m. Sources said the film’s director, Danny Boyle, as well as its producer, Christian Colson, and key actors including the star Dev Patel, will probably receive healthy bonuses which could, in Boyle’s case, stretch “into the millions”.

The question of who will pocket the profits of any successful film is an opaque one at the best of times – and particularly so given the conception of Slumdog Millionaire.

Three years ago, Film4’s drama and film chief, Tessa Ross, stumbled across a novel entitled Q&A, by the first-time Indian author Vikas Swarup, and optioned it for a film. Set in a Mumbai slum, it featured the story of an orphan who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of the television quiz show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Ms Ross went to Celador hoping to acquire the rights for the quiz show on which the story hinged. But instead, Mr Colson, Celador’s joint managing editor, and Paul Smith, its owner, suggested having Celador join the project, adding £7m to its budget. Together they went in search of greater studio backing, but none had been secured by the time writer Simon Beaufoy and Boyle signed up. On the first day of filming in Mumbai they had still not attracted any more money. “We just hung on because we had a feeling about the film,” Peter Carlton, senior commissioning executive at Film4, said yesterday.

After a distribution deal seemed to be in doubt, Fox Searchlight, a division of 20th Century Fox, stepped in and agreed to take on distribution costs of the film in America. Pathé signed up for distribution in Britain and France, paying $8.5m for the rights.

Boyle has said some of the takings will be returned to the Indian shanty towns, where an educational trust has been set up for several of the child actors. When the film won $20,000 at the Toronto Film Festival, Boyle donated the sum to the trust.