Indies come out punching  

Change both onscreen and off led to shifting fortunes in 2006

It was a year of seismic changes in the independent film world. New distributors survived their first year in business, while others were reborn with new regimes. Low-budget horror drew crowds, but a gay cowboy romance that many thought would scare audiences away from theaters earned more than almost any other indie film. While many companies saw a bump in ticket sales, the year started better than it finished, with a glut of films and better studio product blamed by some for disappointing late returns.

So how was the indie boxoffice in 2006? Depends on who you ask. "With the exception of a couple movies, what indie boxoffice? It's been a very crowded year," Focus Features CEO James Schamus said, launching into comic hyperbole. "I think it's the end of the world as we know it! Independents will disappear!" This from the man whose overall boxoffice rose 11.5% compared with 2005 largely because of that gay cowboy romance, "Brokeback Mountain," which, though it was released in '05, became the third-top-grossing indie of '06 as it expanded its run.

Not everyone is as pessimistic.

"Last year, there was a feeling of gloom and doom, but this year there's an overall feeling the business is back from an exhibitor's point of view," said Picturehouse president Bob Berney, whose company (the art house division of Time Warner formed by HBO and New Line Cinema to replace Fine Line) celebrated its first anniversary in May. "To some degree, new technology is thinning out younger audiences, but there's a feeling the audience is still there if the film is there."

The problem for the indies, at least during the fall, is that that film was more likely to come from a big studio. "When you make a really good Martin Scorsese movie starring every great actor that can walk, guess what? It's going to be hard to compete," Schamus said. "Audiences that come to see Focus movies see other movies like 'The Departed,' 'Letters From Iwo Jima' and 'Dreamgirls.' "

Major studios not only were stealing indie distributors' thunder and acclaim, but they also stole some of their filmmakers. Miramax brought the Broadway musical "Chicago" to a best picture win, making it safer for DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures to back "Dreamgirls" from indie vet Bill Condon. Universal Pictures gave Paul Greengrass $15 million to make "United 93," the kind of intense, smaller film that first got him noticed in Hollywood. New Line gave Todd Field $26 million to make "Little Children," a satiric drama more challenging to audiences than his indie debut, "In the Bedroom."

Some of the year's most acclaimed foreign-language films ("Iwo Jima," "Apocalypto"), intimate dramas ("United 93") and low-budget, guerrilla-style comedies ("Borat," "Jackass Number Two") came from big companies. "In the past, it's been the year of the indie," Weinstein Co. co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said. "This year is the year of the studio."

Meanwhile, potential indie Oscar bait ? from the horrors of the meat-packing industry ("Fast Food Nation") to political unrest in Uganda ("The Last King of Scotland") and South Africa ("Catch a Fire") ? failed to catch fire in theaters. "People don't want to feel like it's a history lesson or medicine," First Look Pictures president Ruth Vitale said. In addition, First Look International president Stuart Ford said, "smaller classic U.S. Sundance-style movies are having a harder time."

The small number of awards-season indie hits doesn't bode well for this year because several of each company's highest 2006 grossers (including "Brokeback," "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck") were released in late '05 and benefited from a lot of Oscar-related business.

Audiences ? arguably depressed by the ongoing war as well as election-year politicians ? were primed to laugh in '06. Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Reunion" ($63.2 million), the Sundance Film Festival pickup "Little Miss Sunshine ($59.5 million) and the CGI-animated fairy tale spoof "Hoodwinked" ($51.2 million) were among the most popular and profitable films of the year.

Several companies continued grooming the future serial killers of America with images of torture, mutilation and death. Beginning Jan. 6 with the Lionsgate slaughterhouse tale "Hostel" ($47.3 million) and ending with the Weinstein Co./MGM blood-spurting Dec. 25 release "Black Christmas" ($12.1 million), theaters saw green when screens ran red with blood. The latest in Dimension's horror spoof franchise, "Scary Movie 4," was this year's top indie grosser ($90.7 million), and the latest chapter in the franchise its poster parodied, Lionsgate's dismember-able "Saw III," ran second ($80.2 million).

Last year was the year of the new indies on the block, even if they often were reconfigured old indies looking to become bigger players in the game. All this despite the fact that no indie film reached the artificially magic $100 million mark in '05 or '06, which is what started the studio specialty stampede to begin with (see 1994's "Pulp Fiction").

Along with Picturehouse, there was the new First Look, the new Miramax, the new Weinstein Co., the new Warner Independent Pictures, the new Focus, the new Newmarket and the new Paramount Classics, rechristened as Paramount Vantage. In addition, with new infusions of cash, such indies as ThinkFilm and IFC Films set plans to add bigger-budget films to their 2007 slates.

"We're an international multimedia company now, but it's nice that our film division has been recognized," Weinstein said after taking "Bobby" (with just a 44% national critics approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com) and leading it to a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture-drama in what he calls "a pretty low-key campaign."

With his brother, Bob Weinstein, overseeing Dimension and more than $1 billion to play with, Weinstein purchased about every other available indie film and set up a smorgasbord of business deals during his first year in business.

In '05, Henry Winterstern took $20 million to bring Capital Entertainment and the 25-year-old First Look Media together to form First Look Studios, which had its biggest success in its first year with the $1.9 million grosser "The Proposition."

Newmarket Entertainment, the indie some thought had been sidelined when Time Warner bought its distribution arm and the services of its president, Berney, came back to life by buying the controversial faux-docu "Death of a President," which opened shortly after its $1 million Toronto International Film Festival sale to slightly less than $500,000 in theaters.

20th Century Fox expanded Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice's duties by handing him a new, youth-oriented genre label, Fox Atomic, but it had a disappointing first release with the 2929/Boz Prods. torture tale "Turistas."

At the studio specialty divisions, it was a game of musical chairs. Walt Disney Studios imported Daniel Battsek from London and Buena Vista International to succeed the Weinsteins at Miramax, and the exec ended his first year on the job with a successful project close to his British roots, the $28.5 million-grossing "The Queen," for which its star, Helen Mirren, has been collecting awards and nominations.

Paramount Classics morphed into Paramount Vantage, exchanging co-presidents Vitale and David Dinerstein for former Endeavor agent John Lesher as president in fall '05. Lesher scored $23.8 million with the Al Gore docu "An Inconvenient Truth" before Lionsgate International head Nick Meyer was named co-president in September. He also oversaw the release of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel," which garnered more Golden Globe noms ? seven ? than any other film.

Polly Cohen replaced Mark Gill as Warner Independent Pictures head in May, shepherding an inherited slate that was down 76% from 2005 without a "March of the Penguins" or "Good Night"-size hit in the bunch.

At Focus Features, co-president David Linde was bumped up to co-chair of parent company Universal Pictures. Co-president Schamus rose to Focus CEO, chief operating officer Andrew Karpen jumped to the Focus president slot and Rogue Pictures president of production Andrew Rona joined Karpen as the Rogue co-presidents in May.

David Bergstein and Ron Tutor's Capco Group bought ThinkFilm in the fall for $25 million, promising to add several $15 million-$20 million films to its slate, which also will include all lower-budgeted Capitol Films productions. Similarly, IFC Films said it will draw on the capital of parent company Cablevision to launch a slate of four to six films a year in the $4 million-$10 million range.

Although exhibitors worried about the implications for the future, several distributors, notably IFC's First Take and Magnolia Pictures/HDNet Films, experimented with day-and-date, simultaneous platform release programs. But aside from First Take's '05 holdover "CSA: The Confederate States of America," virtually no film treated to day-and-date by either distributor took in more than $150,000 at the boxoffice ? most topped out in the high-four and low-five figures. With DVD and video-on-demand income figures not available, it is impossible to calculate overall returns on such films.

Meanwhile, the iconoclastic David Lynch self-released his inscrutable "Inland Empire" on his own terms. Lynch made more than $100,000 since Dec. 6 by touring theaters nationwide and answering questions next to a friendly cow. Perhaps he will prove that, aside from reproducing commercial comedies and horror flicks, indie cinema still has some tricks up its sleeve to draw audiences to challenging material.

LIONSGATE:  Roaring atop the pack

Grossing more than $331 million, Lionsgate not only improved upon its 2005 tally but moved into first place among the indie distributors. With its well-honed marketing savvy, the company perfected a shrewd mix of genre fare, comedy and even the occasional, challenging documentary. R-rated horror film "Saw III" generated $80.2 million to become the second-highest grosser in the trilogy. Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Reunion," the second film with the multihyphenate, grossed $63.2 million. The only disappointment was the April release "Akeelah and the Bee," which didn't break through as the studio expected, given the promotional push it received from Starbucks. Last year also represented a turning point for Lionsgate as in-house productions dominated its release schedule for the first time, a trend expected to continue this year.  (Nicole Sperling)


WEINSTEIN CO./DIMENSION:  Relying on genre pics

The Weinstein Co. launched its first full year on a high note with the $51.2 million-grossing CGI-comedy "Hoodwinked" and reached its peak in April with Dimension's $90.7 million-earner "Scary Movie 4," part of the franchise from the Weinsteins' Disney days. The studio also released several of the horror films the franchise sent up, from a solid "Pulse" ($20.3 million) to a paltry "Feast" ($55,000), a project born out of the "Project Greenlight" reality TV series. The company also released several broad comedies such as "Clerks II" and "School for Scoundrels" through its releasing deal with MGM. The jury still is out on the highbrow films that the company once was known for, including such year-end awards hopefuls ? released through MGM ? as "Bobby," "Factory Girl" and "Miss Potter."  (Gregg Goldstein)


FOCUS FEATURES/ROGUE:  Life after 'Brokeback'

Focus Features, along with its genre label, Rogue, entered 2006 on the strength of its successful expansion of its 2005 release "Brokeback Mountain" from director Ang Lee. The groundbreaking film might have lost the best picture Oscar, but it ultimately outgrossed the winning "Crash" by nearly $30 million. That is more than the take of the next-biggest hits from the Rogue genre label, Jet Li's "Fearless" and "Waist Deep." Focus' latest batch of Oscar hopefuls didn't fare as well, with "Hollywoodland" and "Catch a Fire" failing to gain commercial traction among moviegoers. The company's first tentative foray into day-and-date territory, releasing the Iraq war documentary "The Ground Truth" just 11 days before its DVD debut, also scored poorly in theaters.  (Gregg Goldstein)


FOX SEARCHLIGHT:  Covering all the bases

The indie subsidiary that other companies appear to want to emulate certainly proved itself worthy of imitation again. Fox Searchlight was on top of its game with two high-profile acquisitions: The satiric "Thank You for Smoking" grossed nearly $25 million, and the dysfunctional family comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," was released in a steadily widening marketing blitz that saw it reach nearly $60 million. Searchlight's horror release "The Hills Have Eyes" also was a hit with a $42 million gross. The studio didn't have as much luck with "Trust the Man," or its original production "Fast Food Nation." The final accounting on "The Last King of Scotland" will depend on the accolades for lead actor Forest Whitaker, who already has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role as Idi Amin.


SONY CLASSICS:   Pursuing the high road

Sony Pictures Classics opted for quantity and quality as it nurtured more than 20 films at the boxoffice last year, though about two-thirds of its 2006 releases didn't score above the low- to mid-six figures. The biggest hits had either the biggest stars ? like the $13 million-grossing "Friends With Money" starring Jennifer Aniston ? and the most acclaim ? Oscar winner "Capote," a holdover from 2005. At present, the critically acclaimed "Volver" from director Pedro Almodovar, is shaping up as a formidable awards season contender; it has been nominated for a best foreign-language film Golden Globe and lead Penelope Cruz has picked up several nominations. The sumptuous martial arts tale "Curse of the Golden Flower," from Zhang Yimou, also is heating up screens in its initial dates.  (Gregg Goldstein)


MIRAMAX:  Dealing itself a 'Queen'

Miramax ended its first full year under the Daniel Battsek regime with a bonafide art-house smash, Stephen Frears' "The Queen." With its $28.5 million take likely to continue a steady build with anticipated best actress and best picture Oscar noms, it provides an ending flourish to a year that began with a foreign-language film Oscar for "Tsotsi," which earned a respectable $2.9 million. The Robin Williams Sundance Film Festival pickup "The Night Listener" grossed $7.8 million. The company found less success with such less highbrow fare as the comedies "Kinky Boots" and "Keeping Up With the Steins," as well as a pair of low-grossing, sports-themed documentaries "Once in a Lifetime" and "The Heart of the Game." Miramax had only one bomb with the French animated action film "Renaissance."  (Gregg Golstein)


PARAMOUNT VANTAGE:  Taking the temperature

"An Inconvenient Truth" and "Babel" were the bookends on Paramount Vantage's inaugural year. Both have scored well at the boxoffice and already have been recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. with Golden Globe noms. The Al Gore-led environmental documentary and the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ensemble drama are on track to earn Academy noms as well. In between, the new division helmed by longtime agent John Lesher, aided by former Lionsgate International exec Nick Meyer, who joined Vantage as co-president, kept busy by putting together a production slate featuring the talent of writer-directors Noah Baumbach, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coens. Lesher also secured a two-year, first look deal with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's Gary Sanchez Prods.  (Nicole Sperling)


YARI FILM GROUP:  Jumping into the fray

With "The Illusionist," the Yari Film Group not only pulled a rabbit out of a hat but also established itself as an up-and-coming force in the indie distribution arena. Neil Burger's tale of a love-struck magician, played by Edward Norton, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival under the auspices of producers Michael London and Bob Yari, among others. But when the producers could not strike a distribution deal to their liking, Yari decided to distribute the film himself. Utilizing Freestyle Releasing (which also had a solid indie hit with the upscale horror movie "An American Haunting") and with former Paramount Classics co-head David Dinerstein serving as consultant, Yari Film Group served up "Ilusionist" on Aug. 18 as savvy counterprogramming that ultimately grossed nearly $40 million.  (Gregg Kilday)


WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES:  Changing of the guard

Most of the news coming out of Warner Independent Pictures came from the executive suites. May saw WIP head Mark Gill step down after conflicts with his boss, Warners production president Jeff Robinov. Longtime Warners lieutenant Polly Cohen took over the reins, moving several projects along ? WIP snapped up the rights to Tom Perotta's forthcoming book "The Abstinence Teacher," attaching "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to the project. The studio also is putting together the Paul Haggis mystery-thriller "In the Valley of Elah." Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" came close to challenging Richard Linklater's animated "A Scanner Darkly" as the year's top grosser, though both films grossed slightly more than $5 million.  (Nicole Sperling)


PICTUREHOUSE:  Hailing Altman's finale

Picturehouse turned Robert Altman's final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," into one of the director's biggest hits and the fledgling company's top grosser so far. Drawing on Garrison Keillor's fan base and the film ensemble's star power, "Prairie" grossed a respectable $20.3 million. The company also has high hopes for the critically lauded "Pan's Labyrinth," from Guillermo del Toro, which snuck in just under the wire on Dec. 29. Picturehouse's other offerings met a tougher reception. The art world docu "Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock?" couldn't convince anyone to care, and "The Notorious Bettie Page" and "Tristram Shandy" were disappointments. Audiences were cool to Nicole Kidman in the fictionalized Diane Arbus biopic "Fur," directed by Steven Shainberg.  (Gregg Goldstein)


IDP/GOLDWYN/ROADSIDE:  Maintaining the faith

Among the 2006 releases that Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions channeled through their IDP distribution partnership, the film that found the biggest crowds was Goldwyn's "Facing the Giants." Released with Destination Films, the uplifting football drama pitched to the faith-based audience. It overcame generally poor reviews to earn $10.1 million. Roadside's pickup of the self-distributed geriatric sex comedy "Boynton Beach Club" also used word-of-mouth among an underserved audience to earn more than $3 million. Noah Baumbach's late-2005 release "The Squid and the Whale" rode critical kudos to earn more than $2 million last year. But aside from the acclaimed family film "Lassie," which came home with $700,000, most of the companies' films earned in the low- to mid-six figures.  (Gregg Goldstein)


MAGNOLIA:  Testing day-and-date

Magnolia Pictures started and ended 2006 as the theatrical distribution arm of two day-and-date films released on DVD and the HDNet cable channel: Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" and Matt Tauber's "The Architect." The boxoffice failure of both (along with the comedy "One Last Thing ?") showed that while many exhibitors might be worrying about the impact of day-and-date, it still is in its embryonic stages. Four of Magnolia's 15 releases only reached four figures and another four only hit five figures, but the company had a $5 million-plus success with the late-2005 release "The World's Fastest Indian," staring Anthony Hopkins. "District B13" jumped to $1.2 million highlighting acrobatic "parkour" action, and Magnolia rode a wave of mini-controversies to bring the docu "Jesus Camp" to $850,000.  (Gregg Goldstein)


THINKFILM:  Following eclectic path

ThinkFilm unveiled 21 films last year, and its biggest grosser also was its biggest critical hit, "Half Nelson," directed by Ryan Fleck and starring Ryan Gosling. Boasting stellar performances, the film grossed $2.7 million. ThinkFilm also bought the Comedy Central-series adaptation "Strangers With Candy" from Warner Independent Pictures and took it to $2 million. ThinkFilm rang up slightly more than $1.9 million from the sexually explicit "Shortbus" and another $1.6 million for the much less controversial British comedy "Keeping Mum." But more than a third of ThinkFilm's 21 releases grossed in the five figures, including its day-and-date Web/theater release with ClickStar, "10 Items or Less," despite such stars as Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman and Nick Nolte.  (Gregg Goldstein)


IFC:  Developing a new take

Thanks to its newly launched IFC First Take theater/video-on-demand release program and its existing IFC Films, IFC Entertainment released about 30 films this year. The only breakout hit was the crossword puzzle docu "Wordplay," a co-release with the Weinstein Co., grossing more than $3 million. Patrick Creadon's look at New York Times puzzle meister Will Shortz clearly caught the imagination of the code crackers. Matt Dillon helped "Factotum," a pickup from Picturehouse, to reach $800,000, and the First Take feature from last year, "CSA: Confederate States of America," grossed an additional $650,000. Apart from these highlights, 10 films failed to crack the five-figure mark and seven others scored no more than four figures, but undisclosed VOD income might have added to IFC's coffers.  (Gregg Goldstein)
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