Fox Searchlight grabs the Oscar spotlight

'Slumdog,' 'Wrestler' wins fuel division's hot streak

Fox Searchlight owned the stage at the Kodak Theatre on Sunday, winning eight Oscars, more than any other studio, mini-major or specialty division. It culminated a remarkable six months whose outcome would have been impossible to predict at the start of this unpredictable awards season.

With few acquisitions or productions on its 2008 slate, the Peter Rice-run company didn't look as if it was in a position to repeat its Academy Awards feats of the past two years. In successive years, it had won best original screenplay and landed best picture nominations for "Little Miss Sunshine" (in 2006) and last year's "Juno."

Searchlight's fall release schedule had only the ensemble Southern drama "The Secret Life of Bees," a respectable commercial proposition that nevertheless was unlikely to score much gold.

But things turned around just before Labor Day.

First, Searchlight sealed a deal to reunite with Danny Boyle and pick up the Warner Bros. orphan "Slumdog Millionaire." Then, about a week later, it outmaneuvered other buyers to land the Venice and Toronto favorite "The Wrestler." The acquisitions -- with nearly $120 million in domestic boxoffice between them -- proved savvy business moves on the part of Tony Safford and his negotiating team.

By contrast, last year it was the Claudia Lewis-run production unit in the awards-season limelight with "Juno," a film Searchlight financed and produced.

After those late-summer moves, Searchlight embarked on strategically designed rollouts that saw "Slumdog" open early but slowly. It bowed in just 10 theaters in mid-November, gradually ramping to 600 by late December.

"Wrestler" jumped into the ring Dec. 19 in four theaters, moving up into 700 in late January once the nominations were released.

The remarkably successful Searchlight -- at 14 years old among the longer-toothed of the specialty divisions -- hews to a model that runs against the grain of many of its counterparts.

Although an awards-season powerhouse -- in addition to its Oscar statuettes this year, it landed many of the major guild awards and picked up the best picture win for "Wrestler" on Saturday at the Spirit Awards -- Searchlight is not primarily set up to win kudos like many specialty divisions are. Instead, it concentrates first on its overall release slate and boxoffice, and only later on the awards. (Its in-house publicity team, headed by Michelle Hooper and consultants at ID PR like Barry Dale Johnson, are among those responsible for its highly productive season.)

Unlike other specialty divisions or mini-majors, which have tended to be the reflection of one person, Searchlight has a team of execs installed at the top and shies away from the cult of personality often a hallmark of the specialty world.

Originally launched by Tom Rothman, who went on to become the co-head of big Fox, Searchlight essentially is run by a trio of execs: marketing chief Nancy Utley, distribution guru Stephen Gilula and president Rice, the latter of whom rose up from the company's president of production position.

It also has run on a highly efficient model that nonetheless contains elements of the informal; for years it was based in a quirky house different from the more corporate-looking offices that surrounded it on the Fox lot, and it retains a touch of informality, with a dog, Maddie, a kind of mascot who frequently scampers through the office.

That attitude and management structure has yielded a surprisingly diverse group of hits, ranging from "28 Days Later" to "Bend It Like Beckham" and from "Napoleon Dynamite" to "Juno," of all which exceeded traditional specialty expectations. They, in turn, more than offset the occasional miss such as "The Darjeeling Limited" or "Street Kings."

The company also has seen precious little movement among its executive ranks, a rarity in the specialty world. Of course, specialty divisions rarely remain static these days, and rumors of a job for Rice at big Fox (he already runs youth-oriented label Fox Atomic in addition to Searchlight) have hovered over the company in the past.

Looking ahead, the company has a number of solid commercial prospects but few awards-season contenders on tap for this year. Among its bigger releases are Jared and Jerusha Hess' "Gentlemen Broncos," a comedy about a fanboy and a fantasy writer that it will release in May; and the offbeat romantic dramedy "(500) Days of Summer," a hit at the Sundance Film Festival that will come out in July. At the moment, its best awards prospect could be "Amelia," Mira Nair's biopic about Amelia Earhart starring Hilary Swank.

So don't bet on Searchlight to continue its awards hot streak. Then again, we said that last year.
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