Indies come out punching

Change both onscreen and off led to shifting fortunes in 2006.

NEW YORK -- 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.

[Links to complete indie distributor scorecards at bottom of story.]

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 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.


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