Indies struggle to break through clutter

Having splurged at Toronto and Sundance, independent distributors  found that the payoffs weren't guaranteed.

View summer '07 results for smaller indie distributors

NEW YORK -- For the major studios, summer 2007 marked a boxoffice high. For their specialty divisions and indie counterparts, it was a different story.

There were no home runs anywhere near the scale of IFC Films' "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in 2002, Newmarket Films' "The Passion of the Christ" or Lionsgate/IFC Films' "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004, or even Warner Independent Pictures' "March of the Penguins" in 2005.

"Those are anomaly films, and can't be counted on to be there year after year," Fox Searchlight COO Nancy Utley said.

While that is true, the explosion in indie distribution during the past decade is partly a result of such anomalies, and has resulted in more specialty distributors taking chances by releasing films against the blockbusters. "It feels like a few summers ago that Searchlight was one of the only companies programming the summer," said Utley, who had two small-scale but profitable hits this summer with "Waitress" and "Once." "Now it seems like many more are, and that creates a clutter effect that makes it hard to breathe."

Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek, who had a moderate $15.7 million hit this summer with "Becoming Jane," agreed.

"The carefully selected release date and lack of strong competition has sustained ('Jane')," he said. "It remains a very difficult, fragile business, and you need all the cards to fall in your favor. The summer can obliterate you if you can't somehow find that lull in the storm."

Most distributors realize that, but it hasn't stopped many of them from swinging for the fences. Day after day at January's Sundance Film Festival, in a tidal wave that began forming at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, specialty divisions and some smaller stand-alone distributors spent money like drunk sailors for films they have slated for release throughout the year. All of them remembered how Fox Searchlight turned last year's $10.5 million "Little Miss Sunshine" Sundance buy into a $60 million Oscar-winning hit. So far this year, though some have managed to avoid a bad boxoffice hangover, others have woken up in bed with an unwelcome partner. And now that some of these films have hit theaters, all that conspicuous consumption that took place earlier in the year can be judged by the inevitable boxoffice results.

Fox Searchlight picked up a trio of well-reviewed Sundance films: The late Adrienne Shelly's romantic comedy "Waitress," starring Keri Russell, cost about $4 million to acquire and delivered $18.9 million in ticket sales; John Carney's Irish busking musical "Once," a $1 million acquisition, grossed $8.1 million; and George Ratliff's thriller "Joshua," acquired for $3.7 million, grossed about $478,500.

Not every company made a big Sundance score -- at least as measured by theater receipts to date. Magnolia Pictures paid in the mid-six figures for the documentary "Crazy Love" and grossed slightly less than $300,000 this summer. The company's biggest summer hit was Zoe Cassavetes' low-budget romantic comedy "Broken English" (picked up from its sister company, HDNet Films), which took in $952,390 in theaters.

Warner Independent Pictures bought the Brenda Blethyn comedy "Clubland" for $4 million and renamed it "Introducing the Dwights" but only saw about $378,900 in theaters. ThinkFilm and City Lights Home Entertainment partnered to buy David Wain's comedy "The Ten" for $4.5 million and earned about $643,600 by summer's end, though its all-star cast might help it go on to DVD success like the director's cult hit "Wet Hot American Summer." The verdict is still out on the First Look/Weinstein Co. $4 million co-buy "Dedication," which has pulled in about $60,000 since its four-theater opening Aug. 24.

The first hint of the onslaught to come was felt last year at Toronto, where the film everyone wanted -- the salsa biopic "El Cantante," starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony -- went to Picturehouse for $6 million. It has grossed $7.4 million so far at the boxoffice. Lionsgate paid $1 million for the Alzheimer's drama "Away From Her," which has scored $4.5 million before the inevitable awards-season rerelease.

Several distributors made their biggest money during the summer by staking out the territory before the season actually began and slowly building word-of-mouth as the weeks went by. ThinkFilm opened France's official foreign-language Oscar entry, "Avenue Montaigne," in mid-February, and the film collected more than $600,000 of its $2 million gross after May 4 -- a bigger number than any of ThinkFilm's summer releases save for "The Ten." In one of its final releases from the slate of departed president Ruth Vitale, First Look Studios released the French-language omnibus "Paris je t'aime" in early May and saw it become one of the top-grossing foreign-language films of the year with $4.9 million.

The Weinstein Co. and its genre division Dimension Films partnered with other studios on some of the bigger successes of the summer. Two of the biggest hits were from MGM/Dimension: the PG-13 horror film "1408," a Stephen King adaptation starring John Cusack, and Rob Zombie's gore-filled R-rated remake of "Halloween." The former earned $71.5 million, and the latter smashed Labor Day weekend records with a four-day gross of $30.6 million. Focus Features' genre sister label Rogue Pictures also picked up coin during the same weekend with a four-day, $14.1 million gross on its comedy "Balls of Fury."

The Weinstein Co. earned just $5.8 million with the period adventure flick "The Last Legion," far less than the film's $70 million budget, though the company noted that the film's expense was borne by producer Dino De Laurentiis. Two of the Weinstein Co.'s other slated summer titles -- "Penelope" (acquired with IFC Films) and "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" -- were sold to other distributors shortly before their release dates.

Summer 2007 also proved something of a weather vane for things to come. New distributors Summit Entertainment and Overture Films, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment's MGM output deal and IFC's increased focus on a multitude of First Take titles will all make the theatrical marketplace even more crowded. If the threat of a possible actors strike creates an even crazier buying frenzy at January's Sundance festival, the 2008 summer slate could be even busier.

But several in the industry, including Focus president and Rogue co-president Andrew Karpen, insist that this summer's boxoffice, which favored the majors over the indies, occurred because the traditional specialty-film audience gravitated to well-reviewed studio fare that gave them a needed break from the Iraq War and other harsh realities.

"People who normally went to art house films went to see films like 'Knocked Up' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' which was directed by a guy (Paul Greengrass) with an art house sensibility," said William Morris Independent co-head Cassian Elwes, who helped sell many of this year's big Sundance acquisitions. "It's (in the) zeitgeist -- the real news is so depressing, people want to see quality films that are fun."           

Lionsgate tempo rises with 'Sicko'
Summer total: $94.6 million

Lionsgate far outpaced the competition this summer, but its biggest hit was the Weinstein Co. co-release "Sicko" (pictured). Michael Moore's harsh and humorous health-care expose took in $24.1 million. Currently neck and neck with "An Inconvenient Truth," it will pass that film to become the third-highest-grossing nonmusical documentary of all time this weekend, though its purse doesn't begin to compare with the top-ranking docu, Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" ($119.2 million.)

"Hostel: Part II's" $17.5 million gross was just more than one-third of the original's $47.3 million take, but it cost more than twice its predecessor's $4.8 million budget. The disappointing returns could signal Lionsgate's shift from its longtime cash cow in hard-core horror -- with the exception of the "Saw" franchise, which will return this Halloween.

"War" was good for $18.2 million in theaters thanks to the cross-cultural action appeal of actors Jet Li and Jason Statham. Lionsgate had its action and spoofed it too with "Delta Farce" -- Larry the Cable Guy roped in $8.1 million in redneck business.

"Bratz" brought popular toy dolls to life onscreen and $9.6 million to the boxoffice. On the other end of the demographic scale, the Alzheimer's drama "Away From Her" earned a respectable $4.5 million and is likely to grow with an awards-season push for star Julie Christie. But Lionsgate's future Oscar bait is more likely to come through Roadside Attractions, in which the company purchased a minority stake this summer.     

Drama, pratfalls in Focus' lineup
Summer total: $44.8 million

Both under the Universal Pictures umbrella, Focus Features and its genre division sister Rogue Pictures had a heftier per-film gross than most this summer.

With a cast including nearly every acclaimed female actress of her generation as well their family members, Lajos Koltai's "Evening" raked in $12.4 million. Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Toni Collette, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson all squared off onscreen, while Patrick Wilson and Hugh Dancy provided eye candy for the film's primarily female audience. But so-so reviews and summer competition prevented the Focus film from having longer legs.

Rogue's cop movie satire "Hot Fuzz" kept audiences laughing well beyond its April 20 debut, pulling in $11 million of its $23.6 million this summer. Director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg managed to nearly double the gross of their 2004 Rogue horror spoof "Shaun of the Dead."

Focus' "Talk to Me" earned a disappointing $4.3 million. But Kasi Lemmons' true tale of Washington ex-con-turned-DJ activist Ralph "Petey" Greene boasted a talked-about performance by Don Cheadle and a period soundtrack.

The summer ended on an upbeat note for Rogue. Despite the record-breaking Labor Day competition from killer Michael Myers in Rob Zombie's remake of John Carpenter's "Halloween," Rogue's pingpong spoof "Balls of Fury" (pictured) held its own against the competition. The sight of Christopher Walken playing pingpong helped scare up a respectable $17.1 million during its first six days.

Searchlight takes a slice of boxoffice pie
Summer total: $34.4 million

Fox Searchlight scored enough successes to offset some of its disappointments at the summer boxoffice. Most of the glory came from a pair of wise bets purchased at January's Sundance Film Festival, both of which were quickly turned into hit summer releases.

The late actress-director Adrienne Shelly's romantic comedy "Waitress" (pictured), starring Keri Russell, was an unqualified triumph, grossing $18.9 million on about a $4 million purchase price. And the micro-budgeted modern musical "Once" was an even smarter buy, bringing in $8.1 million on its $1 million investment.

But to show what a gamble the acquisitions game can be, Fox Searchlight's equally acclaimed Sundance psychological thriller "Joshua" took in about $478,500. The distributor's subtitled Russian fantasy horror film pickup "Day Watch" grossed just about the same amount.

Searchlight's in-house Danny Boyle sci-fi production "Sunshine" was far from eternal in theaters, dimming to a $3.6 million take by summer's end.

Still, the distributor's summer share was bolstered by two spring entries that demonstrated that big stars don't necessarily make a huge difference in the indie film world.

"The Namesake" had no names to rely on besides "Monsoon Wedding" director Mira Nair, but that didn't stop the multilingual family drama from earning $13.6 million. "I Think I Love My Wife," by comparison, had writer-director-star Chris Rock and Kerry Washington in a sophisticated romantic comedy that earned slightly less ($12.6 million).          

Edith Pilaf sings for Picturehouse
Summer total: $21.0 million

A French-language biopic about a singer who has been dead for decades brought the boxoffice to life for HBO Films/New Line Cinema's specialty division Picturehouse.

Writer-director Olivier Dahan's "La Vie en Rose" (pictured) examined the tragic life of French chanteuse and drug addict Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard's critically applauded performance helped lead the film to a long run and a $9.6 million domestic take.

Salsa legend Hector Lavoe -- another dead, drug-addicted singer -- didn't prove quite as lucky in theaters. Picturehouse won the largest bidding war at last year's Toronto International Film Festival to score Leon Ichaso's "El Cantante," but the film made little more than its nearly $6 million price tag. "An Inconvenient Truth" director Davis Guggenheim's girls' soccer drama "Gracie" was based on the true story of his wife and star Elisabeth Shue. But the film didn't quite bend it like Beckham, taking in slightly less than $3 million. Jeffrey Blitz's teen comedy "Rocket Science" scored good reviews but never took off at the boxoffice, grossing a bit more than $543,000 in limited release.

The game isn't over for Seth Gordon's video game documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," released in mid-August. The small acquisition from January's Slamdance Film Festival was treated to a modest rollout and has delivered more than $331,300 to date -- not a lot by Hollywood standards, but a lot of quarters nonetheless.           

Miramax books an Austen winner
Summer total: $18.0 million

Miramax took the high road to theaters this summer with a fictionalized Jane Austen biopic that far outgrossed the specialty film unit's other releases.

Julian Jarrold's "Becoming Jane" (pictured) boasted romantic chemistry between "The Devil Wears Prada" star Anne Hathaway and "The Last King of Scotland" lead James McAvoy. Adding Julie Walters and Maggie Smith for some British authenticity helped the early-August release gross $15.7 million, a purse that could continuing growing in the fall. The film is the latest evidence that the Austen name remains an art house lure.

Emanuele Crialese's Italian immigrant drama "Golden Door" earned good reviews for star Charlotte Gainsbourg. It made slightly more than $1 million, a decent gross for a mainly Italian-language period production.

As Picturehouse did with "Rocket Science," Miramax took a bet on an appealing teen comedy with no stars in its cast. The New Zealand import "Eagle vs. Shark," from writer-director Taika Cohen, got a world cinema dramatic grand jury prize nomination at January's Sundance Film Festival but earned only $221,846 at the summer boxoffice.

The early-April release "The Hoax" added nearly $1 million to its $7.2 million take this summer.

Overall, Miramax's total did not lead the field, but in its second summer under president Daniel Battsek the outfit increased its share compared with last summer's $12.3 million tally, with "Jane" substantially outgrossing any of the films that Miramax fielded the previous summer.

A lonely 'Heart' for Vantage
Summer total: $10.8 million

Paramount Vantage went into its second summer as Paramoun