Specialty biz feels jitters

Indie labels unnerved by latest studio deals

The Paramount Vantage downsizing has industry executives doing some serious soul searching over studio involvement in the specialty-film business.

As the news settled during the past few days, execs, producers and agents contemplated the fact that Vantage titles would be marketed and distributed through parent company Paramount.

But coming on the heels of the consolidation at Warner Bros.' Picturehouse, WIP and New Line, the same folks also were mulling what the latest developments portend for specialty films of all stripes.

"There are two ways of viewing all these changes: either that the market is falling apart or that this is a healthy shakeout," said one producer who has made movies for several specialty divisions.

He added that the third possible explanation — and one he's tempted to embrace — is a collective over-reaction by those calling the shots in the restructurings.

"I think you're seeing a knee-jerk reaction because too many of these companies were overbuilt," the producer said. "Everyone thought they can win an Oscar and gross $100 million, and that's not true. But there's still a market for specialty movies. It just may happen in the $25 million-$30 million range."

Meanwhile, four studio specialty divisions have remained relatively unaffected through the havoc — Focus, Miramax, Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight. All would seem to have unique models or reasons for being.

Focus has a strong international sales arm, and Miramax's prestige movies differ substantially from the releases of its parent studio. Sony Classics has a long, successful track record of breaking out low- to mid-budget fare.

And Fox Searchlight has been effective with its trademark approach to platform releases — though Searchlight's more commercial releases suggest it doesn't bear all the classic hallmarks of a specialty division.

In times past, the modestly budgeted adult-oriented movies now dubbed specialty films were handled by the same marketing and distribution teams that handled all of a studio's other pictures. Execs of the time believed the audience for such films was sizable enough as to warrant the films' care and nurturing.

But production costs for this indie fare have risen dramatically in recent years as has marketing expenditures. Marketing outlays on the Vantage/Miramax drama "There Will Be Blood," for instance, approached $70 million. That kind of outlay suggests it's "a logical decision to have the studio take over more than they used to," one top industryite said.

Still, it's too soon to say there will be fewer specialty titles unspooling collectively this year.

"This doesn't necessarily mean that there will be fewer specialty movies generally," indie-world veteran Jonathan Dana said. "It just means there may not be as many released by studios."

Such newer companies as Overture and Summit could compensate for slate downsizing among studio specialty divisions. Still, anxiety is palpable.

"I know a lot of people are feeling terror," a specialty film insider said. "It's tempting to want to see a trend here, but the Time Warner and Paramount news (may be limited) just to those companies."(partialdiff)