Summer’s niche pix nip at blockbusters

Though it didn’t get much attention, one of the most audacious gambles of the summer apparently has paid off. Defying the odds, distributors of arthouse movies and other specialized fare bucked the blockbusters this summer and released a wide array of films. And people went to see them – lots of people.

Miramax, Fox Searchlight, Gramercy, Orion, Sony Pictures Classics and Fine Line Features gambled that a sentient audience would steer clear of formulaic studio product and propel a handful of small films – “The Postman” (II Postino), “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love,” “Jeffrey,” “The Usual Suspects” and “The Brothers Mc-Mullen”- to profitable theatrical runs.

Of course, to put things in the proper perspective, one should not forget that the combined grosses of the top 10 indie pics released this summer comes close to the tally so far of a single studio release like “Judge Dredd” or “Babe”- in the neighborhood of $33 million.

And it remains to be seen whether summer will continue to be a propitious new play period for indie fare. An unsettling byproduct of the indies’ inroads are the cannibalistic battles for screens on the arthouse circuit, much like the competition that affects the studios.

Part of the success of these smaller pics was the result of the major studios having turned their backs on adult audiences. With the notable exceptions of Warner Bros.’ “The Bridges of Madison County” and Universal’s “Apollo 13,” the studios by and large released a non-stop parade of assembly-line films.

Even such barometers of mainstream taste as the latenight TV chat shows quietly attested to the triumph of arthouse fare this summer: “Kids'” 19-year-old screenwriter, Harmony Korine, shared his rich fantasy life with David Letterman on “The Late Show,” and Ed Burns, the creator of “The Brothers McMullen,” chatted with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” Few could remember the last time a freshman director (let alone a cub script-writer) appeared on either show.

“Everyone told us we wouldn’t get theaters, we wouldn’t get play-dates,” remembers Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein of this past spring. “But we made it a major priority this year to get rid of the stigma associated with June and July for arthouse releases. We did it with ‘The Postman,’ ‘Belle de Jour’ and ‘Smoke,’ which was the perfect antidote after you’ve seen a few metal movies.”

It was not all beer and skittles for Miramax and its competitors, though. Despite its leverage, even Miramax could not hold screens for “Lie Down With Dogs” and “Country Life.” The latter cost Miramax well over $1 million when marketing costs are figured in, and that film will be lucky to break $400,000 in its theatrical run. But on titles into which Miramax had sunk major production bucks, like the $5 million “Smoke,” the distributor had better luck.

Coming out of the Berlin Film Festival, “Smoke’s” creative team of director Wayne Wang, producer Peter Newman and scribe Paul Auster raised eyebrows when their film was slated for a June release.

Miramax spent less than $2 million to promote the film, but it has grossed more than $6 million and is still playing on 94 screens after 12 weeks in release. The distributor already has generated foreign sales of $5 million, so Miramax stands to make a decent profit on a film that competitors were knocking as a dog back in the spring.

“Belle de Jour” will prove an even bigger cash cow. Acquired for $250,000 and marketed for twice that, the Luis Bunuel classic will gross about $4 million in its theatrical run. And since it has never been on video, Miramax will reap that windfall, too. Granted, the scale here is completely different from a big Hollywood movie, but the profit margin of that June release is considerable.

One explanation for the growing number of specialized films that hits screens in the summer has little to do with counterprogramming and more to do with the fact that the month of October, once a fertile period for indies, has become increasingly crowded with edgy product from the studios.

Challenging fare from the majors finds its way into October for two reasons: The studios hope the pics will be fresh in the mind of Oscar voters at year’s end, and they worry that edgy films that rely on word-of-mouth will get yanked from screens too quickly in the summer.

With a fall that’s already promising the Fox drama “Waiting to Exhale,” Universal’s “Clockers” and MGM/UA’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty,” several distributors feel the adult audience will be well provided for, and they would do best to get some of their titles out of the way.

‘Spice’

“In the summer, specialized films provide much-needed spice in the moviegoer’s diet,” says Fox Searchlight president Tom Rothman. “Well, in the fall the diet is more spicy. That’s one reason we were confident about launching the division with ‘The Brothers McMullen’ in August.”

Back in May, the two most oft-repeated predictions for the summer from arthouse mavens were that Miramax would get its head handed to it trying to release so many titles in June and July, and that Rothman was crazy to release a low-budget romantic comedy on more than 250 screens in August. The naysayers were wrong on both counts.

Several old hands of the indie world know that August has proved itself to be the perfect launching pad for a late-summer sleeper. Audiences are usually exhausted from all the studio pyrotechnics. Last summer, “Barcelona” and “The Adventure of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” emerged from this berth and became big earners for Fine Line and Gramercy, respectively.

“The key point is that the punishment has to fit the crime,” Rothman adds. “I looked at a time period where there was ‘Lord of Illusions’ and ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and I thought a romantic comedy (like “Brothers”) would really stand out.”

Gramercy Pictures prexy Russell Schwartz believes that a summer arthouse release does not have to be breezy or have a sun-drenched tropical locale to catch fire in August. He points to “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which Island Pictures successfully released in August a decade ago.

Gramercy steered clear from most of the summer even though the buzz that “The Usual Suspects” generated at May’s Cannes Film Festival tempted Schwartz to release the film in July.

“If we felt that ‘The Usual Suspects’ could only play on 200 screens like ‘Kids,’ then we would have gone in July,” Schwartz says. “But we wanted to push further, and there just aren’t enough screens that early in the summer.” “Suspects” expanded to 500 screens over the Labor Day weekend.

Another distributor that treated the summer with trepidation was Sony Pictures Classics. “Safe” and “Living in Oblivion” played on a handful of screens, but execs there decided to pull “Mute Witness” from their summer lineup. Anthony Waller’s horror pic about a mute makeup artist trapped in a studio where a snuff movie is being shot is skedded to be SPC’s widest release to date.

But with Dimension’s demonic epic “Prophecy” and New Line Cinema’s “Mortal Kombat” consuming a large portion of the horror-phile demo that Sony hopes to capture, the distrib pushed “Mute” back to September.

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