While 1996 was widely hailed as the year of the independent, so far, 1997 has offered distributors of specialized product little to cheer about.

Unlike last year, when “Fargo,” “Secrets & Lies” and “Lone Star” led a parade of specialized pics into mainstream consciousness, this year’s indie crop has had a harder time finding a foothold amid the avalanche of big-budget studio pictures.

One bright spot has been the 2-1/2-year-old U.S. distribution arm of Toronto-based Cinepix Film Properties. The company specializes in efficient, publicity-driven releases for small independent and foreign films it acquires.

CFP had notable success with Greg Mottola’s quirky comedy “The Daytrippers,” grossing a solid $1.9 million in three months of platform release.

The company now is distributing British helmer Peter Greenaway’s erotic drama “The Pillow Book.” The picture earned $1.3 million in its first month and still is going strong.

“One of the advantages of being truly independent is you get to dance between the raindrops,” says Adam Rogers, VP of U.S. distribution. “There will always be a segment of an audience who won’t want to see ‘Batman’ or ‘Face/Off.’ “

Rogers lays much of the company’s B.O. success at the feet of L.A.-based distribution chief Tom Ortenberg. A veteran of Columbia Pictures and the now-defunct Hemdale, Ortenberg has managed to book CFP’s quirky fare into mainstream suburban megaplexes as well as more traditional urban arthouses.

The company’s track record is starting to win it a reputation among producers. That in turn has helped it compete successfully for product with the studios’ specialized arms.

“While Miramax is still considered the cream of the crop, there seems to be a perception that we’re a very viable alternative,” exec VP Jeff Sackman says.

The company next will release Jonathan Nossiter’s “Sunday,” winner of the grand jury prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In addition, CFP recently announced the acquisition of a trio of award-winning festival titles:

“Love and Death on Long Island” premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and won director Richard Kwietniowski a Pierrot Award, given by European critics for the first time at this year’s fest.

“Junk Mail,” the first feature from Norwegian commercials helmer Pal Sletaune, is a comedy about a love-starved mailman that won the top prize in the Critics Week section at Cannes.

“Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist,” won a special jury prize at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival and the audience award for best feature at the recent L.A. Independent Film Festival.

While “Love” and “Junk” were highly sought-after arthouse films, the controversial “Sick,” which features graphic scenes of self-mutilation, was a less obvious choice.

“We know there’s a lot of critical support for the film,” explains Sackman, who compared the documentary with Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb.” “You go in thinking you’re going to be repulsed, but over the course of the film you’re won over by this guy.”

The company is equipped to distribute 12 to 15 films per year, according to Rogers, with releases ranging from eight to 70 prints. Some of those releases are service deals, in which CFP acts as a distributor-for-hire for a producer or video company.

Cinepix was formed in 1962 by president Andre Link and chairman John Dunning. The company merged with the Viacom-owned Canadian exhibitor Famous Players in 1989 but the two companies parted ways in 1994.

CFP opened its U.S. distrib office in 1995 and went on to distribute films including “Cyclo,” James Mangold’s “Heavy” and Hal Hartley’s “Flirt.”

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