Niche pix in summer pinch

In a season dominated by blockbusters, vets of the niche pic are quick to cite chapter and verse about the dynamism of specialized summer releases.

Not everyone, they argue, is inclined to rush out to see “The Lost World” or “Batman & Robin.” And since the mid-1980s that’s meant manna at the box office for specialized titles such as “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “sex, lies, and videotape” and “Il Postino.”

Just one year ago, such films as “Stealing Beauty,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” successfully counterprogrammed megapics like “Twister,” “Mission: Impossible” and “The Rock.” And “Emma,” “Lone Star” and “Trainspotting” opened strong in June and July, going on to gross more than $10 million domestically.

However, the current mood in specialized circles is glum.

Hits hard to find

Exhibitors don’t see any imminent breakout hits in the specialized field, while the current hot titles are running out of steam. Distribs are frustrated by the lack of new arthouse screens and the limited opportunities for hits to cross over during the crowded blockbuster season.

“It’s a product-light time in a potentially rich period,” says Jack Foley of New York-based City Cinemas, which operates the Angelika Film Center. “If there are any films that can gross $10 million, none is going to have an easy time getting there.”

Foley and other exhibs remain high on a number of films, including Orion’s “Ulee’s Gold”; Miramax’s “Mrs. Brown” and “She’s So Lovely”; Sony Classics’ “In the Company of Men”; Fox Searchlight’s “The Full Monty”; October’s latest Mike Leigh pic “Career Girls”; and Trimark’s “Box of Moonlight.”

That selection is expected to generate solid grosses of between $6 million to $8 million. However, all agree the marketplace is truly lacking one or more $10 million-plus juggernauts.

Bob Laemmle of L.A.’s Laemmle Theaters says that the summer drought should have been apparent following disappointing response to the selections at the most recent Sundance and Cannes film fests.

Hot spell runs dry

“The last 18 months have been great for specialized,” he says. “We’ve just hit a dry patch and that will probably mean that certain pictures will be able to hang in a little longer in the marketplace.”

True specialized fare — pictures that play on a limited number of screens and have genuinely upscale appeal — has comprised about 5% of ticket sales for at least four decades. That should translate into $100 million during the current summer season. But it won’t.

The reasons for specialized fare traditionally coming up proportionally short during the hot months can be attributed to a couple of factors.

One key element is tradition. Just as the majors have been loathe to release their event pics outside of the summer and Christmas holiday primetime frames, distribs of alternative titles appear committed to opening the most potent in the fall to capitalize on the awards season.

The second consideration is available sites. Fewer than 500 screens are dedicated to specialized fare 52 weeks of the year. Whereas the building boom for mainstream megaplexes and multiplexes is expanding at a rate between 6% to 8% annually, arthouse outlets have been growing at a snail’s pace, 1% to 2% a year.

“It’s a slow, steady business,” notes Landmark Theater Corp. president Steve Gilula, whose chain’s 100-odd specialized screens outdistance all competitors.

“We are the boutiques in an industry of megamalls and have to do a lot of nurturing to survive.”

Landmark’s expansion — including new venues in Cambridge, Mass., and Minneapolis — was put on hold for close to two years during the period owner Samuel Goldwyn Co. was being acquired by Metromedia. It now will move ahead with construction of six to 10 theaters and at least 50 additional screens by 1999.

The first of City Cinemas’ Angelika theaters outside Manhattan will be unveiled in Houston by year’s end. Rumors persist of a string of Sundance cinemas with General Cinemas the most serious tire-kicker for that franchise.

“Obviously, 100 new strategic screens would be a godsend,” says Sony Classics’ partner Michael Barker. “It’s great to be able to get into new areas of the country because a megaplex needs product and you have a film doing great business in major centers. But pictures like ‘Lone Star’ and ‘Trainspotting’ still do most of their business on dedicated screens. There’s just no comparison in grossing potential between the two situations.”

Gilula insists that screen availability is not a significant factor for the lack of high-profile prestige movies this summer. His big concern is that several high-profile specialized pics decided to hold back until the fall.

Gilula expects to see a repeat of autumn 1996 when a glut of American indies saw even the top pics grossing less than their full commercial potential because of the crowding and competition for screens.”There’s no question that a handful of pictures stand out from the pack in quality and originality,” says one specialized exhib. “But boy, there are a lot of films this summer that look the same or appeal to one faction of an already small fraction of the audience. You just get the feeling that films are being thrown into theaters to fulfill contractual commitments and are pretty much dead on arrival.”

One oft-heard concern is the number of gay-themed movies being released. While both “Jeffrey” and “Go Fish” posted solid summer showings in the past, the obvious concern is that too many films targeting the same core audience will diminish overall results.

In addition to Fine Line’s current “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” there are at least six other pictures with gay storylines. These include Fox Searchlight’s “Star Maps,” First Look’s “Different for Girls” and Paramount’s “Kiss Me Guido.”

Strand, which has both “The Delta” and “Latin Boys Go to Hell” slotted in August, is now considering moving the latter film to fall.

Though not thematically linked, exhibs are also twitchy about Fine Line’s “Head Above Water,” Live’s “The Winner” and “The Last Time I Committed Suicide” from Roxie. The problem here is that these films premiered on pay cable and that such prior exposure rarely pays off theatrically.

However, as with so many cyclical elements of filmgoing, a seeming homogeneity of product invariably opens up opportunities for the truly offbeat or difficult titles. Such beneficiaries may be demanding films such as Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book” from CFP, virtually any of the foreign-language releases or Sony Classics’ black comedy “Dream With the Fishes.”

“You just pray that quality will win out,” says Arrow Releasing’s Steve Fagan. “For many niche films — like ‘Ponette’ which we’re slowly expanding throughout the summer — your best hook is the film itself, so you’re very dependent on reviews and word of mouth. Hopefully, after a few big- budget extravaganzas people will be screaming for something else.”

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