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Fox Searchlight focuses names, arthouse appeal

HIGH POINTS: The specialized division is increasingly acting as a farm team for the major leaguers 20th Century Fox and Fox 2000. As 1996 drew to close, Ang Lee, who had directed “Ice Storm” for Searchlight, had just closed a deal to direct the Civil War drama “Woe to Live” for Fox. Bruce Beresford, who recently wrapped Searchlight’s “Paradise Road,” will probably direct his next film for Fox 2000.

LOW POINTS: Arthouse films are dependent on strong reviews and support from the press to reach a mainstream audience, and in many cases Searchlight titles such as “Stealing Beauty” and “She’s the One” failed to spark sufficient kudos.

“The critics didn’t want ‘Stealing Beauty’ as the next Bertolucci film. They wanted an epic — not some sweet Tuscan coming of age story,” said Fox Searchlight president Lindsay Law. “And in Ed Burns’ case, it was that old story of once the critics lick you all over on your first film, they have to beat you down on your second.”

OUTLOOK FOR 1997: Searchlight has just emerged from a year of transition: The slate of Searchlight founder Tom Rothman, now at Fox, finished up its theatrical run while new Searchlight leader Law got up to speed. The good news is that Fox brass is sanguine about its prospects for the future .

“It’s time for Searchlight to start paying its way,” Law acknowledged.

Added News Corp.’s Peter Chernin, “The biggest problem with the specialty market place is that everyone is chas-ing the next ‘Crying Game’ or the next ‘Piano,’ and that is ruining the specialized business. Many of Searchlight’s competitors are spending too much to acquire the hot titles, and they are certainly spending too much to attract a crossover audience. We are happy to hit singles and doubles with movies like ‘She’s the One’ and ‘Stealing Beauty.’ ”

But in order to cut through the clutter of a specialized film marketplace that’s becoming more and more crowded, Searchlight is looking to a quartet of star-studded bigger-budgeted yet personal films such as Beresford’s tale of women POWs during World War II, “Paradise Road,” starring Glenn Close, and “The Ice Storm,” Lee’s kid’s-eye-view of sex in the suburbs that stars Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline and Joan Allen. Des McAnuff’s “Cousin Bette” toplines Oscar winners Jessica Lange and Elisabeth Shue, while the romance “Oscar and Lucinda” stars Ralph Fiennes. A pair of comedies, “Love and Other Catastrophes” and “The Full Monty,” could bask in the media glare of the Sundance Film Festival next week. “Monty” stars Robert Carlisle, who made an impact as the sociopath Begbie in “Trainspotting.”

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