Small fry scramble for turf

Once again it was tough for niche distribs not affiliated with studios to make a dent at the box office, although some bright spots like “Eve’s Bayou” and “Kama Sutra” did find an audience. Whether going after mainstream or specialized screens, few were able to attain a commercial theatrical gross of note.

Trimark, with the best B.O. record, still suffered the ignominy of “Meet Wally Sparks.” However, “Eve’s Bayou” was one of the best-grossing specialized films of the year and “Kama Sutra” also wound up on the plus side.

As a non-studio-aligned producer and distributor with its own library and video business, Trimark is one of a vanishing species. Competitors in the indie film arena such as Rysher, Ciby 2000, Orion and Goldwyn bit the dust in 1997.

In an effort to elude a similar fate, Trimark chairman Mark Amin hired the investment banking firm of Societe Generale Bannon to seek out “strategic alternatives.”

“This is the year that we have stepped up into domestic distribution in a big way,” said executive VP Sergio Arguero.

“The experts had serious doubts as to the box office potential of an African-American gothic drama set in the South,” said Arguero, commenting on “Eve’s Bayou.” “And yet, fueled by a great reception at the Toronto Film Festival and at Telluride, we simultaneously launched the film into the specialized arena and in the African-American community. It crossed over to multiplexes and played well in arthouses.”

Trimark shoots for ‘Star’

In 1998, Trimark releases will include the kid pic “Star Kid,” going out on Jan. 16 for a wide release; “Chairman of the Board” in March, starring comic Carrot Top; and Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box” with Jeremy Irons and Gong Li.

Trimark also plans to form a new division devoted to genre films. Its upcoming releases include “The Ugly,” by New Zealand helmer Scott Reynolds, and Michael Almereyda’s “The Mummy.”

Last year was a year of change for Live Entertainment, whose only strong performer at the box office was “Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster,” a genre pic that ran up more than $15 million in wide release.

Following its $150 million acquisition in 1997 by an investor group led by Boston’s Bain Capital, Live Entertainment is transforming itself from a video distribution company to a full-service film company.

At Bain’s urging, Live chairman Roger Burlage gave up his CEO and president titles and ceded responsibility for day-to-day operations to a new team. Former Bain & Co. exec Mark Curcio became CEO, former ICM agent Bill Block was named president of production, and former October co-president Amir Malin was appointed president.

Veteran execs help out

The trio has taken advantage of the consolidation among specialized film distribs to hire some veteran marketing and distribution execs, including former Metromedia Entertainment exec veepee John Hegeman, who was recently named exec veepee of theatrical marketing at Live.

Among the transactions that Live’s new management team has inked in the last few months are a pay TV output agreement with Showtime, a partnership with the Shooting Gallery that allows the Gotham indie production company to use Live’s distribution network, and a long-term homevideo alliance with Hallmark Entertainment.

During the next few weeks, Live is expected to announce a name change. Speculation persists that the company will merge with Trimark.

The company that came into its own in 1997 was CFP (now Lions Gate Films), a longtime player in Canada that opened for business in the U.S. late in 1995. Spearheading its charge were solid success stories for “The Pillow Book” and “The Daytrippers.” It also had a homegrown hit with the raucous comedy “Les Boys,” which opened in December and is about to set a B.O. record for local Canadian product with a $3 million-plus gross. English-language Canuck fare also scored with Cineplex’s “The Hanging Garden” and Alliance’s “The Sweet Hereafter” both generating more than $500,000 and still in release.

Cinepix Film Properties acquired a new owner in September when Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. of Vancouver acquired the indie production and distribution company, which has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and Toronto. Lions Gate also owns Peter Guber’s Mandalay Television and North Shore Studios of Canada.

On Jan. 12, CFP changed its name to Lions Gate Films and named former CFP exec veepee Jeff Sackman president of the company. In late December, Mark Urman ankled his job as senior vice president at PR firm Dennis Davidson Associates to become president of U.S. distribution for Lions Gate Films. Urman replaces former senior VP Adam Rogers, who has become a consultant to the company.

CFP’s 1998 slate includes Cannes prize-winners “Love and Death on Long Island” and “Junk Mail.” The company will be shopping for acquisitions in Sundance, where its production division will have two films in competition — Saul Rubenik’s “Jerry and Tom” and Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo 66.”

Another interesting development in the indie world was the arrival of two Spanish-language-U.S. set productions. Both Kit Parker’s “Nueba Yol 3″ and Nova’s “Buscando un Sueno” targeted its core audience and rallied to solid B.O. from a handful of prints.

– Monica Roman

and Rex Weiner

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