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Indies go every ‘Witch’ way in ’99

Despite 'Blair's' success, year equaled '98

For the indies, 1999 held a mixed bag of surprises.

Despite “The Blair Witch Project’s” astonishing $142 million domestic gross, the year was actually crunch time: overall independent film box office numbers remained roughly the same as in 1998 and many indie companies overpaid and over-produced projects that failed to catch fire.

Production costs skyrocketed, and so did advertising costs — to a degree due to the dot-com invasion. Companies of every size struggled to find screen space for their films and lamented the fact that the films for which they had the highest hopes got lost in the crowd.

Moreover, the fact that some indie-spirited pics came from the studios — DreamWorks’ “American Beauty,” Paramount’s “Election” and Disney’s “The Straight Story,” for example — raised the ante for specialty companies, which not only had to compete with each other but with the majors, too.

But the year proved encouraging on a number of counts: “Blair Witch” hit a public nerve while showing the power of the Internet as a marketing tool, and foreign-lingo films — from such companies as Sony Pictures Classics, Lions Gate and Fine Line — managed to rebound from poor performances in past years to actually make money.

Below are the highlights and lowlights of the last year for some of the most prominent indies, and a glimpse at what they have in store for 2000.

A year ago, with ARTISAN ENTERTAINMENT having parlayed “Pi” into an indie success, no one anticipated the cash cow that “The Blair Witch Project” would become. But Artisan also had a 1999 hit in docu “The Buena Vista Social Club” ($7 million)

“It was a wonderful year for us. Not simply that we did ‘Blair Witch,’ but that the year more than anything else established Artisan as the leading indie and signaled to the community that we can do as good a job on our pictures as any studio,” said Artisan Entertainment president Amir Malin.

Artisan also made a big mark on the biz with its use of the Internet to sell “Blair Witch,” helping to establishing cyberspace as a mainstream marketing tool. Since then, indies and studios have been trying to figure out how to better use the Internet to promote their films.

“The key to our success,” says Malin, “is our fully integrated system. We can release on video, theatrically, on television. We are entrepreneurial by nature. And we have a wonderful library that establishes us and helps us with the vagaries on the production side.”

While certainly no banner year for the specialty company from which everyone has come to expect the most, MIRAMAX FILMS and its genre label, Dimension, did rack up 10 Golden Globe noms and 1999 profits were roughly $80 million.

The company also undertook ambitious expansions into television (“Wasteland”), publishing (“Talk” magazine), music and theater.

Naysayers point to pics such as “Happy, Texas,” “A Walk on the Moon,” “Princess Mononoke,” “eXistenZ,” “The Castle,” “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” “Mansfield Park” and “Music of the Heart” as underperformers, and note that Miramax’s days of slapping down high acquisition fees may be numbered.

“We should have had a better year,” Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said. “Sure, I spent too much at Sundance. I thought ‘Music of the Heart’ would be a winner and that ‘Happy, Texas’ would find an audience. But what people don’t realize is we’re basically a fiscally conservative company. We know how to hedge our bets.”

But Mark Gill, Miramax’s prexy of worldwide marketing, is less apologetic: “In 1999, we won with ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Life Is Beautiful.’ ‘She’s All That’ played terrifically and we still have high Oscar hopes for ‘An Ideal Husband,’ ‘Cider House Rules,’ ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ which we did with Paramount, and several other films.”

Marcy Granata, Miramax prexy of publicity, defended the mini-major from the charge that over the past year the company has abandoned its roots: “There used to be a notion floated out there that Miramax was abandoning the small film. Honestly, if you look at last year’s slate, you’ll see that the large and small films are nicely co-existing.”

Among the smallest pics on the 1999 Miramax slate — which Granata notes were bought “out of passion and not solely for profits” — were “My Son the Fanatic,” Iranian pic “The Children of Heaven” and Sundance favorite “Guinevere.”

Lessons learned from the year that was?

“The single biggest lesson is that you have to be really careful about bidding wars,” says Gill. “The second is that, unless you are Disney, family films like ‘Music of the Heart’ are tough to pull off.”

Next year, Miramax will reduce the number of pics it acquires and produces and, like the studios, favor pre-buys and co-productions.

Still, Miramax execs expect that whatever perception lingers about its “troubled” year will dissipate in 2000, when the company will release roughly 30 films (nearly the same number as in 1999), including, from Dimension: “Scream 3,” starring Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox Arquette, helmed by Wes Craven; “Deception,” formerly “Reindeer Games,” starring Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise and Charlize Theron, directed by John Frankenheimer; Keenan Ivory Wayans’ “Scary Movie”; Gary Fleder’s “Imposter,” starring Sinise, Madeleine Stowe and Vincent D’Onofrio; and “Texas Rangers,” starring James Van Der Beek, Dylan McDermott, Rachael Leigh Cook, Alfred Molina and Tom Skerritt, directed by Steve Miner.

Almost half of FINE LINE FEATURES’ 1999 release sked included year-end pictures with Oscar aspirations, with only “Tumbleweeds” connecting with a Golden Globe nom and strong kudos for actress Janet McTeer, while “Legend of 1900” and “Simpatico” haven’t found traction.

Fine Line president Mark Ordesky chalks up his second year at the top as “a building year that was comprised of a number of base hits.” Among the “singles and doubles” that make up Fine Line’s eight-picture slate, Ordesky cites “Trick” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Besieged” as films that “did credible business, but were not breakouts.”

Acknowledging the low-key box office numbers from these films as well as “Lovers of the Arctic Circle,” “Man of the Century” and “julien donkey-boy,” Ordesky said 1999 was “OK, but not what it’s ultimately about. You need a mix of breakouts and base hits.” Ordesky believes his 2000 lineup is more balanced.

” ‘The Cup’ and ‘Filth and the Fury’ have base-hit potential,” said Ordesky, whose company aggressively scooped up three pics at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. “Our David Mamet film ‘State and Main’ and Lars von Trier’s ‘Dancer in the Dark’ are larger films in terms of budget, ambition and scale. We also see ‘Tumbleweeds’ and ‘The Cup’ as Oscar-contending, which is important, but we’re certainly looking to add a layer of breakout titles to the mix.”

“It hasn’t gotten any easier,” FOX SEARCHLIGHT’s prexy Lindsay Law told Daily Variety on the same day that he later confirmed he would segue from his post to an exclusive deal with Fox. “There is so much product out there, and there are things that just get lost in the shuffle.”

Law’s tone revealed an edge of frustration over the past year. Indeed, it was a bit quiet over at Fox Searchlight this year, with a number of pics for which the indie shingle had high hopes — such as “Best Laid Plans” and “Dreaming of Joseph Lees” — never really getting out of the gate.

But Searchlight’s adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” pulled in a respectable $16 million-plus at the box office, and Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” garnered Golden Globe noms for lead actress Hilary Swank and supporting actress Chloe Sevigny. Searchlight also released the highly anticipated “Titus” from hot theatrical director Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”).

The bottom line: According to Law, the year was profitable. “Any year that is profitable is a good year,” he said. “Shakespeare is a built-in barrier to an audience, but a lot of people saw ‘Midsummer’ and ‘Titus.’ Plus, ‘Boys’ is a challenging movie and we have gotten it out there in a wonderful way.”

Still, Law — who will oversee the musical production of “The Full Monty” for Searchlight — says next year the company has “a larger percentage of more friendly films.”

Highlights for the coming year are the comedy “Woman on Top,” featuring Penelope Cruz; “The Closer You Get,” from “The Full Monty” producer Uberto Pasolini; “Bootmen,” an Australian tap-dance pic starring Adam Garcia and Sam Worthington; “Quills,” centering on the Marquis de Sade, toplined by Kate Winslet, Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine and directed by Philip Kaufman; and “Sexy Beast,” starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.

For LIONS GATE RELEASING co-president Tom Ortenberg, the firm’s top 1999 release, Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” ($29.4 million and still playing) bears “an eerie similarity” to his company’s first big picture of 2000, “American Psycho.” “Both films are hip and edgy with indie roots and they’re both controversial,” said Ortenberg, clearly hoping the long-awaited Mary Harron version of Bret Easton Ellis’ grisly novel will stir up “Dogma”-like numbers.

“The past year’s highlights include Oscar nominations and wins for ‘Affliction’ and ‘Gods and Monsters’ early in the year, the success of ‘The Red Violin’ and ‘The Dinner Game’ and ‘Dogma,’ all of which signals Lions Gate’s emergence as major distributor of motion pictures,” said Ortenberg — whose company recently attracted new investors to the tune of $30 million.

“Dogma” is an especially important milestone for the company in Ortenberg’s view. “We had to prove to the marketplace that we could back it up when we said we had a picture that would perform on 1,300 screens. Also, I’m proud of the fact that we did a good job of managing the release. We made sure it didn’t get enveloped by the controversy,” said Ortenberg, referring to the dust-up over the Miramax-financed film’s Catholic themes and iconoclastic treatment of same, both of which scared Disney-owned Miramax into selling off the picture.

As for Lions Gate’s 2000 slate, Ortenberg describes it as “a good mix of smaller arthouse films and larger breakout films.” The latter category includes the Kevin Spacey/Danny DeVito-starrer “The Big Kahuna,” opening April 21, and the Nicolas Cage-produced historical thriller “Shadow of the Vampire” with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe.

Established less than two years ago, PARAMOUNT CLASSICS is still very much a new kid on the block, and in 1999 it continued to struggle to find its way.

Though the top brass at Paramount Pictures say they support Classics and will do so long-term, the division’s releases over the past year hardly registered a blip on the indie radar.

Pics such as “Where’s Marlowe,” “Trekkies,” “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole” and “Train of Life” came and went, though “Get Real,” which Classics picked up from Distant Horizon for mid- to high-six figures, has grossed roughly $1.5 million — a solid showing, though nothing to write home about.

“You can lose a lot of money very quickly if you’re not wise — and cautious,” said Ruth Vitale, Classics’ co-president with David Dinerstein. “You have to do it very carefully. It makes no sense to rush.”

An acquisitions- rather than development-driven company, Par Classics last year initially bid on the Sundance comedy “Happy, Texas” but backed off when the price soared into the neighborhood of $11 million.

For the time being, Par’s vice chair, Rob Friedman, agrees with the speciality division’s cautious approach: “The idea was to grow the business slowly, not jumping in, opening up a checkbook, and saying, ‘Come one, come all.’ ”

On deck for next year is a bolder slate, including co-productions and pics acquired at fests. Among them: “Passion of Mind” starring Demi Moore and Stellan Skarsgard, from helmer Alain Berliner (“Ma Vie en Rose”); and Sofia Coppola’s frosh directorial outing, “The Virgin Suicides,” starring Kirsten Dunst, James Woods and Kathleen Turner.

One of the few indie companies unencumbered by corporate parents, TRIMARK over the past year has continued to grow from a company best known for its made-for-cable television product to one releasing about eight pics theatrically (both through acquisitions and production), while producing a range of product for NBC and video.

Trimark has gravitated toward controversial material (it picked up vid rights to “Happiness”). In 1999, the company released two pics without an MPAA rating: the sexually explicit French film “Romance” and the lesbian pic “Better Than Chocolate.” Both proved profitable.

“We are willing to take risks with subject matters that others, because of their corporate structure, are not,” said Dennis O’Connor, senior veep of Trimark’s theatrical division.

Though the company’s two other 1999 releases — “Twice Upon a Yesterday” and the Sundance pic “Joe the King” generated little interest, O’Connor is optimistic about 2000: “1999 was the first year that we went into production on theatrical titles since we did ‘Eve’s Bayou’ in 1997. We hired a new head of production, Robin Shore, and we are already starting to see the results of her efforts.”

Highlights for 2000 include: “Skipped Parts” with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Drew Barrymore and Brad Renfro, and “Stalk,” starring Gretchen Mol, Tom Everett Scott and Samantha Mathis.

The newly formed SCREEN GEMS — which defines itself as a branded label for genre audiences of focused demographics and takes its name from Sony’s long-defunct television division — came to life this year with Mark Pellington’s “Arlington Road” and John Sayles’ “Limbo.”

“Because it was our first year, there has been a certain amount of start-up time,” said executive veep Clint Culpepper, who leads the Sony division with Peter Schlessel and Val Van Gelder. “We are very proud of both of our releases. Both were critically acclaimed films and successful in their own right. It was significant for us because both films got us onto the map.”

Hunting for projects that will appeal to such demographics as the teen horror audience, Latinos and African-Americans, and empowered to operate without parent Sony’s direct supervision, Screen Gems will continue to define itself as it puts forth at least two new pics next year: the digitally shot, Mike Figgis-helmed “Time Code: 2000,” co-starring an ensemble cast that includes Saffron Burrows and Salma Hayek; and James Toback’s “Black & White.”

Screen Gems plans to be involved with six to eight films a year.

“It was a really good year for us,” said SONY PICTURES CLASSICS co-prexy Michael Barker. “In the beginning of the year, we had the continued success of last year’s ‘Central Station’ and the ‘Dreamlife of Angels’ — the most successful French film of the year — and ‘The Winslow Boy.’ ”

But last year’s biggest highlight was the critical and commercial success of the German pic “Run Lola Run” (which grossed north of $7 million, though didn’t break out into a “Life is Beautiful”). Other highlights included Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” which opens wider this month and which garnered Golden Globe noms for Sean Penn and Samantha Morton.

Barker says he wishes “Loss of Sexual Innocence” and “This Is My Father” had performed better, but he is especially pleased at how the company’s foreign pics fared: “The year before we were ready to turn in the towel with foreign-language films,” said Barker. “But with ‘Central Station,’ ‘All About My Mother’ and ‘Dreamlife,’ it was a great rebound.”

The amalgam of October Films and Gramercy Pictures, USA FILMS has managed to transition into one company with relative ease and speed. Such releases as Robert Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune,” “Trippin’ ” and more recently “Being John Malkovich” (pic was made for $2 million-$3 million and has grossed $16 million to date and was also nominated for two Golden Globes) have successfully put the company on the map. The higher-budgeted “The Muse” starring Sharon Stone and Albert Brooks did not live up to expectations and Ang Lee’s period drama “Ride With the Devil” faces an uphill battle to find an audience. Nonetheless, USA Films hopes to straddle the worlds of indie and studio filmmaking.

Said chairman Scott Greenstein and president Russell Schwartz: “We feel this year we have shown the community that we have the money to make good movies. We feel that our movies will be a mix of high-end stuff and commercial studio fare. We can play across the board and we don’t want to be typecast.”

Said Greenstein: “In six months we have gone a long way in showing the community that we are a viable alternative to the studios and to a number of the smaller, niche indies.”

After canvassing the town to find an exec with acquisitions and production experience, company tapped “Shakespeare in Love” producer Donna Gigliotti as prexy of production.

Gigliotti said the company will strive to produce eight to 10 films per year, with budgets ranging from $15 million to $25 million — although she didn’t rule out making more expensive pics.

Highlights of this year’s slate include Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy”; a restored version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”; a sci-fi thriller from writer/director David Twohy titled “Pitch Black,” starring Radha Mitchell and Vin Diesel; and Angelica Huston’s “Agnes Brown,” based on the best-selling Irish novel “The Mammy” and starring Marion O’Dwyer and Arno Chevrier.

(Christian Moerk and Claude Brodesser contributed to this report.)

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