Company succeeds by catering to distinct auds, Rice sez

At a time when nine-figure budgets and 3,000-theater openings dominate Hollywood’s business, Fox Searchlight’s approach seems almost quaint.

But Searchlight’s results show there’s still room at the table for an operation that nails the elusive niches.

Peter Rice, now in his third year as topper, asserts the Searchlight model succeeds partly because the majors are so focused on blockbusters, though there are audiences out there looking for more diverse fare.

“We and others cater to this distinct audience,” declares the 35-year-old Brit. “The specialty business is in great shape, as is Searchlight.”

Though Searchlight, with a staff of 35, hasn’t duplicating its stunning perf with the 1997 megahit “The Full Monty,” the shingle has stabilized an inconsistent track record and has quietly rolled up profits over the last 18 months.

And it’s forging a clear identity amid Hollywood’s increasingly confused landscape. Execs insist Searchlight will continue to observe its $15 million cap on negative costs and limit the number of releases to less than a dozen annually.

“We will never go to 30 or 40 a year because there aren’t that many good specialized films out there,” asserts Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman, who was Searchlight’s first prexy. “Eight to 10 a year is really the right level if it’s going to be a first-class operation. And I think they’re really hitting their stride now. “

Rothman also believes the specialty operations are crucial for studios on several key fronts — finding new voices, developing relationships and working against “creative homogenization.”

Much of Searchlight’s success have come from its acquisitions. But coming up are its own projects, such as “One Hour Photo,” “Garage Days” and “Le Divorce.”

Though Searchlight can’t pay much — even an A-list director would have to work for $250,000 tops while a top writer would probably take home no more than $150,000 — the trade-off is artistic freedom, notes exec VP of production Claudia Lewis.

“The filmmakers know they’ll be working with interesting material without the weight of having to make a blockbuster,” she adds.

Rice and his team receive high marks throughout Hollywood for expert cultivation of relationships with filmmakers such as Danny Boyle, who has signed on for sci-fi saga “28 Days Later.” Underscoring its image of artist-friendliness, the shingle even started Searchlab last year as an incubator for new talent.

“What I love about Peter Rice and his team is that they work from the filmmakers out,” one top agent explains. “It’s very much about the relationship so filmmakers are very comfortable with him.”

Last year’s Searchlight pics included “Sexy Beast,” “The Deep End” and “Waking Life,” which helped propel the label to a solid $41 million-plus.

The 2002 slate of “Super Troopers” (bought for $2.5 million) and “Kissing Jessica Stein” ($1 million acquisition) has combined to gross an impressive $25 million. Next month it releases a pair of offbeat dramas: “The Good Girl” with Jennifer Aniston on Aug. 7 and “One Hour Photo” with Robin Williams two weeks later.

Coming up this year are “Banger Sisters” with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon; romantic comedy “Brown Sugar” with Queen Latifah; a Jim Sheridan project and “Antwone Fisher,” Denzel Washington’s directorial debut.

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