Studios are again rolling the dice on midbudget pics

Is it possible that, after two decades of florid eulogies, the death of the studio-backed midbudget, character-driven pic has been greatly exaggerated?

While movie screens at the recent Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, lit up with two documentaries mourning the loss of the American cinema of the 1970s, filmgoers in the rest of the country could saunter into a local multiplex and catch a number of movies that seem to embody the spirit and struggle of those projects of yore. Films such as “Solaris” and “The Hours” tackled difficult, cerebral material and weren’t automatic B.O. slam-dunks.

“The Hours” may have looked like a sure thing on paper with a cast including Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. But ask its producer Scott Rudin how he got Paramount and Miramax to team up the film and he’ll tell you that both studios “rolled the dice” on “a very risky project.”

Says Rudin: “You look at it now and say, ‘Here’s a movie that’s gotten a tremendous amount of acclaim and people are responding to it — it doesn’t look so risky.’ But it was. There are a handful of people who finance movies who are willing to take a bet on something that Continued from page A1

needs to be excellent in order to be successful, and two of them in this case were Sherry Lansing and Harvey Weinstein.”

By co-financing, Paramount and Miramax were able to reduce each other’s potential liability on “The Hours” — long a strategy employed in the budgeting of “Titanic”-size blockbusters, but now an increasingly common approach for smaller studio pics, too.

Trend setters

While films like the $22 million “The Hours” and $24-million “Adaptation” (Sony/Intermedia) were perhaps the most obvious harbingers of this trend in 2002, the $20-million-plus “Punch-Drunk Love” (Sony/Revolution/New Line) also fit the bill — adventurous projects all, and not a sure thing among them.

“For us, the good way to do ‘Adaptation’ was to co-finance it with Intermedia,” says Columbia Pictures president Peter Schlessel, adding that such decisions aren’t always about financial risk.

“Internationally, a lot of these pictures are better served by having distributors in those territories who raise their hands and say, ‘I really want this,’ as opposed to what happens if they’re fully financed by one studio and go through that studio’s distribution. That’s the advantage of doing a split-rights deal with a nonstudio partner.”

Of course, getting such pics made is only half the battle. The two-lane blacktop stretching from Hollywood’s studios to America’s cinemas is littered with the corpses of unconventional movies (like 2001’s “The Pledge”) that were unceremoniously dumped into the marketplace upon completion. But last year, even commercial underperformers “Solaris” and “Punch-Drunk Love” could claim to have the full (even nurturing) support of their respective makers.

Paying for prestige

Rudin lays it out pragmatically: “These movies all need to be platformed, but it’s very hard to spend ($3 million to $4 million) a week in marketing costs to earn ($2 million to $3 million) of gross. When you’re in these movies, you’re playing a much longer game, and I think it’s very hard for the studios to have the patience that these movies require; whereas the indies are much more accustomed to movies that take this length of time to achieve success.”

So why, given all the difficulties of making and releasing films that defy tried-and-true formulas, were so many studios in exactly this business in 2002?

“I think the studios saw the success of the independents and thought, ‘Why are we ceding this part of the business?'” reasons Mark Ordesky, who when he isn’t producing the “Lord of the Rings” movies serves as prexy of Fine Line. “What you’re seeing are the studios saying that they have the ability to dominate this sector as well by backing great filmmakers making bold, provocative films.”

“There’s a hunger in the audience for sophisticated, intelligent material,” adds Rudin. “If you look at a medium that’s even more mainstream than movies — like television — it’s been telling stories in much more original and interesting ways than movies have for a long time.”

More potentially original, interesting and highly stylized work is in the pipeline for this year and beyond. Fox will release “Down With Love,” a romantic comedy that seeks to do for Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies what “Far From Heaven” did for Douglas Sirk. While Schlessel enthuses about Col’s “The Lords of Dogtown,” David Fincher’s forthcoming pic set amid the surf and skate cultures of Venice Beach in the 1970s.

But do the hard-earned successes of the past year (chief among them “Hours,” with nine Oscar mentions and more than $26 million in domestic gross after two months of limited release) really alter the landscape for developing and financing similarly difficult material?

Is there any room left at the studios for Irving Thalberg’s philosophy that sometimes you knowingly have to take a loss on a picture because the picture itself is so worth making?

“A film division is just a small part of a big international corporation,” opines Saul Zaentz, who’s been backing unconventional material, with and without the aid of studio partners, for three decades.

“The thing that keeps it going is the glamour; they get more publicity from the film division than they get from divisions that do 20 to 30 times as much business,” says Zaentz. “Each studio has some very good guys, but the Thalbergs you can forget; the last one was Arthur Krim at United Artists.”

“At the end of the day, you have a responsibility to the company to make movies that make money,” Schlessel says, “and it’s certainly easier to make a lot of money on ‘Men in Black II’ than it is to make it on ‘Adaptation.’ That’s why you’ll make 10 ‘Men in Black IIs’ in any given year; you won’t make 10 ‘Adaptations.’ In a slate of 12 or 14 movies, which we’re trying to do, if you make one that you really believe in, that’s a good business to be in.”

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