Searchlight turns up the wattage

Fox unit uses cofunding for higher-profile deals

A correction was made to this article on Oct. 26, 2003.

Fox Searchlight’s wattage getting brighter. Peter Rice — along with marketing topper Nancy Utley and distrib chief Steve Gilula — have been raising the stakes at Searchlight, getting into more robustly-budgeted, “important” auteur films.

Unlike the speciality divisions at other studios, the Fox unit is deploying a variety of funding schemes to get more bang for its buck — and increasingly, with bucks not its own.

And Fox isn’t scrimping on budgets, either. Consider:

  • A deal is imminent for playwright-turned-helmer Kenneth Lonergan to direct his new script, “Margaret” at Searchlight, with Scott Rudin, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella producing.

The budget is $15 million plus, but Searchlight will probably pay only a portion of it.

Says Pollack, “The economy is making it difficult to make films for $10 million and $12 million; it may be necessary to find a partner on ‘Margaret’.”

  • David O. Russell’s comedy “I Love Huckabees” stars high-profile talents like Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts and Jude Law as well as Dustin Hoffman and Isabelle Huppert.

The ensemble comedy started shooting this summer and has a budget of $21 million, much of which was provided by London-based financier Michael Kuhn via his Qwerty Films. Searchlight will distribute in the U.S. and a few other select territories.

  • Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” a road comedy starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church has a budget of $18 million, but that sum was reached using German tax funds

  • After starring in Searchlight’s “The Clearing” which cost $11 million, Robert Redford is returning to Searchlight to produce, direct and possibly star in “The Company You Keep,” a pic that could reach $15 million, especially if Redford also stars.

For years, Searchlight had kept a strict $15 million ceiling on the budgets of its films, to profitable results. Big hits were all the bigger for being financed frugally.

Despite their small budgets, movies like this year’s domestic-only pick-up “Bend it Like Beckham” and last year’s “One Hour Photo” have had hefty grosses — $32 million apiece.

Disappointments, like Alex Proyas’ “Garage Days,” were kept from becoming disasters due to Searchlight’s minimal exposure.

So why mess with success?

“Independent film budgets are being cut almost to the bone right now,” says one indie film financing specialist at a major talent agency, “so the significance of getting from $15 million to $20 million is tremendous. It allows you a bigger cast, more shooting days and a better picture. It raises the stakes.”

Searchlight’s ability to stretch budgets via co-production and risk-sharing has already proven successful on smaller Searchlight pics.

Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” was a $12.5 million thriller that only cost the studio $6.25 million in production financing. (The other half of the funding was put up by Catch 23 Entertainment founder Bob Sturm.)

“They take creative risks within the confines of a pragmatic business plan,” says John Lesher, an agent at Endeavor who brokered Russell’s pact for “Huckabees.”

Such cost containment has allowed Searchlight to take creative risks that pay off.

Instead of making a $30 million bet on a first-time director, as Miramax did with George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” Searchlight gambled just shy of $15 million on Denzel Washington’s “Antwone Fisher.”

The result: A modest profit. Compared with “Confessions” which grossed just $16 million domestically, “Antwone” took in $21 million.

But, adds Searchlight financial partner Michael Kuhn, “Part of (the Searchlight co-production philosophy) is to reach higher budgets, part of it is risk sharing. It is also just expanding the available number of movies they can make in a year.”

Freedom from fuss

But hefiter budgets aren’t the only reason top directors are flocking to Searchlight.

Lonergan is making his deal for “Margaret” at Searchlight, instead of at the penny-pinching Paramount Classics, which distributed his first helming effort, “You Can Count on Me,” for reasons beyond just funding.

For one thing, Rice is highly regarded by financiers, agents and talent for his taste in material and his willingness to give certain helmers, like Payne and Russell, and now perhaps Lonergan, final cut.

Even those who don’t get final cut, such as tyro Romanek on “Photo,” are still given a wide berth and considerable creative freedom while directing.

“What allows you to make an inexpensive film is people wanting to do it. That’s only possible when the material is attractive enough, and Peter has a taste and understanding about material,” Pollack says.

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