Searchlight finding its niche

Fox's art arm limber as it picks unique pix

Fox Searchlight, led by Peter Rice, reaped hefty grosses in 2002 from low-budget niche films. Such hyper-specialized fare connected with audiences traditionally under-served by Hollywood.

The company’s box office tally, as a result, climbed 200% over 2001. Collectively, domestic grosses topped $135 million — best in the company’s nine years of existence.

“The real shift,” says distribution chief Steve Giulula, “is that we’re willing to do targeted niche films. Whether its ‘Super Troopers’ for young stoners or ‘The Banger Sisters’ for mature women who don’t traditionally have a lot of movies made for them, or the African-American audience — those are audiences where we had material that really fit and really worked.”

Yet it’s also a tactic that left Fox Searchlight without an invitation to the Academy Awards for the first time since 1997.

Despite all the buzz, Denzel Washington’s directing debut (and Searchlight’s best Oscar hope) “Antwone Fisher” failed to catch a single nom.

Other hopefuls, such as “One Hour Photo” and “The Good Girl,” also ended up without Academy notice. And no one expected noms from a movie like “Brown Sugar.” By comparison, Miramax Films had a hand in 40 noms this year alone.

This tension between art and commerce has resulted in so diverse a slate at Searchlight that even its top three execs are hard-pressed to define its organizing principle.

“I think it’s pretty similar to Tom Rothman’s initial mandate,” says Rice, “which was: focus on exciting, auteur filmmakers, sprinkled in with acquisitions. We decided to make films that we’re really passionate about, and that would be very eclectic.”

That 20th Twentieth Century Fox co-chairman Rothman created Searchlight has played an important part in its success at the larger Fox studio.

Because of his close relationship to it, Searchlight is given a measure of autonomy and support that is uncommon to the specialty business. It is left alone in the sense that it can greenlight any film under $15 million.

“It’s fair to say that we have an extremely close relationship,” Rothman says. “Searchlight was always designed to — and does now — have the best of both worlds. That is, the risk-taking and flexibility of a specialty label and the power, leverage and scope of a major studio.”

For example, when the marketplace called for more prints of “The Banger Sisters” and “Antwone Fisher,” 20th Century Fox, and not Searchlight, came aboard to distribute the pics.

To open a picture on 1,500 or even 2,700 screens, as was the case with “Banger,” television comes into play — a cost that requires the active participation of a wealthy studio parent.

“It’s not just the ability to take pictures wide, like ‘Banger Sisters’ or ‘Antwone Fisher,’ ” says Rothman, “it’s also that there is a globally integrated campaign for movies. We’re the only specialty company that doesn’t have to go begging territory by territory.”

Exhibitors agree thatSearchlight’s ability to integrate into the larger whole of Fox has been critical.

“Part of their success has been a willingness to make more mainstream movies,” says Bert Manzari, the exec VP of the nation’s largest specialized theater chain, Landmark, adding, “but they’ve also been very savvy about letting the parent company maximize the value of those movies.”

Landmark CEO Paul Richardson points out that Fox Searchlight further benefits from the ability to trailer its smaller films in with bigger 20th Century Fox movies like “Master and Commander” or “Just Married.”

Even as it rolls out decidedly un-arty pics like “Banger Sisters,” Searchlight’s best shot at prestige may come, oddly enough, from its ceiling of $15 million on budgets.

Because there’s a $15 million cap, says Nancy Utley, Searchlight’s marketing prexy, “it prevents things from spiraling out of control” and having the studio take over the creative process.

“They’re not like Harvey,” says Jim Sheridan, who helmed “In America” for Searchlight, laughing at Weinstein’s proclivity for helping edit movies himself. “I told Harvey that if he ever tried anything with my movie like he did with Marty’s (‘Gangs of New York’), he’d come home to find me making his bed for him.”

Agents may grouse that there’s not a lot of room for negotiation, but they are also quick to add that Searchlight is the place to break in new filmmakers studios can’t or simply won’t take risks on.

“Or if you’re a $500,000 writer who can’t get arrested,” explains one lit agent, “it’s also a great place to reinvent yourself.”

Apparently, there’s a lot of that going around at Searchlight.

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