Distrib Newmarket succeeds, but cautiously

This article was updated at 7:02 p.m.

Little Newmarket has been described as this year’s big success story, but it also could be termed the department of missed opportunities.

The mini-distrib is handling “The Passion of the Christ,” which is headed for a domestic take of more than $300 million. Then there’s “Monster,” a sleeper whose gross is headed for $35 million after jumping 12% last week because of its Oscar for Charlize Theron.

These developments have made Newmarket prexy Bob Berney something of an instant folk hero in the film biz.

But here’s the rub: Newmarket could have really raked in the bucks had it actually risked a few cents on these films instead of making rent-a-system deals. The producers of “Monster” begged Newmarket for financial help, but the company declined. On “The Passion,” Newmarket’s distribution fee is under 12%. It never offered a penny toward prints and advertising.

“We wanted to grow carefully and responsibly,” Berney explained. But this show of caution, rare in show business, has cost the company tens of millions.

Berney’s partners in Newmarket Films are William Tyrer and Chris Ball, who operated film investor Newmarket Capital Group for 10 years prior to launching Newmarket Films 18 months ago.

“The key thing from our point of view is finding the right films — we never want to distribute a mediocre film,” Tyrer said.

“Monster” was brought to Newmarket early in its development, but execs there — like those at other distribs coast to coast — passed on the project, which then was limited to an early version of the script without topliner Theron attached.

“You can’t win them all,” Tyrer winced with just a hint of remorse.

Newmarket acquired its other recent overachiever — the New Zealand drama “Whale Rider” — for a modest sum “in the single-digit millions.” And it produced and distribbed 2001 release “Memento” in line with a business model that originally called for up to 50% of its titles to be self-produced.

“We’re a little bit behind on the producing, but we’ll catch up,” Tyrer said. “What has surprised us on the business plan is that there have been a number of films available at an affordable price.

“At Sundance, there were three or four interesting films,” he recalled. “Clearly, if that price goes up in the future, we’ll have to focus more on production. But at this point, it wouldn’t make sense.”

At Sundance, Newmarket acquired “The Woodsman,” which stars Kevin Bacon as a pedophile struggling to contain his affliction. Critically praised pic reps distrib’s next unslotted 2004 release, with Newmarket also looking to sked a pair of Toronto fest acquisitions — “Stander,” a South African-based drama starring Thomas Jane, and “The Green Butchers,” a Danish black comedy.

Newmarket Capital also continues to invest in pics produced and distribbed by others.

Meanwhile, though Newmarket Films’ profit from “The Passion” has been limited to distrib fees, Tyrer said he considers the effort to be a major step in building a relationship with Mel Gibson’s Icon Prods. And industryites say involvement with the high-profile release also provides an invaluable public relations coup for a company that didn’t exist just a year and a half ago.

“Most people hadn’t heard much about Newmarket before, but ‘The Passion’ has put them on the map in a big way,” said Paul Dergarabedian, prexy at B.O. tracker Exhibitor Relations. “If you just do a distribution deal, the actual money in your pocket might not be big, but the PR value brings them to a level they never would have had otherwise.”

And if the passionate “Passion” grosses haven’t tempted Newmarket from its risk-averse inclinations, execs are nevertheless capable of at least feigning B.O. hubris.

“Call Pixar,” Tyrer joked, “and tell them that we’re ready.”

(David Rooney contributed to this report.)

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