Distrib coupling proves winning formula behind some recent hits

Are multiple heads better than one? “Not always,” says IFC Films prexy Jonathan Sehring, “but if the multiple heads have brains inside of them, then yes.”

This year’s box-office breakthroughs, “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” prove that team efforts can make for winning results. But are joint partnerships the future of specialized distribution or just a temporary fad, a way of allaying risk in uncertain economic times or one-time ventures forced by unique market conditions?

For Sehring, IFC’s multifaceted distribution deals on everything from “Fahrenheit” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to the band portrait “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” have allowed the Cablevision indie film subsid to lay partial claim to some of the most profitable indie releases of the last few years, as well as benefit from such alliances for future production and distribution endeavors. According to Sehring, IFC Films still maintains strong relationships with “Greek Wedding” partner Playtone, Metallica managers Q-Prime and, of course, Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein’s close relationship with Cablevision prexy Jim Dolan could prove crucial if and when the Miramax founder goes out on his own.

The new cooperative distribution ventures aren’t simply service deals, say execs, but involve substantial investment and profit participation.

“We put up all the P&A money ourselves and we have theatrical rights, nontheatrical rights and we have TV rights,” says Lions Gate Films prexy Tom Ortenberg regarding “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a team effort with IFC and the Weinsteins’ Fellowship Adventure Group. “And we’re very happy with our deal on the picture, which doesn’t have the same constraints on the fee structure as a typical service deal.”

Reportedly, Lions Gate and IFC Films will split 15% of the box office after exhibs take their share.

After Disney stopped “Fahrenheit” from being released through subsid Miramax, the multiparty mission was also crucial for a swift release.

“Everything happened so fast,” says the Fellowship Adventure Group’s Patrick Gunn. “To go from acquisition in May to get the film out by the end of June was a huge undertaking, and in order to effectively accomplish that, it was necessary to put together a unique distribution operation.”

Similarly, new kid on the block Roadside Attractions relied on a partnership for the speedy distribution of “Super Size Me,” so as to capitalize on the film’s Sundance buzz and national news coverage. “There’s no way we would have been up and running to do ‘Super Size Me,’ ” says Eric D’Arbeloff, co-prexy of Roadside, which split 50-50 rights on the pic with Samuel Goldwyn Films. “It was a very fast turnaround and we got a really experienced distribution apparatus.”

Adds Cohen about the co-op, “We now have the ability to buy movies together and spread out capital that much further.”

HBO Films prexy Colin Callendar points to a similar model used for the company’s collaboration with fellow Time Warner subsid Fine Line Features. “We wanted to find a distributor who would allow us to be center stage and would have the muscle on the one hand and the time on the other hand to give attention to our movies,” he says.

An added benefit of the longstanding relationship, Callendar explains, “is that we’re not reinventing the wheel every time we release a film.”

This divide-and-conquer approach also was the basis of Fox Searchlight’s partnering with Paramount Pictures’ subsid MTV Films to release “Napoleon Dynamite.” (The two parent companies worked together on “Titanic.”) “We ultimately thought the movie would be more successful if we partnered with MTV,” says Searchlight prexy Peter Rice. “They have access to 92 million cable households, they have a brand cool factor and they’re speaking to a young audience.”

At Sundance 2004, Searchlight also shared rights with Miramax to acquire Zach Braff’s debut, “Garden State.” Many industry observers say the joint acquisition was a way to lower the price of a picture that ballooned too high in the lofty altitudes of Park City. Says Rice, “We both got the movie and we both got to be happy.”

Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, believes that it’s shaky fiscal realities that are urging companies to couple. “Everybody in this current economy is happier to be more flexible, less dogmatic and look at a smaller piece of the pie than buy the whole pie and find that they’re choking on a bit more than they can chew.”

Not everyone praises the joint-acquisition model, however. Entertainment attorney Andrew Hurwitz, who brokered the “Garden State” deal, worries, “It’s potentially a way to eliminate a filmmaker’s leverage to get the best possible deal by co-opting one of the competitive bidders.”

Newmarket’s Bob Berney also believes that amalgamated deals are less sought after, and more often a function of freak circumstances. He cites Newmarket releases “Passion,” which the company distributed for a reported 10%-15% of the gross, and “Monster,” for which worldwide sales had been made by Media 8 and homevid rights were taken by DEJ, thereby short-circuiting a major studio buy.

Berney explains, “I think all these films overcame hurdles and forced creative deals. But when I look at those deals, I see no reason why anyone would want to do them. It would be a lot simpler if you could just make the movie and distribute it.”

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