Celebrating its 10th anniversary, boutique label scores with masses and crix

These are heady days at Fox Searchlight. With the awards season in full swing, the spotlight is suddenly trained on the studio with the “small is beautiful” release strategy.

A boutique operation launched in 1994 within the confines of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Searchlight is in the enviable position of having two current releases — “Sideways” and “Kinsey” — in strong contention for Oscar nominations in major categories.

Whether the specialty unit has finally come into its own or is simply on an upswing in a cyclical business is open to question. Last year, it was Focus Features that seemed to be giving Miramax — the model of indie marketing proficiency and muscle — a run for its money with such awardworthy releases as “Lost in Translation” and “21 Grams” (which came on the heels of “Far From Heaven” and some stunning Oscar wins by “The Pianist”).

The other class act in the arthouse equation, Sony Pictures Classics, continues its consistent, if relatively inconspicuous, track record of carefully nurtured foreign-language fare from filmmakers with whom it’s enjoyed long associations, including Pedro Almodovar and Zhang Yimou.

But Searchlight is undoubtedly on a roll. Critics can’t seem to pile enough superlatives on “Sideways” — an antiheroic tale about two friends who bibulously wend their way through California wine country for a week. The film, its stars and Alexander Payne, who directed and scripted it with writing partner Jim Taylor, have all but swept the best-of-the-year lists issued by the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago critics, among others. The film further surprised by leading the pack with seven Golden Globe nominations, including picture of the year in the comedy/musical category.

Meanwhile, writer-director Bill Condon’s biographical take on Alfred Kinsey, whose ground-breaking studies of sexual behavior demystified what goes on in American bedrooms, nabbed three more Globe noms, including one for dramatic film.

Other notable films Fox Searchlight has released in 2004 like “Garden State” (a partnership with Miramax) and “I Heart Huckabees” are outliers when it comes to awards, but have received a decidedly un-indie level of attention.

Also critically celebrated was “Napoleon Dynamite,” the studio’s biggest moneymaker this year. Acquired at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie that cost $400,000 to make has taken in over $45 million at the box office. The fact that Searchlight shelled out in the low seven figures proved it could pony up with the big boys, and its deal with Paramount and MTV Films to market “Dynamite” internationally has helped make it a global hit.

Inconspicuous consumption

Located in a nondescript, two-story building on the Fox lot, Searchlight as a company is like many of the films it releases — eclectic, quirky and congenial. The same can be said of its president Peter Rice, who runs the division from a modest office that’s at the end of a warren of crowded cubicles.

At the helm for the last five years, Rice has earned a reputation for his catholic taste in movies, his collaborative style with filmmakers, and a shrewd eye for the bottom line. Nearly every film released by Searchlight under his aegis has made money, and the company as a whole has been profitable for five consecutive years.

It is hard to find a common thread in the kinds of movies Searchlight releases, and that may in fact be its signature. “If there is one thing that we personally gravitate towards in a movie it’s originality — if something is original it has an opportunity to cut through,” he says in his patrician, soft-spoken voice that retains a hint of an English accent.

Rice was born in England and soon after graduating from college got an internship at Fox. His father was a chum of Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp., which owns Fox.

He returned to Fox in 1994. He worked as exec VP of the filmed entertainment division, working on unpetite productions like “X-Men” and “Independence Day” before he was named to succeed Lindsay Law at Fox Searchlight. Rice was only 33 when he took the reins, making him one of the youngest studio execs in Hollywood history.

His experience working on bigger films has given Rice an insight that helps him run his boutique. “When you work on a big studio movie there often are numerous layers between you and the actual creative people in the film,” he says. “Here this is all stripped away, so we’re talking directly to Bill Condon and Alexander Payne.”

Delighted by the year-end kudos so far heaped on “Sideways” and “Kinsey,” Rice characteristically keeps his enthusiasm in check. “We’ve been very lucky this year,” he notes. “We’ve also benefited from some very talented filmmakers and a great team of people at the company.”

If Rice appears modest, the slate for 2005 points to continued collaborations with filmmakers of stature, including Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Shallow Grave”), whose “Millions” is slated for a March release, and Woody Allen, whose “Melinda and Melinda” will be released that same month.

True to its name, Searchlight is constantly on the hunt for new product and talent. “Films come to us in all different kinds of ways,” says Rice. “Occasionally we develop them from a book. Other times we buy a finished film like ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ and ‘Garden State.’ ‘Johnson Family Vacation’ was developed from a pitch. And ‘Huckabees’ was in turnaround from Warner Bros. and Miramax.

The Allen project, which has already opened in Europe, points to a company that’s been mostly acquisitions oriented to one that’s getting more into the development stage. “Eucalyptus,” with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman under the direction of Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof”), is going forward with a $15 million budget, fully funded by Searchlight.

Apparently, the filmmaker-friendly environment is paying dividends. “There’s no pretense, no attitude like you get at other places where there’s often a distant or even adversarial relationship between the people running the studio and the filmmakers,” says “Sideways” producer Michael London.

“It’s like being in a family,” says “Kinsey” producer Gail Mutrux. “They’re very personal and very collaborative with filmmakers — they want to hear everything that’s on your mind.”

Adds “Kinsey” director Bill Condon: “They’re open even when it comes to marketing and distribution. Frequently when it gets to this stage, the filmmaker gets treated like a child and the so-called grown-ups take over. That’s not true here.”

Smells like team spirit

Rice is far from a one-man band at Searchlight. He favors a team approach and he operates as part of a triumvirate:

  • Nancy Utley, head of marketing, has been at Fox since the mid-1980s and spent years promoting big-budget wide releases. But she has downsized to provide special handling for Searchlight’s more niche-oriented pics.

  • Stephen Gilula, who heads distribution, built up Landmark Theaters into the country’s largest arthouse chain. That experience is put to use finding venues for Searchlight films.

When it comes to considering potential properties, all three have to share enthusiasm for a film and its prospects before it is chosen as a Searchlight release.

The next challenge for Fox Searchlight is to translate the favorable buzz “Sideways” and “Kinsey” have received into Oscar nominations. There’s more than prestige at stake in attaining Oscar gold (last brought home when Hilary Swank won the statuette for her lead in Searchlight’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999)). Profits ride on it.

For small, specialized films in particular, nominations and awards are keys to propelling box office in the absence of big advertising budgets. Despite all the acclaim, the box office results for Searchlight’s two films in the Oscar hunt have so far been modest.

“Sideways,” budgeted at $12 million, has taken in $16.5 million through Dec. 19. It has been in around 500 theaters but will double that if and when nominations materialize.

“Kinsey,” which cost $11 million and is still in limited release, totaled about $6 million in ticket sales through late December.

“Such films benefit enormously from Oscar nominations,” notes marketing chief Utley. “People feel compelled to rush right out and see them if they happen to be one of the five films nominated for best picture. And then there are the mountains of free advertising for a nominated movie.”

While Price and his team have been dexterous in finding an eclectic slate of films to release, one key issue for the future is whether top filmmakers who have landed there will stay at Searchlight for their next project.

Payne, who heaped praise on Searchlight at the “Sideways” premiere in L.A., says he’s been discussing some arrangement that would give the Fox unit a first-look at his next script or film idea.

“Nothing’s official,” he says. “But I’d certainly be interested in working with them in the future. They’re interested in making films with strong director and individual voices, and that’s the kind of cinema I want.”

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