Ever more releases and suppliers add up to lower cumes at the indie box office

In the midst of Hollywood’s box office slump, big studios aren’t the only ones watching their takes drop. The indies’ hot run of 2003-’04 has come to a pronounced end. This year, their B.O. plummeted more than 30%, from $1.86 billion to $1.24 billion.

While most of the dip can be attributed to a lack of breakout titles — no “The Passion of the Christ” or “Napoleon Dynamite” — even the smaller films grossed less this year.

Over the past year, starting with Labor Day weekend 2004, the number of titles grossing less than $1 million increased by 3.9% over the prior period. Films taking less than $100,000 also increased 3.4%, to their highest percentage in the past five years.

Examining the 2000-2005 period, the number of films taking less than $1 million grew an average of about 5% per year. Over the past five years, films with under-$100,000 cumes increased an average of some 6% per year.

Cluttered calendar

The growing number of films taking less money can be blamed on a cluttered release schedule, says Jon Gerrans, co-prexy of Strand Releasing. “It’s harder to maintain your screen presence,” he says. “There are just too many pictures out there and there are too many distributors.”

In July, Strand opened “Tony Takitani” at New York’s Angelica Theater and grossed more than $19,000 in the first week. Despite the impressive take, Gerrans says the exhib wanted to bring in another title right away. Strand, which, like most indies, operates on verbal contracts, negotiated a deal that kept “Tony” at the Angelica but canceled one of the show times.

This year, the number of independent features in release hit a new high: 390 have debuted since Labor Day 2004 (through Aug. 28, 2005), a jump of 20% from five years ago.

With more films today grossing less, it begs the question: How do so many nonstudio distribs stay in business with such unreliable returns?

Thrifty approach

Howard Cohen, co-prexy of Roadside Attractions, says the best strategy for a small indie is to stay frugal about everything. Earlier this year, Roadside flew in the leads of U.K. pic “Ladies in Lavender” for a three-day media blitz that cost $50,000 and covered everything from the Tribeca Film Festival to press attention from the New Yorker and “Live! With Regis and Kelly.” Costs on releasing “Ladies” were cut further by using the existing international artwork and trailer.

“You use what assets you have to promote a film in a way that’s publicity-driven and not market-driven,” explains Cohen.

Roadside hopes to repeat the success of “Ladies” with a similar campaign for “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic” in the fall.

Competitor Sony Pictures Classics, known for its thriftiness, despite being a studio label, employed a variety of approaches to cut costs on the whopping 22 titles it released since Labor Day ’04.

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker insists his unit operates independently from its parent, but it can reap rewards from exploiting television rights through conglom synergies. He notes that SPC also can save by sharing prints with other territories that, for most titles, Sony owns at least partial rights.

Co-prexy Tom Bernard says that SPC designs its own ads and benefits from a deal big Sony has for volume rates in publications such as the New York Times. “It’s an advantage you can use in the system,” he admits.

Connections like those are unique to studio arms, and it’s a leg-up that these distribs have over nonaffiliated companies such as Strand, Gerrans says.

Yet, he insists, smaller companies benefit from a lean and mean approach. “If I do a million dollars it’s successful for me. For a company like Focus Features it probably isn’t.”

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