Distrib's mix of edgy, upscale fare will get boost from year-old genre label

With Time Warner intro’ing its new niche label and Fox Searchlight scrambling to match last year’s triumphs, is Focus Features plotting a move back into the spotlight?

The label launched in a blaze of glory with several Oscars for its first release, “The Pianist.” A year later, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” branded the Universal’s specialty label as a place for hip helmers to take pop-indie projects.

But last year, the company was somewhat overshadowed by Fox Searchlight’s sea of success from “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Garden State” and “Sideways.”

While last year’s quirky “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was the logical follow-up to “Lost in Translation,” it didn’t manage to reach that pic’s lofty grosses. The Charlie Kaufman-penned romance, which cost about $10 million to make and twice that to market, wound up with just over $34 million in domestic box office and about the same internationally.

The film did win Kaufman an Oscar as well as become a DVD hit which is still in the top 100 most-popular home entertainment buys on Amazon.com.

Manhattan-based Focus is counting on foreign sales and new DVD marketing strategies to bolster the always-volatile domestic specialty distribution biz.

Leveraging the relationships created by toppers David Linde and James Schamus at their former Good Machine Intl. label, Focus continues to pick up foreign rights on pics it does not distrib here, including “House of Flying Daggers” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her.” Both of those films were handled by Sony Classics in the U.S.

In Cannes, Focus Intl. is selling Almodovar’s upcoming “Volver” and vidgame adaptation “Silent Hill,” distribbed by TriStar in the U.S.

Linde and Schamus are now aiming to drive the Focus brand with consumers, and the company has inked deals with Virgin and other chains where standees of Focus DVDs are shown off.

Company has learned that low-budget pics such as genre arm Rogue Pictures’ “Assault on Precinct 13″ can be home entertainment hits even after they’ve underperformed on the bigscreen.

A big push is in the works at Rogue, which was launched last year at ShoWest and this week opens wide with Jet Li actioner “Unleashed.”

It has been widely understood that Rogue will bring in outgoing Dimension co-prexy Andrew Rona, but the U subsid denies there’s a deal in the works.

Though Linde and Schamus realize the benefits of being under the U banner for marketing muscle, the duo sees the indie world as a place where brand loyalty can be created with consumers of alternative film product.

It’s telling that the unit is the only studio subsid not named after its parent. In the world of big-budget studio pics, auds are oblivious to the logo at the beginning of the reel. But Focus is betting that in the indie world, discerning crowds will follow a distrib’s track record, as in Miramax’s art house heyday.

Extending that concept, the company called its genre arm Rogue so as not to dilute its Focus name and to create a profile with horror and genre film fans.

Further separating them from Universal’s, NBC’s and GE’s buttoned-down offices, the partners’ offices have remained in downtown New York, where they recently expanded to include a sleekly designed executive floor.

Focus and Rogue’s slates are divided between glossy award hopefuls and edgier fare.

Ang Lee’s cowboy romance “Brokeback Mountain” has benefited from titillating buzz ever since production started. Skedded for a holiday release, the sweeping lit adaptation will see two of Hollywood hottest young stars — Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger — as cowboys who unexpectedly fall for each other.

Also strategically positioned for year-end release is John le Carre adaptation “The Constant Gardener,” which pairs “City of God” helmer Fernando Meirelles with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.

Another upscale lit pic is PG period piece “Pride and Prejudice,” starring Keira Knightly.

After Bill Murray’s “Translation” triumph, Focus is hoping it can strike gold again with Jim Jarmusch’s Murray-starring “Broken Flowers.”

Another eccentric pic is “The Ice Harvest,” from “Groundhog Day” helmer Harold Ramis and writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo. In it, John Cusack plays a sleazy Kansas City attorney who hatches a ill-fated plan to embezzle $2 million, but finds himself unable to leave town.

Rogue follows up last year’s horror releases “Shaun of the Dead” and “Seed of Chucky” with “Cry Wolf,” a hip “Scream”-like campus slasher. Pic features an AOL Instant Messaging killer that will see the online company partner in marketing efforts. Another horror hopeful is an untitled supernatural thriller starring “The Grudge”‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Last year, Focus drove its Spanish-language “The Motorcycle Diaries” to more than $16.7 million. But two other high-end pics with high expectations were missteps, “The Door in the Floor” and Mira Nair’s version of the classic “Vanity Fair.”

As a result, Focus finished one studio behind Searchlight in market share in 2004, as it did in 2003.

With so many studio subsids in flux, Cannes is shaping up to be a seller’s market. The battle among buyers should be significant as Warner Indie and Par Classics look to get some traction, the Weinsteins continue to string together their new company and Searchlight looks to replace its aborted Nicole Kidman-Russell Crowe starrer “Eucalyptus.”

With Miramax and the Weinsteins taking a place in the background for now, Gotham’s biggest guns will be Focus and Bob Berney’s new entity. HBO Films, New Line and Berney are prepping an announcement for Cannes that will likely unveil a moniker and biz plan for their venture.

While Berney has relied mainly on acquisitions in the past, he’ll have the ability to get into the production game with funds from deep-pocketed parents HBO and New Line.

With Focus set to make a major announcement soon, the label looks ready to move back into the limelight.

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