Specialty arms still set strategies as indies

At a panel exploring how fest success can turn into worldwide success, Friday’s gathering of top industry execs in the 2005 Variety Cannes Conference Series didn’t pull their punches.

Pointing to Universal’s “In Good Company” as a recent example of a studio movie looking and playing like a hit indie pic, Focus Features co-prexy David Linde noted that the landscape is changing for the majors’ specialty divisions.

“It’s not only becoming more competitive amongst rival companies, but also against the studios who own us,” he said.

Unlike their parent companies, which have no qualms about releasing films against each other, the indie divisions have to carefully pick their dates so as not to cannibalize each other with similar product, he noted.

Rick Sands, who has moved to DreamWorks from Miramax, said the lines have blurred between indie and studio pix, and producer Robert Lantos, whose “Where the Truth Lies” is in Cannes competish, went even further.

“The studio-affiliated indies are less in the business of making an independent film and more in the business of making somewhat lower budgeted studio movies,” Lantos said.

This prompted an objection from Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker who strongly defended his own situation. “We have always been independent and run our company autonomously. It’s about trust with the filmmakers and knowing that we are not going to go away,” he said.

Joining Barker, Linde, Lantos and Sands for the sesh — presented by Comerica, sponsored by Filmfinders and moderated by Variety Group president-publisher Charles C. Koones — were Fox Searchlight prexy Peter Rice, Cinetec Media head John Sloss, and ICM’s international film head, Hal Sadoff.

While Sadoff defined an indie film as “anything not 100% financed by a studio,” Searchlight’s Rice dismissed labels, saying “we finance films, we distribute films and I think that whether or not we’re independent is sort of beside the point.”

The advantages of being attached to a major media company come from using their divisions to make TV and video deals with no overhead on their own bottom line.

Sloss said he thought the difference is not felt so much with domestic releases as when some of the films go out internationally merging with a studio’s bread and butter blockbuster pictures, suffering by comparison in the care they get.

Panelists weighed in on the recent moves of Harvey Weinstein, who has set up the Weinstein Co., and Bob Berney, who now runs HBO-New Line’s Picturehouse.

Whatever the ballyhoo, those developments don’t seem to faze Linde.

“The reality is independent film has been consumed, whether on DVD or theatrically, in record amounts over the last couple of years so that’s made the business very healthy and diversified it away from depending on whether Harvey likes your movie.”

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