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Searchlight beckons studios to niche riches

I would be very uncomfortable if I were Peter Rice. A keenly intelligent and quietly ambitious man, Rice has headed Fox Searchlight for five years and has diligently (if fruitlessly) sought to stay under the radar. His modus operandi: Keep the scripts edgy and the budgets lean, and if a picture hits, avoid any semblance of self-congratulation.

The financial success of films like “28 Days Later” and “Napoleon Dynamite” plus the critical success of “Sideways” have frustrated the Rice plan of studied anonymity. Indeed several rival entities are now springing up that openly acknowledge their inspiration to Fox Searchlight — at least in theory.

The interesting question: Will they turn out as successfully?

Sony’s newly revived TriStar is one such entity, but it has yet to identify a coherent slate or business plan. Also, Rice’s unit deploys its own advertising and distribution staff, as well as a modest development budget, while it’s unclear how much autonomy the new Sony unit will posses.

Certainly, autonomy has not been a hallmark at Warner Independent, and while Paramount has budgeted for its new specialty unit, its specific working plan has not been hammered out.

Yet another new entity is emerging as a joint venture of New Line and HBO, but it, too has a perplexing structure. Bob Berney will be at the helm of the new company, but he will report both to Colin Callender, head of HBO Films, and Michael Lynne, co-chairman of New Line.

So if Berney decides to spend $8 million to buy a film at next month’s Cannes Festival, and Lynne and his partner Bob Shaye don’t like the project or want it for themselves, who makes the call?

Most of these operational wrinkles will doubtless be worked out and one or more of these new players will gain traction. Additionally, somewhere on this playing field will appear the new Miramax, run by the Weinsteins, and the old Miramax, mobilized by Disney.

All are staring at roughly the same turf — films that entail investments well north of the Sony Classics pick-ups, but well south of “The Aviator.”

And all it takes is one success to stake a claim — witness what Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” has done for Focus.

Peter Rice would do well to look over his shoulder. Or at least glance sideways.

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