Slate shrinks post-'Sideways'

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Around the Fox Searchlight bungalows, it’s the nastiest word you could utter these days.

For the last year, the studio has operated heel-to-the-steel, even as close competitors — chiefly Miramax and MGM — imploded, and massive restructuring at Paramount augured more direct competition with Fox’s specialized division.

As a result, Searchlight has just enjoyed it’s best year ever, releasing 11 pictures in the 2004 play period for a combined $173 million in box office, one third of that coming from screenplay Oscar winner “Sideways.”

So, what’s on tap for an encore?

Less.

“We made a strategic decision to make fewer movies,” Peter Rice told Daily Variety, adding, “People in our marketing department, up until last week, have been working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s very hard to ask people to keep doing that. Having 12, 11 or even 10 movies a year really puts pressure on people that doesn’t produce good results.”

His rational approach may not sit well with a number of people, including numerous top independent film agents and even his own News Corp. bosses.

For starters, such thinking — while perfectly logical, given the precision that specialized films need in execution, marketing and distribbing — runs contrary to what News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch has said he wants from Fox Filmed Entertainment.

At an October 2004 Goldman Sachs conference, Murdoch announced that News Corp.’s film unit will pursue an aggressive strategy in 2005, with 20th Century Fox releasing 20-25 major films, and Searchlight releasing “eight to 10 pics.”

Right now, neither Fox nor Fox Searchlight will come anywhere near that grand total: Searchlight has plans to release only seven pictures, and TCF and Fox 2000 have slated only 13, one less than last year.

“We only have a certain amount of staff and overhead,” Rice says. “There’s not really a strategic change in what we’re doing, it’s just what’s most effective for the movies.”

The movies, by the way, remain eclectic as ever, but some agents grouse that increasingly they represent few actual creative or financial risks. Major directors are the rule on Searchlight productions, rather than the exception for 2005: Danny Boyle’s new film, “Millions,” for example, and Woody Allen’s new picture “Melinda and Melinda,” which unspools in a little over a week.

They’re paired with lower-cost acquisitions, like Russian vampire pic “Night Watch,” which was acquired as part of a larger strategy at TCF to remake the film as an English-lingo big-budget franchise. (Rice, upfront on the substantial risks in backing tyros, doesn’t dispute this, explaining, “I do prefer our first-time director movies to be acquisitions.”)

When it comes to riskier material, like “Kinsey” and “I Heart Huckabees,” studio shared the risk with overseas partners.

Meanwhile, independent filmmaker agents find that as Searchlight gets more and more successful, it’s becoming more cautious, and that has sent their frustration level through the roof.

“Are they good at what they do? Absolutely,” says one indie agent at a major talent agency. “But they’re also infuriating; even though they’re not in the indie film business, they’re changing the indie film business, and changing it for the worse.”

Numerous agents interviewed complained, for example, that the Searchlight strategy has of late meant plowing $25 million or so into prints and advertising on a $5 million acquisition — as was the case with both Zach Braff’s “Garden State” and Jared Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite” — to the exclusion of new indie directors.

“Their whole strategy is to price everyone out of the marketplace: Searchlight only wants to acquire a ‘pop’ indie move that’s going to do $20 or $30 million of box office, to impress their corporate parent. The result is they make good, old-fashioned independent dramas look like they’re not profitable anymore.”

Meanwhile, Searchlight’s success, whatever it’s effect, is hard to argue with.

And as if to sum up the Searchlight style, Rice, noted two films that haven’t been dated but that will nonetheless be released this year. One is “Separate Lives,” Julian Fellowes’ exploration of the mores and ethics of the upper classes, based on the Nigel Balchin novel. The other is “The Ringer,” a Farrelly Bros.-produced comedy about an attempt to fix the Special Olympics, toplined by “Jackass” star, Johnny Knoxville.

Says Rice, diplomatically, “I love all my children equally.”

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