Searchlight takes arthouse to the bank by attracting top talent

It’s safe to say Fox co-chair Tom Rothman reserves a particular fondness for Fox Searchlight. After all, he started the specialty division a decade ago with its first pickup, “The Brothers McMullen,” and served as its first prexy.

Since then, the unit has seen its share of hits — from “The Full Monty” to “28 Days Later” — and, on current topper Peter Rice’s watch, ended 2004 white-hot with “Sideways,” “Kinsey,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State.”

Rice first met Rothman at an acquisition screening of “Truly Madly Deeply” more than a decade ago, and the pair’s working history stretches back to Rice’s days as a Fox production exec. “I reported to Tom then and I report to Tom now,” he quips.

But it’s not just Rothman who casts a long shadow at the company. Co-chair Jim Gianopulos’ background in international distribution singles out Searchlight from other specialty divisions.

“Searchlight has a different business plan in that we look to retain worldwide rights to movies,” says Rice.

This allows Searchlight to net more foreign coin by exploiting the overseas distrib relationships that Gianopulos helped foster a decade ago. Case in point is “Sideways.” On paper, it might not appear to be a major international draw, but Fox helped muster $40 million in overseas B.O.

“(Gianopulos) is a tremendous resource for us,” says Searchlight distribution head Stephen Gilula. “He knows the world. He’s been on the ground, working with local offices. We often consult with him at the acquisition or production stage in terms of what is the viability of a particular project overseas.”

As hot as Searchlight finished last year, 2005 hasn’t unspooled quite as smoothly. The ballyhooed Russell Crowe-Nicole Kidman-Jocelyn Moorhouse collaboration, “Eucalyptus,” wilted and the unit is still looking for its first breakout hit of the year.

But like most in the specialty game, Searchlight’s biz is tilted toward kudo season and the company has high hopes for “Gosford Park” scribe Julian Fellowes’ directorial debut, “Separate Lies,” and the Richard Gere-Juliette Binoche starrer “Bee Season.”

The team has quietly built an auteur stable to rival any mini-major. “I think we’ve always aspired to move in that direction,” Rice explains.

Wong Kar-wai — who is prepping the Nicole Kidman-led “The Lady From Shanghai” — and “Sideways” helmer Alexander Payne have both set up shingles at Searchlight. In addition, its deal with U.K.-based DNA Films will have four pics in production by year’s end, including Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” the director’s third go-round with the division.

“Searchlight has become the ideal place for low-budget, director-driven films,” says Payne. “To make a decision, Peter doesn’t just crunch numbers and consult foreign sales; he makes the movies he himself would like to see.”

Payne’s scripting partner Jim Taylor agrees, saying, “(Rice) is often praised for taking a risk on making (‘Sideways’) but I think it’s more accurate to say that he was smart.” It’s riskier to “believe audiences will show up no matter how poorly the film turns out.”

The affection is mutual, says Searchlight marketing topper Nancy Utley. “We allow (filmmakers) the creative license to realize their vision. And we try and treat them as we would want to be treated. … And hope that they have a great experience and will want to come back for more.”

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