'Brokeback,' 'Gardener' strong for shingle

When Universal bought Good Machine in 2002 and installed two of its principals, David Linde and James Schamus, atop its fledgling specialty label, skeptics wondered if the two were in for a bumpy ride.

The opposite has occurred. Although “King Kong” led an impressive showing for Universal on Oscar night, winning honors for visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing, it’s Focus Features that had the breakout year.

The specialty label, which captured four Oscars out of 16 noms, has been a source of stability in Universal City at a time when the studio has been buffeted by managerial challenges. Chief among these was the resignation last week of chair Stacey Snider, who is exiting to run DreamWorks following the collapse of U’s talks to acquire the mini-major that for years has maintained headquarters on the U lot.

Focus, in the meantime, has chalked up a series of box office hits, while dominating the awards season as no specialty label has done since the heyday of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax — a fact that’s catapulted Linde’s name into discussions of who might replace Snider as chair of the studio.

It would have been hard to predict when “Brokeback Mountain” screened at the Toronto Film Festival that it would capture the zeitgeist and figure so prominently in the awards season. “Brokeback” in recent weeks appeared a shoe-in for best picture, and though it was upset by “Crash” in that category, it secured three other honors: Ang Lee won for directing; Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana won for adapted screenplay; Gustavo Santaolla won for original score.

The three Oscars for “Brokeback” came as the pic’s worldwide box office gross reached $133 million.

The label’s other nominated titles, “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Constant Gardener,” served as examples of how adventurous filmmaking can flourish within a highly structured corporate environment — provided you choose the right films and release them well.

Though “Pride and Prejudice” didn’t win any Oscars, it rode a wave of critical plaudits to a gross of $39 million Stateside and $109 worldwide. Directed by first-time feature director Joe Wright, the Jane Austen adaptation injected an earthy realism and a fresh perspective into a story that had been adapted for the big and small screen multiple times. Released in November, “Pride” proved an effective counter-programming play at a moment in which the specialty market was flooded with dark and gritty political fare.

“Constant Gardener” was released on Labor Day, traditionally a dead zone for serious-minded, R-rated titles. But the Fernando Meirelles pic grossed $34 million in the U.S., and was warmly received by awards orgs, resulting in an Oscar for Rachel Weisz in the supporting actress category.

Since its inception, Focus’ strategy has been to conentrate on international filmmakers and innovative projects whose risks are offset through foreign pre-sales and creative co-financing deals.

It’s a strategy that hasn’t always worked, as was evident at last year’s Oscar ceremony, when Focus’ hopes were riding on “Vanity Fair” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

But in 2005, an intensely competitive year for the specialty market, the strategy yielded great dividends, fulfilling many of the expectations that were vested in the chairmen of Good Machine when their company was swallowed up by Universal four years ago.

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