Studio sked jammed as town leans on niche pix

After the box office dip in 2005, Hollywood had high hopes for this year. But after 2006 got off to a solid rebound, studio execs are beginning to fret that this may be another down year, thanks to the sinking debut of Warner Bros.’ pricey tentpole “Poseidon” and misgivings about the long-term prospects of Sony-Imagine’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

Hollywood is now focusing its concerns on specialty films. Last year, niche pics dominated the awards season and, with their thrifty pricetags and marketing, helped shore up Hollywood’s bottom line.

With increased pressure to deliver the goods, niche pics are being jammed into the fourth quarter. At any time, that would be a cause for worry, because niche films (unlike blockbusters) need more time to find their audiences. But as the pressure has increased, so have the budgets, and suddenly the idea of easy niche profits becomes much more tenuous.

Though autumn is traditionally a crowded time for indie and studio niche releases, even seasoned execs are sweating this year. The release slate is so crowded that many “little” films are now scheduled to bow opposite each other, sharply reducing their prospects for generating word-of-mouth buzz.

The season is surprisingly crowded, partly because of the addition of revamped specialty divisions like Picturehouse, the Weinstein Co. and the reconfigured Miramax. And the majors are jumping into fray, not just with their own niche divisions, but also with their own highbrow productions (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Syriana”) that could be defined as arthouse fare, but with bigger budgets.

In theory, distribs could schedule niche pics year-round. But actors and filmmakers work on the supposition that a fall release means instant awards consideration, and if their film is scheduled at another time, it’s being dumped.

“At this point the fall is intensely crowded,” one distrib vet laments. “There has been a big evolution in that more and more studio films are competing for the exact same audience.”

Ten years ago, there were only four studio specialty units — Miramax, Sony Classics, Fine Line and Fox Searchlight — and combined with indie distribs, their films generated 8% of all box office, or $425 million.

Last year, driven by titles like “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “March of the Penguins,” dependents and indie distribs generated $1.3 billion, or 15% of all ticket sales.

Cognizant of this trend, exhibition chains are reserving extra screens in their biggest markets for specialty titles. But it’s an open question whether these programs can accommodate a three-month specialty blitz.

The fall release schedule is still somewhat murky, largely because the indies and majors wait until later in the year to finalize their fourth-quarter schedule. So far, just 79 pics are slated to bow between Labor Day and the end of 2006.

Last year at this time, 74 pics were slated to be released in that time frame. But the number swelled to 188 by the end of the year. This year, the number could get even higher.

“It’s a compelling fall,” said Jack Foley, Focus Features’ distribution topper. “You’ve got to be very careful about how you are planning (a pic’s) life.” He added that in Indiewood, “there’s this sense that if you don’t go in fall, you won’t be part of the process,” even if that type of thinking is more “mythology” than anything else.

In October alone, arty pics in the mix include “Babel,” “Marie-Antoinette” and “The Fountain,” as well as Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering” (the Weinstein Co./MGM), Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” (Miramax), Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous” (Warner Independent), Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” (Sony Classics), Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Picturehouse) and Phillip Noyce’s untitled project (Focus).

Moving to November, there will be Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Hoax” (Miramax), John Curran’s “Painted Veil” (Warner Independent), Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” (Sony), Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction” (Sony), Emilio Estevez’s Robert F. Kennedy story “Bobby” (Weinstein Co.) and Steven Shainberg’s Diane Arbus bio “Fur” (Picturehouse).

Then there are pics that haven’t yet been skedded but are expected to be fall rollouts.

Fox Searchlight will serve up Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation” to the back-to-college crowd. And Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales,” which doesn’t even have distribution yet, is expected to get a post-Cannes fall slot from whichever company snaps it up.

“Fall is always crowded,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker. “But every company has had their experience in recent years of being hurt in a crowded time. Fall is not the only time to release these movies.”

Last year, Focus saw that fall was congested with pics targeting upscale female auds and decided to move its artsy political thriller “The Constant Gardener” to late August. The result was a skirmish with the pic’s producer, Simon Channing-Williams, but the pic played to more than $33.5 million and a won a supporting actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz.

Two years earlier, Searchlight had chosen an early date for Jim Sheridan’s “In America,” but bowed to pressure from the filmmakers to move the pic into November as an Oscar contender. “America” nabbed three Oscar nominations, but it was lost in theaters, costing Searchlight millions more in campaigning costs.

“There’s still a lot of jockeying for position between now and when the fall release dates come up,” says Lionsgate’s Tom Ortenberg, who sent out “Crash” early last year to watch it take Oscar’s top prize. “We hear the same thing every year, that it’s more crowded than the year before. And there are always studios treading on indie turf at that time of year.

“But there is often this well-intentioned, but misguided belief,” Ortenberg adds, “that if you don’t release an awards-caliber film in the heart of awards season that you have no confidence in that film’s prospects.”

The shortened awards race is one reason the fall of 2006 is loaded with studio projects that could be mistaken for art pics. Sofia Coppola’s $40 million “Marie-Antoinette” is being released by Sony. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s $20 million “Babel” is coming from Paramount. Then there’s Darren Aronofsky’s $35 million “The Fountain,” due from Warner Bros.

“The talent is obsessed with awards recognition,” says one distribution exec. “Agents, managers and PR people are pushing to get nominations and enhance their future career prospects. It’s all ego-stroking and ego-gratification. This is potentially destructive for some movies.'”

Deals on these pics could not have been made at the leading specialty arms, because they’re too expensive. But they’re hybrids, meant to appeal both to rarified auds and to the masses. “Antoinette” seems like a high-end affair, but offers Coppola’s hipster appeal. “Babel” is Brad Pitt’s first pic since “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” but it’s in Spanish and English.

Studios have always handled upscale fare, from Warner Bros.’ “Chariots of Fire” in 1981 to Sony’s “Adaptation” in 2002. But in recent years, they’ve struggled to build an audience for such pics. “The sad thing about the big studios is that they can’t do nuance,” says one specialty exec. “That calls for a certain skill set. You are in big picture-land and are supposed to nuke the landscape.”

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