Picturehouse: Fare is out there

Specialty label sked filled with eclectic pics

Just over a year ago, Picturehouse announced its formation with trumpets blaring. Then the company promptly went silent, so silent it had some wondering if it had simply faded into the landscape.

All the while, however, Bob Berney says he was quietly developing the big picture for Picturehouse. Hints of his strategy were on display in the waning days of the Toronto Film Festival last month, when he jumped at the chance to buy “El Cantante,” a salsa pic starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, for a reported $4 million.

It was only one pic out of a very eclectic lineup.

In the coming year the distrib will release a collection of films that includes Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” set in Fascist Spain, and “Fur,” described as an imaginary telling of a period of photographer Diane Arbus’ life, with Nicole Kidman in the lead. (It also stars Robert Downey Jr. — covered in fur.) Throw in a Russian nuclear drama, a British university romance and J-Lo, and you have a slate that is idiosyncratic even by specialty division standards.

The films will test just how far out a specialty label can go, even with a proven exec like Berney at the helm.

A joint venture between New Line and HBO Films, Picturehouse was designed to make hits out of fare that otherwise would be pegged as decidedly niche. It’s something that Berney proved adept at in his previous jobs at Newmarket and IFC, where he found mainstream audiences for difficult and offbeat material like “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

So far, the early returns at Picturehouse haven’t been entirely convincing. Releases like “The Notorious Bettie Page” and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” have underperformed at the box office.

But those pictures were part of the list of projects that moved over from HBO or that Berney brought with him from Newmarket. The next few months will bring projects acquired by the Picturehouse banner — and provide the more accurate test of the venture’s rationale.

“In any startup there’s going to be a difference at the beginning between the kind of slate you have and the kind of slate you want to have,” acknowledges New Line co-topper Michael Lynne, who is one of the execs overseeing Picturehouse.

Speaking in Toronto last month, Berney talked about how the company’s vision embraces a conscious, almost aggressive, ambiguity.

While many of the titles don’t have an automatic or easy marketing hook, the slate also means the company has diversified its bets. Even if a movie struggles to find an audience, the next release is so radically different that it basically gives the company a shot at a fresh start. Picturehouse only needs one or two breakouts to make it a banner year.

For all their presumed risk, the gambles have a number of factors going for them.

On its face, Spanish-language period pic “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a tricky sell, but early critical reception has been warm, and its bow on the closing night of the New York Film Festival should lock in the word-of-mouth essential to the arthouse crowd. And fans of del Toro’s “Hellboy” and other genre pics could easily help turn it into a hit.

“Fur,” meanwhile, could benefit from Kidman’s presence to draw crossover audiences when it begins its limited run on Nov. 10. Helmed by edgy director Steven Shainberg (“Secretary”), the film may be Picturehouse’s most unconventional fall release, made all the more challenging because of fears that audiences will confuse the reimagined story for a biopic.

The distrib also will release Paddy Considine-starrer “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin,” a drama about a Russian nuclear facility worker who steals plutonium, from “Inconvenient Truth” producer Scott Burns; and “Starter for Ten,” a British university romance set in the ’80s starring Brit “It”-boy James McAvoy.

“We’re a lot more than a specialized art unit,” Berney says. “We can have any style of release or any genre of release. The independent audience has grown so much beyond what people sometimes think of as the art division.”

Berney should know.

During his run at IFC and Newmarket, he discovered — and perhaps more importantly, built an audience for — movies like “Whale Rider” and “Monster.”

While each Picturehouse movie will be marketed differently, Berney’s general approach is to locate an under-served audience, find the savviest way to reach it — and then proceed very carefully.

For “Cantante,” he suggests a campaign that will first target the millions of Latino moviegoers via marketing that conveys the idea the movie speaks directly to them, all the while remaining cautious not to go too wide, too early.

Picturehouse was set up to provide a distribution arm for HBO Films and a New Line specialty label to replace Fine Line. Releasing films profitably while pleasing all the companies involved could be a delicate balancing act.

But are there too many cooks in Picturehouse’s kitchen, given that the company is a three-way marriage between a studio, a production shingle with deep roots in cable TV, and a maverick film exec?

Certainly, the low-key Texas native and indie maven Berney seems an unlikely fit for the odd three-way reporting structure and corporate environs of Time Warner.

But those involved say the logic of such a marriage — to bring together an indie film whiz with studio muscle — outweighs any potential drawback.

To stave off autonomy issues, Berney has kept his office separate from both New Line and HBO. And though he technically reports to HBO Films prexy Colin Callender and New Line’s Lynne, he is given wide berth to make creative and financial decisions. And Berney has brought in Newmarket pros like COO Rob Schwartz to carry out his plans.

So far, Berney says it is working.

“If I felt like my vision was being compromised here,” Berney says, “I’d feel nostalgic for the Newmarket days. But that hasn’t happened.”

Even though the first projects under the Picturehouse banner have been a mixed bag, there have been bright spots with pics like “Prairie Home Companion.” The Robert Altman pic was acquired from GreeneStreet Films, finishing with a respectable $21 million domestic gross.

“They’re going to be able to take medium-budget films that a lot of others are staying away from and do a lot with them,” says one exhibition exec.

Lynne and Callender hint that the company in the next year will get involved in projects earlier in their development — possibly with the help of outside financiers.

“That’s the next piece to emerge,” says Callender.

Asked what kind of movies that would yield, he said that “we’ll continue with risk-taking, smart material that’s slightly off-center, but with the idea of embracing what makes the material different rather than trying to hide it.”

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