Specialty division revives award-centric thrust

As many specialty films fail to find an audience this season, Miramax’s “The Queen” is proving the unlikely exception.

How did one of the smallest specialty divisions wind up with one of the year’s biggest specialty hits? And now that they have it, what does it mean for them?

For a unit that has operated as quietly as the new Miramax, it’s been a hectic year. The rejigged Mouse House division set the tone by winning the foreign-language Oscar for its first release under new topper Daniel Battsek, the South African drama “Tsotsi.”

So much for the good news. The company followed with a slew of underperformers: soccer doc “Once in a Lifetime,” Robin Williams starrer “The Night Listener” and (gulp) bar mitzvah comedy “Keeping Up with the Steins.”

The failures prompted some to say the company lost its mojo along with the Weinsteins.

And then, Miramax spent the fall turning “The Queen” into a sensation.

On its face, a small drama centering on the 9-year-old moral quandary of a British monarch wouldn’t seem an obvious candidate to cross over to larger audiences.

But the pic found broad critical enthusiasm and consumer appeal.

Over 10 weeks of release, the Stephen Frears-Peter Morgan collaboration has grossed $25 million, posting some impressive per-screen numbers along the way.

In fact, some have begun to wonder if Miramax left money on the table by not going wider sooner.

The early release date (Sept. 30, after the movie opened the New York Film Festival) gave it plenty of time to breathe before the specialty calendar got too crowded.

By the time most specialty divisions were releasing their big movies in November and December, “The Queen” already had so much traction it could handle a wider release.

The pic, which Scott Rudin exec produced, gave Miramax credibility as well as financial flexibility. “It’s also a signal, a beacon, of what we’d like to do in the future,” Battsek says. Literally, in the case of another Rudin collaboration — a bigscreen adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s legit hit “Doubt” set to go into production in 2007. Rudin will produce that pic via his Scott Rudin Prods. shingle.

Battsek isn’t as interested as some of his peers in the bigger productions that have become common at Paramount Vantage or Searchlight. And, unlike units such as Focus, the company does no pre-sales.

In fact, with a small staff comprising of Weinstein holdovers, Battsek intimates and new hires, Miramax is trying to avoid trends at other specialty divisions.

“Not to be all retro about it, but we really want to get back to what specialty units used to be,” Battsek says. He defines that especially through a push for awards, which he calls “a vital part of our DNA.”

With his fashionable sweaters and refined mannerisms, the British Battsek cuts an elegant figure.

And his two big fall releases are true to those roots: They center on British themes and star British actors. (Besides “The Queen,” there’s Peter O’Toole topliner “Venus,” which involves O’Toole playing a thesp whose life is changed by a teenager.) But company’s upcoming slate is a mix of the refined and the commercial.

Next year, the company will release Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Hoax” (about a fake bio of Howard Hughes, starring Richard Gere and Marcia Gay Harden) and the Italian Oscar submission, Emanuele Crialese’s immigration drama “The Golden Door.”

There’s also thriller “The Lookout,” starring Isla Fisher and Jeff Daniels, as well as “Becoming Jane,” in which Anne Hathaway plays the young Jane Austen, before she became a famous author.

Perhaps even more than when the Weinsteins ruled Miramax, Battsek’s awards-centric approach could seem like an odd fit with a parent that happens to be the world’s biggest family-entertainment conglom.

A few months ago, the gulf widened as the Mouse House scuttled its midlevel dramas in favor of more family-friendly and franchise-ready films, an event that led to greater speculation about Miramax’s future.

Battsek says he’s aware of potential incompatibilities, but he also thinks they can be reconciled. “So far,” he says, “there’s no conflict between what the studio wants to achieve and what the studio wants us to achieve.”

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