Billionaire's distinctive slate fails to lure auds

Many entrepreneurs enter the film business with heightened hopes … and leave with lightened wallets.

Billionaire Sidney Kimmel might be the first to fail after making a string of distinctive and distinguished films that were as high in quality as they were low in gross.

The recent news that Kimmel is cutting his operations and spending in half depressed many in the industry whose business also revolves around turning a profit with offbeat and prestigious films that challenge audiences.

By all measures, Kimmel succeeded on the toughest part of that equation — making excellent films. But that wasn’t enough.

“I think it’s sad because you want to see good work rewarded,” says longtime producer Marshall Herskovitz. “It’s very tough for the sort of films they’ve been doing — particularly considering the cost of putting a film into the market. If you’re not one of the Big Six, it’s hard to get the exposure you need, especially since you need a lot of repetition for people to notice.”

The 80-year-old Kimmel, who built the Jones Apparel Group into a multibillion-dollar company, would not comment on his decision to scale back, or why he’s not been able to transfer his rag-trade success to film.

Observers, including several who’ve made films with him, were saddened by his cutback decision because it means one fewer enthusiastic rich person willing to bankroll challenging fare. But they also say there’s little mystery as to why his recent films failed to make money.

Some who’ve worked with Kimmel say that while his goals were honorable, he didn’t engage in the kind of micromanaging that is often essential to ensuring that these films reach their audience.

Turning prestige pictures into moneymakers is the equivalent of aiming at the tiniest target, and if you’re financing films on subjects like a man’s affair with a blow-up sex doll (“Lars and the Real Girl”), only the most expert specialty marketing and distribution campaign will prevent your dreams — and wallet — from deflating.

“His goals are the same as Steve Samuels, Bill Pohlad and Jeff Skoll, other guys who made fortunes elsewhere and are in the game to make quality films,” says one dealmaker. “It comes down to more than choosing the right material and talent; distribution is just as important.

“Sidney’s decision to go through MGM made no sense, because a film like ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ should only be released by people who understand and are willing to take on the laborious and challenging form of marketing that means platforming, putting the film in the right theaters so that word of mouth builds. That isn’t MGM’s business, at all, and it was a mismatch from day one.”

Kimmel isn’t waving the white flag yet and is in no danger of losing his fortune. Some feel he might be better off placing fewer bets, the way he did when he made money in his early producer days by selectively staking films like “9½ Weeks.”

But the elusiveness of scoring a breakthrough in today’s unforgiving market took its toll. SKE’s slate hasn’t caught any breaks.

Kimmel’s recent films — “Talk to Me,” “Death at a Funeral,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Alpha Dog,” “The Kite Runner,” “Charlie Bartlett” — all received sparkling critical notices but weren’t able to translate that acclaim into significant box office. Despite an Oscar nom for the “Lars” screenplay, the latex love story has grossed a flaccid $6 million.

“Selling a movie about a sex doll — that’s rough” one agent says. “That’s going to take very special handling.”

Veteran producer David Permut believes “Charlie Bartlett,” with its title character engaged in drug dealing at a high school, was a victim of what he called an archaic MPAA ratings system, which gave the pic an R — making it even harder to sell.

“It’s a very anti-drug movie,” he notes. “Every time we put it in front of an audience, it was embraced. But the MPAA’s reasoning was that it was a teen movie with drug use and so it would automatically get the R.”

Permut is holding out hope on two fronts: “I think DVD sales will be fine since the R rating doesn’t come into play, and I believe that “Charlie Bartlett” would make a great TV series,” he says.

“Kite Runner” opened at a time when films set in the Mideast were tanking. Despite its basis in a beloved novel by Khaled Hosseini — adapted by David Benioff and directed by “Monster’s Ball” helmer Marc Forster — “Kite Runner” never got off the ground, grossing only $15 million. It’s shown a bit better traction internationally with more than $30 million.

Kimmel has the opportunity to do better with his newest film, “Synecdoche, New York,” which marks the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the scribe behind “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Distribution sources say they’ve been waiting so long to see the finished film that they have no idea what to expect, or how Kaufman’s singular voice as a writer will transfer to a film he directs.

Most distribs read the script long ago, when SKE was looking for one of them to come aboard as financing partner. But nobody stepped up back then on a film with a budget north of $20 million and populated with specialty film regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Samantha Morton.

SKE also financed the Jennifer Aniston-Steve Zahn starrer “Management.”

Some feel Kimmel got a little cocky, which often happens when an outsider enters the business and finds quick success. After bankrolling development projects at Longfellow Pictures and GreeneStreet and finding the experience unfulfilling, Kimmel three years ago set up his own production company. First up was a financing a pair of Universal dramas — “United 93” and “Breach.” The films grossed a combined $65 million, and the Paul Greengrass-directed “United 93” scored two Oscar nominations.

Since starting to produce its own films, all SKE titles other than “Kite Runner” — which ran through DreamWorks —have been released through MGM in a rent-a-studio deal with SKE paying for P&A and handling its own marketing.

Kimmel now plans to look for distribution deals on a picture-by-picture basis.

“Your trailer is the single biggest marketing tool you’ve got, so you have to have it attached to the right films,” one exec says. “Having ‘Juno’ attached to the Fox trailers was a big advantage.”

Herskovitz, president of the Producers Guild of America, believes SKE’s ratcheting back reflects the larger challenges in operating outside the major studios.

“Every year, it seems like a small number of high-minded films get anointed and receive some commercial success like ‘Juno’ and ‘No Country for Old Men,’ but there’s only a few,” he says. “I’m not sure how easy it is to pin the blame on anyone because you’ve got a whole generation who grew up loving movies and they’re not showing up enough. Part of it is the modern culture with 60-inch TVs and all the other distractions.”

One manager agrees, contending that in today’s world of diminished attention spans, Kimmel-backed films are always going to be long-shots. “They’re good films but they’re going to have to measure up against things like ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘Juno,’ so I’m not surprised that he’s pulling back,” he adds.

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