Coens, Paramount Vantage lead charge

The gap between niche films and major releases is growing even more narrow, as several events of the past weeks have proven.

  • Longtime arthouse faves the Coen brothers officially became mainstream, winning three Oscars for “No Country for Old Men” while Focus Features announced that their next film, “Burn After Reading” with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, will open wide.

  • On March 5, the MPAA released data showing that the average cost of producing a specialty film in 2007 spiked 60% over the previous year, to $49.2 million, while the average cost of advertising increased by 44% to $25.7 million. (That compares to single-digit increases by films released by the major studios.)

  • Paramount Vantage and Sony Pictures Classics announced that they will launch, respectively, the pricey Sundance pickup “Son of Rambow” and the starry David Mamet pic “Redbelt” on May 2 — the unofficial start of summer and the same day as Paramount’s “Iron Man” and Sony’s “Made of Honor” bow.

As major studios look to their specialty divisions for prestige and profits, the production and marketing of films filled with indie spirit increasingly mimic that of their big-studio brethren.

As with the majors, no specialty player will say on the record how much they actually spend on marketing; nobody wants to admit to overspending. But unlike the majors, opening dates are not often staked far in advance, but are kept under wraps or tweaked theater by theater until the bow.

This summer, a healthy number of niche pics are shaping up to bow, bringing an acute sense of risk, elevated B.O. consciousness, and less chance to build an audience. Last July, specialty arms released 10 films that jockeyed with each other and the summer tentpoles.

Specialty films always required breathing space and word of mouth, with 2002′s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” not really finding its audience until it had played for weeks. Bob Berney, now prexy of Picturehouse, oversaw that IFC Films release and says indie pics are currently in the same situation as tentpoles a few years ago.

“It’s become more of a one-weekend business,” says Berney. “That Friday night thumbs up or down decision that is the fate of a studio film. … It’s become more like that with indie films, which is tough because it’s been more crowded.”

It’s tougher to tell what’s happening this summer as mini-majors are still determining their calendars, but most weekends already have multiple bows from specialty divisions and/or indies.

June 6 sees Sony Classics’ “When Did You Last See Your Father” and Picturehouse’s “Mongol” (aside from major studio releases and First Run Features’ “To the Limit,” and Myriad Pictures’ “Mother of Tears”).

The July 4 weekend has Picturehouse’s “Kit Kittredge” and Sony Classics’ “The Wackness” (the same weekend Sony releases the Will Smith-Charlize Theron “Hancock”).

On July 25, Sony Classics has “Baghead,” while Par Vantage has the docu “American Teen” and Miramax offers “Brideshead Revisited.”

The crowding will continue (or accelerate) in the fall and fourth quarter. That season kicks off with a three-way battle on Sept. 12, when the Coens’ “Burn After Reading” faces off against Picturehouse’s “Amusement,” and Par Vantage’s “The Duchess.”

The specialty and indie sector saw box office returns decline by 19% in 2007, to $795.3 million, from $979 million a year earlier. The signs are more encouraging so far this year, boosted by the success of Fox Searchlight’s “Juno”: Through March 2, box office is up 76%, to $297.1 million.

The yearly crowding has been well-documented, the result of third-party financing and more aggressive strategizing by the media congloms. One solution: Avoid the end-of-the-year melee that had been the prime playing time for niches.

Summer, which a decade ago was a time for “serious” film fans to crack open a novel or take up rollerblading, has become much more playable thanks to blockbuster fatigue, some popcorn movie misfires and a firmer marketing foundation for pics with broad aud potential. Ergo, “The March of the Penguins.”

“If you look at every release date on the calendar, there’s not a lot of weekends that have only one movie on them,” Vantage topper Nick Meyer says.

“I don’t know that you can say competitive movies are a glutted weekend,” he says . “This is just a cycle. People said look at all these companies doing specialty business — but it’s like any business, it’s gonna be competitive.”

Like Meyer, many toppers see opportunities in a fast-changing landscape.

“Every year is more competitive than the year before, there are more companies in our space and thus there is more product,” says Miramax’s prexy Daniel Battsek, who has seen distinct changes in just the two-plus years he’s been at the helm. “We’re completely flexible about making sure that we don’t put films in the fall for fall’s sake, which I would say other companies do maybe on occasion.”

Battsek was optimistic that a film like “No Country,” which people called lovable but thorny, would not just win awards but make coin. (Domestic cume: $70 million and counting.) “There’s confidence, the doors are open now,” the exec says. “On the other side of the coin, if the market is saturated, then movies that deserve to find an audience will not find an audience because there will be too many films and the entry point will be crowded.”

Word of mouth is hard to calibrate, of course, as are reviews and kudos mojo. But the combatants in this crater-filled field of battle, paint a picture where the “Junos” are scarcer than ever. “The glut of product really hurts certain movies because they don’t have room to maneuver or expand,” Battsek says. “At the time they want to expand, that’s when other movies come out.”

There is always constant rethinking in the niche arena. Time Warner, under new chief exec Jeff Bewkes, has already folded New Line into Warner Bros. and is now mulling a combo of Picturehouse and Warner Independent.

Talk to enough specialty vets and you hear a certain what-us-worry sense that the times are not as crazy-making as they seem. But then they look at the numbers.

Steve Gilula, co-chief operating officer at Fox Searchlight, says, “The specialty audience is confronted with many choices so when there are smaller films without stars and TV campaigns, it’s hard to open the movies with enough momentum to stay onscreen.” And this view is from the guy who released “Juno.”

But not every niche division has joined the crowd. “We do not believe that specialized film is a one-season business and we’ve proven it,” says Focus honcho James Schamus. “Our job is always to play against or play under, not with. The definition of a Focus movie is one that will be hated by a large segment of the population. We want to be loved by many but we don’t have to go head to head. We can find our audience. Sometimes you have to clear out of Dodge.”

Sony Pictures Classics co-chief Tom Bernard sees the problem not so much with the number of films but with quality. “If you have a good movie, people show up,” concludes Bernard.

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