Niche films’ glut check

Lighter load for '08's specialty slate

The 2008 fall and winter indie box office will look dramatically different from last year’s avalanche of prestige pics, when many weekends brought two or three high-profile releases from studio specialty arms and the bigger indie houses.

The rules governing platform releases — slow rollouts and building an audience with word of mouth — mattered not with such a glut. Indie houses, and particularly studio specialty arms, got the message and are releasing fewer pics this time around.

Compounding the problem is a general downturn at the specialty box office in 2008. Post-Oscars, tickets sales for prestige titles dramatically dipped compared with last year. And so far this year, there’s been no breakout arthouse hit. Overture’s “The Visitor” has arguably come the closest.

“This summer has changed everything. The real point now is surviving,” one studio specialty topper says.

Focus distribution prexy Jack Foley posits that it could just be the cyclical nature of the biz. The underperformance of the indie films at the box office might simply be a natural fluctuation, nothing more. It’s happened before.

How all of this affects the upcoming awards season remains to be seen, although the big studios could find more of their titles in the top categories after several years of seeing specialty fare dominate the Oscars and Golden Globes, including last year.

In terms of last year’s flood, look no further than the weekend of Dec. 7-9, 2007, when “Juno,” “Atonement” and “Grace Is Gone” opened, just one week after the preems of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Savages,” not to mention the specialty titles that were still expanding, including “No Country for Old Men.”

This year, there’s no indie pic slated to open that same weekend frame — at least not yet. Focus Features’ Harvey Milk biopic “Milk” will have the weekend to itself, after opening the week prior on Nov. 26.

Last year also saw specialty arms and indie houses spend unprecedented amounts on marketing their pics. It paid off for a select few, but in the specialty arena it’s still a big financial gamble.

As the indies move into full gear now that Labor Day is over, the industry starts to get its first glimpses of how the newly reconfigured specialty biz will move forward. Many wonder what the new Paramount Vantage will look like now that big Par’s in charge of marketing and distribution of upcoming titles such as “The Duchess.”

And in the wake of Warner Independent’s shuttering, acquisition title “Slumdog Millionaire” will be released and marketed by Fox Searchlight in a split-deal with Warner.

Shingles such as Searchlight, Focus Features and Miramax are the obvious beneficiaries of the leaner studio specialty field, at least in the short term, as are the truly indie distributors who had next to no chance to break through the clutter of last fall.

At the same time, Focus and Searchlight have more streamlined slates, releasing fewer films and making fewer festival pickups. Presumably those measures allow them to dedicate more attention and coin on one or two awards contenders.

Aside from “Slumdog,” Searchlight has two fall and winter releases, “Choke” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” Focus has two, the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading” (which is opening wide) and “Milk.”

Miramax is twice as busy, with four releases set between now and December –“Blindness,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and “Doubt.”

Sony Pictures Classics remains distinctly different from the rest of the studio specialty divisions, releasing more and smaller films that are less mainstream.

Several festival titles will unspool in the next several months, including Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened,” which Magnolia is self-releasing after it was unable to sell the pic to another distrib at Sundance and Cannes. Sony Classics will release Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” another fest acquisition that was unable to spark the sort of frenzied bidding war that past years have seen.

Come Christmas, the indies should be able to tell if returning to the basics and focusing on a few select titles will make for a merry holiday — or not.

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