Specialties find frugal ways for an edgy alternative

The ultimate year of reckoning for the American indie and specialty sector has turned into a rare kudos opportunity for the survivors.

A year ago, Warner Independent, Picturehouse, ThinkFilm, Paramount Vantage and New Line were all in the awards season mix. The volume grew deafening as the candidates jockeyed for position.

This year, with all of those companies either extinct or radically downsized, a new crop of distribs has stepped into the void.

Overture, IFC, Samuel Goldwyn, Yari Releasing, Oscilloscope, Summit and Bleiberg Entertainment have a cluster of pics aiming to compete in major categories. Win or lose, they are bringing a sense of freshness to a process that had become machinelike in its predictability.

“People are being more disciplined in their spending,” notes David Fenkel, a ThinkFilm vet who heads marketing at Oscilloscope, which is pushing “Wendy and Lucy.” “The quality of films in the race has risen as a result.”

The surviving studio specialty arms — Focus, Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics — are “taking a lesson from ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ” argues Bob Yari, whose shingle has “Nothing but the Truth” and “What Doesn’t Kill You.” Last year’s campaigns for those pics “were successful, but they used up a lot of resources. What you’re seeing is a big pullback by studios and that’s left a lot of room for the independents.”

One offbeat example is “Adam Resurrected,” the Paul Schrader-helmed pic starring Jeff Goldblum as a former magician traumatized by the Holocaust. Producer Ehud Bleiberg (“The Band’s Visit”) says there were no distribution plans set when the pic started getting noticed at Telluride and Toronto.

“At the Mill Valley Film Festival, George Lucas presented Paul Schrader with an award,” Bleiberg recalls. “He told us we should qualify the film even if we didn’t have distribution plans set, so that’s what we decided to do. That’s something we’re able to do as truly independent producers.”

Bleiberg Releasing has booked a one-week December qualifying run in Gotham and Los Angeles, enlisting MPRM to bang the publicity drum. Talks are under way with distribs who could take on “Adam” in a service deal for a March commercial release.

“We hold back a little bit,” Yari says of the indie hopefuls. “If the buzz organically starts building, then you have a validation. We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘We love it, and we’re going to force it through.’ ”

Companies like Goldwyn, whose main award hope is the Lakeshore co-venture “Elegy,” and IFC, pushing “Che,” “Gomorrah” and “Hunger,” are certainly not new to the game. But they have stuck to their knitting as peers have crashed and burned, and now have clearer paths to potential Oscar glory.

Take “Che,” the Wild Bunch-produced, $60 million-plus two-parter. Now at a comfortable remove from its origins as the pic that failed to ignite at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh’s biopic is in the unlikely position of being one of the lone epics in the race.

Ryan Werner, IFC’s marketing chief, says the release combines a studio’s grand ambitions and big canvas with an indie company’s spirit of resourcefulness.

“The challenge for a company like ours is the sheer cost of pulling something like this off,” he says. “With ‘Che,’ we look at it as a real event. So we kicked it off at AFI. We’re doing roadshow screenings with intermissions and a lot of dinners and small-scale events around it.”

Boosting the chances of lead actor Benicio Del Toro takes coin, but Werner has helped devise creative solutions with marketing partners. Blockbuster, with which IFC has an overall video deal, is sponsoring the company’s screeners. Apparel company G-Star helped pay for an event at the New York Film Festival, one of many fests where the pic has played in recent months.

Such fiscally prudent steps are proving as empowering to many industry longtimers as a dose of Suze Orman pragmatism is to an “Oprah Winfrey Show” audience.

“The general economic climate is becoming refreshing,” says Oscilloscope’s Fenkel. “Buying a nomination is going to be harder. A company like ours has the resources to be patient and cultivate grassroots support for films that really deserve attention.”

Yari agrees, citing the discernment of the adult audience as a parallel shift that plays to these newer campaigners’ advantage.

“The penetration of merit has grown, not just for awards but for box office,” he says. “It’s a consequence of the shifting landscape of how an adult audience looks for films. It’s given quality an edge.”

Peter Adee, a major-studio alum, now heads marketing and distribution for Overture, which is pushing “The Visitor” and “Last Chance Harvey.” Compared with past years, Adee says, “There is a little less of the idea that ‘if you spend it, they will come.’ You can’t just blast it out there. You have to think it through.”

Just as significantly, he adds, newer companies like Overture are upending the entrenched clubbiness of the Weinstein-era Miramax days and their immediate aftermath.

“People in the end don’t vote on your movie based on whether it came from a certain studio,” Adee says. “So that automatically creates a much more level playing field.”

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