Arthouse-loving kudos could see less specialty fare

Last year, critic-pleasing independent films like “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” had their run of many spotlight categories going into awards season. But by the time this year’s season rolled around, some key studio specialized divisions — Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures — had been dismantled or folded into their parent companies.

The question remains as to what impact this shrinkage will have on films going into contention at this season’s kudos events — especially the indie-loving Golden Globes. Execs at the surviving arthouse divisions say it’s too early to tell.

“There are cycles of change in this business, and you don’t really understand them until after the fact,” says Michael Barker, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics. “We’ve always made it work by being lean and spending what each film requires, and I think we’ve learned a lot over the years about how these films should be presented in the marketplace.”

While there might be fewer or different companies in the market for specialized film, it seems not to have changed the nature of the business much — yet. In fact, certain constants remain.

“I haven’t forgotten for one moment how competitive and challenging it is to be in this business, and the movie business is that way whether you’re in specialized film or working with the major studios,” says Miramax films prexy Daniel Battsek. “In terms of acquiring and making movies, it’s too early for there to have been a real sea change.”

Just as some companies leave the independent marketplace, others enter, so the jousting for the best films, scripts and filmmakers continues.

“Part of what happens is that new companies spring up and fill the gap,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “So as some leave, you have companies like Overture and Summit coming onto the scene.”

Still, it’s possible indie film companies and audiences are finding an equilibrium between the number of films released and the appetite for those movies.

“There were too many specialized films opening every weekend and the market couldn’t absorb all of it,” says Focus Features CEO James Schamus. “Hopefully now there will be more time for more breathing room because it’s hard when every film has to live or die every weekend.”

Those still releasing indie fare must make careful choices about which films to release and how to get audiences to see them.

“At Searchlight we will continue to try to choose films we love and that we feel can be successful in the marketplace,” Fox Searchlight COO Nancy Utley says in an email interview. “The marketplace seems to be less forgiving of films that are good but not great. They disappear from theaters more rapidly than before, and screens are shifted to films that are producing higher grosses. … We have to be very disciplined about what we choose.”

As the economy shifts and the availability of funds dwindles, other adjustments may also be on the way.

“One thing that will change things in the next 18 months (is) the impact of hedge fund and other equity money going away,” Schamus says. “There will probably be less of a product crush in the fall because of that.”

While the number and names of players in the indie marketplace change, it will certainly make a difference to those on the inside, but audiences and critics may be less aware of these shifts.

“The reality is that we critics and journalists don’t pay any attention to where the film comes from when we watch it,” says Mike Goodridge, VP of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which organizes the Golden Globes. “We’ll be focusing on the two-hour experience of the movie and whether it’s any good or not because consumers overseas just want to know if the film is worth their time or which stars are in it.”

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