Even leaner, meaner world for niche films

Though long expected, Disney’s announcement Friday that it will scale back Miramax was just more downer news for the already browbeaten indie film community.

The larger studio will now handle “certain marketing, distribution, operations and administrative support functions from its Burbank headquarters,” Disney said.

That translates to an almost 75% reduction in staff to just 20 remaining execs. A series of meetings this week and next will lay out who stays and who goes, but Disney won’t name names for now. Some of the early exits are expected to come from the production and development side. Production prexy Keri Putnam and acquisitions veep Peter Lawson are among the rumored first execs to ankle. Marketing and distribution also are expected to shed many staffers.

Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek will stay put in New York, where he’ll oversee the remaining Miramax slate, including dramedy “Everybody’s Fine” (set for a Dec. 4 release) and John Madden’s Mossad thriller “The Debt.”

Miramax had already started morphing from an acquisitions-heavy mandate to more inhouse production and co-production — with a distinct turn toward genre fare. Mike Judge workplace comedy “Extract” is one example. The label’s upcoming pics, including Jennifer Aniston-Jason Bateman comedy “The Baster” and thriller “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” are more evidence of the trend.

Among the Miramax pics headed into production is romantic comedy “Liars (A to E),” produced by Scott Rudin and helmed by Richard Linklater. But with as few as three films reported to go out under the banner this coming year, who knows what will remain on the Miramax release slate.

Some observers see the Miramax “restructuring” as merely a preamble to a complete elimination of the division.

If that’s the case, it all feels eerily familiar. Paramount Vantage folded its marketing and distribution operations into big Paramount last year, allowing a small staff to remain to acquire and co-produce genre fare. Then another wave of layoffs effectively put an end to Vantage.

The old genre trick — to help boost bottom lines in niche divisions when arthouse fare isn’t cutting it — is an indie Band-Aid that was inspired by New Line’s early horror successes. It spawned Dimension when Miramax was still run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. And Focus Features begat Rogue.

But clearly, Disney didn’t wait to see what its new focus on comedies and thrillers might yield. “Extract,” grossing just $10.8 million to date in wide release, was perhaps one signpost it wasn’t willing to ignore.

On the whole, the shrinking indie slots at studios spell ongoing tough times for filmmakers. Some are already crying doom over what the Miramax cuts will mean for acquisitions at Sundance in January. Despite the fact that the label made very few pickups in recent years, the notion that just one more possible buyer was taken off the field is cause for a full indie orange alert.

Some say the indies are already on red alert. One sales agent reported that U.S. distribs can now play hardball when it comes to paying filmmakers and sellers. “People are behaving really badly. They’re basically saying, ‘We’ll pay you whenever we want to pay you, no matter what the contract says,’ ” the seller lamented. “There were 20 places to distribute your film before, and now there are 10.”

As more and more specialty films go without a significant (or any) theatrical release, or get paltry minimum guarantees from smaller buyers — with a major chance of not recouping at all — the urgency of finding a solution has reached its apex. New companies and consultancies are trying, but, so far, nothing seems to be making a game-changing impact.

It’s interesting, meanwhile, that a studio — Paramount — has been making headway by using indie tactics to release an $11,000 indie horror pic. The studio quietly rolled out “Paranormal Activity” in midnight runs for the past two weeks to amazing per-screen averages and will now take it wider.

Perhaps the leaner-and-meaner studios of today are the new indies. Without the label.

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