'Marley and Me' boosts boutique studio

For Elizabeth Gabler, Fox 2000 may be the perfect home base.

As a boutique more than pure specialty division, it boasts the advantages of a studio (deep pockets, global marketing and distribution) without the major disadvantages (the pressures of filling a studio pipeline).

And though Gabler, 52, has delivered the odd clinker like the fantasy “Eragon” (which did better overseas, as did the Cameron Diaz chick flick “In Her Shoes”), she has enjoyed a consistently strong eight-year run since she moved over from 20th Century Fox (where she had supervised such mainstream hits as “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Waiting to Exhale”).

Every year she delivers a breakout or two, from “Phone Booth” and “Unfaithful” to “Man on Fire.”

Currently, she’s riding the success of feel-good family hit “Marley and Me,” starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and a string of golden Labradors, which could score as much as $160 million domestically and an additional $100 million as it rolls out overseas. (Inexplicably, Fox decided before going into production to co-finance with frequent partner New Regency on the movie.)

But consistency is rare in Hollywood, and “Marley” didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s from the same team that scored with the breakout femme fave “The Devil Wears Prada” in 2006, including director David Frankel (dodging the sophomore jinx), Paramount exec-turned-indie producer Karen Rosenfelt (“Twilight”) and Gabler.

As prexy of Fox 2000, Gabler doesn’t have to deliver “X-Men”-size hit installments on a given date. In 2008, the division released Fox’s two biggest hits, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Marley.” This year the label will open three more films, and put four into production. This brings more flexibility even than your standard studio specialty labels, which also struggle to deliver a commercial slate of pics to the marketplace.

Regarded by Fox bosses Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman as a stable, savvy shepherd of the mid-size label, Gabler enjoys a level of freedom that’s increasingly rare amid a tough economy and tighter oversight. And her success argues for a reexamination of the big-studio model. Taking more time to make fewer movies at a lower budget makes high-quality control more possible.

After every other studio passed on the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” Gabler snapped it up and made it for $28 million. It nabbed five Oscar noms and one win, for Reese Witherspoon.

With a $35 million budget, “Prada” delivered huge profits for Fox. And even with Fox 2000′s underperformers, lower costs have mitigated the damage. The Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe misfire “A Good Year” cost only $35 million.

The evolution of “Marley and Me” offers a snapshot of Gabler and Fox 2000′s approach to shaping material.

After acquiring “Marley” three years ago, instead of treating journalist John Grogan’s bestselling memoir as a formula cute-family comedy, Gabler hired sharp, edgy adult writers. The first to tackle the compilation of columns memorializing Grogan’s dog was Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”), followed by Scott Frank (“Get Shorty”).

Roos fashioned a throughline about the journo’s life, a portrait of a marriage and family. “Don could mix comedy and emotionality,” says Gabler, “without being too saccharine.”

Next, Scott dug into the marriage, adding tense scenes between the husband and wife, who struggle with career and kids, and the image of the puppy leaping in the garage during a thunderstorm. “He brought complexity to the marriage and a level of suspense to the script,” says Gabler.

Gabler and Rosenfelt, who had produced “Prada” and “Alvin,” coaxed the resistant Frankel to come aboard and take over the script during the WGA strike. It helped that both Gabler and Frankel were animal lovers. (Gabler houses eight horses, plus pigs and a dog.)

“It’s a movie about you!” Gabler told Frankel, who lives in Florida, was raised by a famous journalist father (the New York Times’ Max Frankel), and has a wife, twins and five stray dogs.

“For David it was a balancing act,” says Rosenfelt. “It could easily fall into that crazy dog movie. The tone was about crying through the laughter and bringing authenticity to the broken family. It’s about how the family grew and changed over 14 years.”

“He makes chick flicks for men,” says Gabler. “We believed he would make the dog’s passing an emotional experience.”

The movie was designed as a PG-rated four-quadrant picture from the start, as Grogan had written three different versions of the book, aimed specifically at adults, young adults and children.

“David made it for everybody from 8 to 80,” says Gabler. “A mature young child could see the movie and understand the cycle of life.”

Frankel cast accessible and funny movie stars — who got their asking price — for the $60 million movie.

Gabler wasn’t sure how far audiences would go with the pic’s four-hankie ending, but the filmmakers refused to temper the film’s emotional impact by introducing a replacement dog that would diffuse the loss.

“It shows children able to go on,” says Gabler, who runs Fox 2000 while raising a 6-year-old of her own. “We never for a second wanted them to get another dog.”

That integrity and respect for filmmakers’ vision engenders respect for Gabler. Rosenfelt credits her with devoting her full attention to every movie she buys, with the intention of making them.

“Her ratio of buying to what she makes is high,” says Rosenfelt. “She doesn’t buy much. And she doesn’t give up.”

Gabler has long been identified with adult films and romantic comedies like “27 Dresses” and “Bride Wars,” which opens this weekend, followed by the Sandra Bullock vehicle “All About Steve” in March.

But even before “Marley,” she’s been moving more actively into the family arena with “Alvin” and its sequel, directed by Betty Thomas, “Flicka,” Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona,” and the upcoming “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” produced by Nina Jacobson.

Gabler had chased the “Narnia” franchise hard, but lost it to Walden Media. In its stead, she has helmer Chris Columbus, who launched the “Harry Potter” series, directing another fantasy book adaptation with aspirations of franchise-hood, “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.”

Gabler continues to nurture lit properties like “Life of Pi” and “Water for Elephants,” but she’s now placing darker material such as Tony Scott’s “Shadow Divers” and Ridley Scott’s “Child 44″ on hold, in favor of “Gucci,” to be directed by Ridley.

It isn’t lost on Gabler that “Marley and Me” hit the zeitgeist just right, providing catharsis at the end of a difficult, traumatic year. Finally, what auds really needed was a good cry.

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