Year-old studio trying to find its groove

Launching a U.S. distribution company isn’t a task for the faint of heart. Many have tried and failed, so it’s a wonder that newcomers like Overture and Summit remain convinced there’s box office gold beyond the majors.

A boffo hit such as Summit’s “Twilight” goes a long way toward making the independent distribution business look viable.

Overture Films, which has the backing of John Malone’s Liberty Media, is taking a bit longer to find its groove. The shingle, headed by former MGM prexy Chris McGurk, generated a respectable $115 million in box office grosses in its first year, but now it is facing the glaring light coming off its competitor’s new franchise. And people are asking, where’s Overture’s “Twilight”-sized hit?

Those comparisons are inevitable, given that Overture launched its U.S. distribution operations around the same time as Summit did — just over a year ago.

Meanwhile, Overture’s “Sunshine Cleaning,” at nearly $10 million, has turned out to be the one bright spot at the specialty box office this year. Overture acquired the film at Sundance in 2008 then decided to hold off its release for a year.

“We did some re-cutting and re-editing to get it right and we wanted to get the marketing going strongly,” McGurk notes. Similarly, Overture’s “The Visitor” grossed close to $10 million last year, with an Oscar nom to boot.

Overture CEO McGurk and chief operating officer Danny Rosett aren’t apologizing for how they’ve done so far, insisting that they’ve established Overture as a credible player in developing and releasing mid-range pics.

“Obviously, you’re in the game for a ‘Twilight’ or a ‘Crouching Tiger’ or a ‘Juno,’ but our business plan does not require a major hit to work,” McGurk says.

McGurk and Rosett say they are exploring expansion of the company through raising a P&A fund that would enable Overture to distribute bigger films than its current under-$30 million slate. “We’ve got the distribution elements, the track record and the executive team,” McGurk notes.

The 52-year-old McGurk is a seasoned film and business exec who worked for Disney and U before spending half a dozen years helping to reinvigorate MGM. McGurk brought in 47-year-old Rosett, who headed United Artists at the same time.

Overture has already taken on slightly larger pics, teaming with the Film Dept. on “Law Abiding Citizen,” which is budgeted at $45 million. McGurk notes that with the disappearance of distribs such as Picturehouse, Warner Independent and New Line, Overture has an opportunity to fill those holes.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have had ‘Twilight,’ but what we’ve done is take the car out of the garage and done a test drive,” Rosett says. “We proved the business model worked for prestige films like ‘The Visitor.’ And we had 15% of North American screens when ‘Righteous Kill’ and ‘Traitor’ were out, with no issue of getting enough screens.”

Formed with the intention of supplying testosterone-driven hits to Starz Network, the business plan has evolved with a 50-50 split between specialty pics and wide-release genre films. Execs insist Dustin Hoffman-starrer “Last Chance Harvey” recouped on DVD and television sales, despite middling box office, while “Nothing Like the Holidays” and “Henry Poole Is Here” tanked — to put it frankly.

At $41 million, “Righteous Kill” is the distrib’s top grosser so far. Overture’s upcoming genre pics include sci-fi thriller “Pandorum” and actioner “Law Abiding Citizen,” and remakes of “The Crazies” and Swedish vampire thriller “Let the Right One In.”

Also geared up for release are comedy “Paper Heart,” which bowed at Sundance and stars Michael Cera; Michael Moore’s follow-up to “Fahrenheit 9/11″; and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Jack Goes Boating.”

“Chris and Danny really are interested in filmmaking as an artful endeavor,” Hoffman says. “And they get that being a little crazy is OK too.”

The “Fahrenheit” sequel, announced at Cannes last year, is co-financed with Paramount Vantage and will be released before the end of the year. McGurk and Rosett worked with Moore on “Bowling for Columbine” at MGM/UA and say they’re convinced he’ll hit it out of the park, but won’t elaborate as to the specifics of the pic.

As for the famously irascible Moore, he insists McGurk and Rosett are his favorite studio execs. “They have an enormous amount of respect for the filmmaker and, more importantly, they love the movies,” he says.

Unlike many other indies, Overture’s structure partially insulates the company from the depressed markets. It operates as part of Malone’s Liberty Media holding company and is a subsidiary of Starz, which also operates the Starz Entertainment premium TV business along with the Anchor Bay homevid operation, TV production, animated film and international sales.

It’s also the first time a Malone entity has been involved in theatrical film distribution as well as production, signing Hoffman, Lawrence Bender and State Street’s Bob Teitel and George Tillman Jr. to term deals.

McGurk emphasizes the cushion provided by the ancillaries, pointing out that titles like the studio’s first release “Mad Money,” “Righteous Kill” and “Traitor” all performed better than expectations in homevideo.

“I think it’s a great signal that you don’t have spend $50 million to do well,” he adds. “Studios are under a lot of pressure right now. GE really can’t allocate more money to Universal for example, but they’re tied to be into bigger and bigger movies.”

And Rosett says it’s not a problem that the town’s not yet sure what to make of Overture.

“We can’t really say what an Overture movie is,” he adds. “We are first and foremost a distribution company and I wear that as a badge of honor. You kind of become what you do so if you get strongly identified, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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