Surprising amount of comedies on slate

CANNES — The sky was dark with occasional rain on Friday, but the studio specialty arms — Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics — are in a summer mood, with some surprising twists to their usual release patterns.

Traditionally, indies and specialty arms have had a low profile in summer, not wanting to compete for screens or audiences with the studios’ heavily promoted wide-release summer blockbusters.

But this year, they have a surprisingly active summer sked, in sharp contrast to last year, which saw the heavy action in the fourth quarter. And, as is fitting for the summer season, the specialty arms (which are often thought of as the homes for serious “prestige” pics) are in a lighthearted mood, with a surprising amount of comedies for summer and early fall.

The hope this year is that moviegoers will want an alternative to summer popcorn pics; two years ago, specialty units experimented with releasing films outside the fall and winter corridor but saw only so-so results.

Part of the problem then was that many of the alternative pics were serious dramas. This time, many of the summer and early fall films are lighter in tone, explaining why some of them are nationwide releases, not just limited openers.

On June 5, Focus releases Sam Mendes’ dramedy “Away We Go” in a limited run. Film toplines Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski.

That same weekend, Searchlight releases Donald Petrie’s “My Life in Runs,” starring Nia Varados, Richard Dreyfuss and Rachel Dratch, nationwide.

Miramax releases Stephen Frears’ “Cheri,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Anita Pallenberg, in a limited run on June 26. That’s not the only limited opener over that frame. Summit Entertainment opens Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” as well.

On Aug. 14, Focus goes out nationwide with Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Film premieres at Cannes on Saturday.

Miramax opens Mike Judge’s comedy “Extract” in a limited run on Sept. 5.

On Sept. 9, Focus debuts motion-capture/CGI film “9.” It will open wide.

Warner Bros., which no longer has a specialty arm, releases Steven Soderbergh’s Matt Damon starrer “The Informant” in a limited run on Sept. 9.

Focus rolls out the Coen brothers’ black comedy “A Serious Man” on Oct. 2, roughly the same weekend it used to open the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. Film opens in select theaters before expanding.

The next weekend, Searchlight opens Drew-Barrymore-Ellen Page-Marcia Gay Harden comedy “Whip It!” nationwide.

Offering one of the more serious pics, the Weinstein Co. unspools John Hillcoat’s “The Road” on Oct. 16. Film goes out wide.

On Oct. 23, Searchlight likewise goes wide with Mira Nair’s biopic “Amelia,” starring Hilary Swank and Ewan McGregor.

The significant number of wide releases from the studio specialty arms and bigger indies is a sign of the times: It’s often better to get in and out of the market.

November and December are notably devoid of indie titles right now, but that’s not unusual, since specialty companies usually wait until later to date their end-of-the-year films.

Some of those titles will be acquired during festival season, including Cannes and through the Toronto Film Festival in early September. Or it could turn out that summer and fall entries play a bigger role in terms of awards.

Several titles at Cannes are getting plenty of pre-screening buzz, led by Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora,” which will be shown for the first time to buyers on Sunday.

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