Film companies dubious of specialty pickups

With the first half of the year in film festivals behind us, it’s hard not to notice the nearly complete lack of specialty film pickups by studios.

Even Fox Searchlight, one of the few remaining studio specialty divisions, has been somewhat quiet. Since picking up “The Wrestler” at Toronto last fall, the label has made just one fest purchase: “Adam,” a small indie drama that played in Sundance’s competition in January.

The consolidation of the indie and specialty-division landscape is alarming to filmmakers and sales agents, but Searchlight isn’t happy about it, either.

“We don’t want to be the last man standing with the entire burden of specialized cinema resting on our shoulders,” Searchlight’s acquisitions head Tony Safford confided as he headed out for his late-June vacation. “Without New Line and (Paramount) Vantage really being in the game, and without Warner Independent, suddenly there are 20-30 films that aren’t being distributed. Maybe half shouldn’t have been distributed, but half should have.”

John Sloss, who is repping domestic sales on two Cannes fest entries still looking for homes — Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” and Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” — said the specialty biz may be facing a sea change.

“I’ve been an optimist and a defender of the core elements of indie distribution, but it’s hard to explain the lack of presence of specialized distributors in the market,” Sloss said.

The indie divisions need movies to feed their pipelines. Yet, at every fest this year, they seem to be sitting on their hands while Sony Pictures Classics, IFC Films and Magnolia basically just back up the truck.

At Cannes, about a half-dozen deals were inked by smaller Stateside distribs, and a few more pickups from the fest are likely to close in the coming months. But these deals barely cross the six-figure mark and rarely go into multimillion-dollar advances.

When it comes to the studio arms, these days it’s all about inhouse production, prebuys or, most typically, doing nothing.

“Unless we have control and can take the world on a film, we’re not going to go out on a huge limb,” said one studio buyer.

But even on prebuys, it’s not the studios stepping up to grab the more obvious titles.

Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad acquired Jane Campion’s Cannes competition entry “Bright Star” well before the festival’s start. When Berney was in Los Angeles this week, taking meetings with investors, he said prebuys may be the emphasis of his still-to-be named distribution company. But it’s not a new tactic for Berney. At Picturehouse, he boarded films like “La Vie en rose” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” well before they were completed.

Sales agents and producers seem to be waiting for the right offers from the right distributors. But finding those has become appreciably trickier.

“There are always too few good films,” Safford said. “But now we’re in a place where there may be too few distributors.”

The distrib pool is being replenished — to some degree — but not at the major studios. Aside from Berney-Pohlad and mainstream aspirants such as Summit and Overture, a few indie newbies have entered or ramped up in the arena recently.

Oscilloscope, headed by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, is now handling 10-plus theatrical releases a year, for example. And homevid company Image Entertainment has broadened its scope to theatrical releasing.

But as many films remain unsold, producers will have to look to other options. And these days that means short or no theatrical windows and VOD plays through smaller distribs such as IFC, Magnolia and Oscilloscope.

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