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Less can be more

Blurb, vid helmers dig bigscreen niche

NEW YORK — Talk about thinking outside the box.

In 1999, acclaimed musicvideo helmer Spike Jonze scored big with his debut feature “Being John Malkovich.”

Since then, the arthouse business has opened its arms to directors with similar pedigrees looking to break into features.

Before Jonze, most video directors who managed to successfully cross over onto the bigscreen did so with mainstream big-budget genre pics that had high production value and little intellectual content.

For studio execs, the video world, with its emphasis on slick presentation and youth culture savvy, was an ideal minor league for up-and-coming directors like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner to cut their teeth before being handed the reigns of a producer-driven star vehicle like “Bad Boys” (Bay’s studio debut vehicle) or “Rush Hour” (Ratner’s soph effort).

Jonze chose an entirely different route: a low-budget comic fantasy about a depressed puppeteer who discovers a secret porthole into the mind of a film star.

The result was a tremendous success by any standard: “Malkovich” grossed $23 million domestically, racked up rave reviews and took home a slew of international and domestic prizes, including an Oscar nomination for Jonze.

Top British video and commercial director Jonathan Glazer has followed in Jonze’s footsteps with arty crime thriller “Sexy Beast” (Fox Searchlight). The film was one of the more successful specialty titles of 2001, grossing $9 million worldwide.

In 2002, the feature floodgates will open wide to vid directors. Michel Gondry’s “Human Nature” (Fine Line), Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” (Fox Searchlight) and Roman Coppola’s “CQ” (United Artists/Zoetrope) — all ambitious debuts from A-list video helmers, backed by top indie producers and first-rate casts that are slated to invade the specialty arena.

Along with a taste for unconventional stories, these helmers share a desire for creative control and a sense of authorship over their works, an unlikely prospect when debuting with a studio star vehicle. The indie world, on the other hand, offers a more permissive environment.

“I tried to get some bigger films financed in the past, but they were very ambitious in scope and budget, so they didn’t work out,” says Romanek. “After a while, it became clear that it would be a lot easier if I started out with a low-budget movie.”

In “One Hour Photo,” Robin Williams plays a lonely photo booth clerk who becomes obsessed with his customers.

Says “CQ” helmer Coppola: “I wanted my first film to express my own voice, a film that was personal to me. I wanted to be the only director who could have made this movie.” Coppola cut his teeth as a second unit director for his father Francis before moving into video work.

“CQ,” which debuted at the Cannes film festival in 2001, is set in Paris and tells the story of a young American filmmaker (Jeremy Davies) who gets a job directing a low-budget science-fiction movie.

“These directors seem to have a much wider visual vocabulary than most other filmmakers,” says Good Machine co-chair and “Human Nature” producer Ted Hope.

“They also know what it’s like to get 40 set-ups in a day and how to be leaders, which is a necessary skill when working with a low budget. Those abilities make them very attractive to us as independent producers.”

Gondry’s debut — which also unspooled at 2001 Cannes — chronicles a bizarre love triangle between two scientists (Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette) and the man they discover living in the wild. It was shepherded by Jonze and “Malkovich” scribe Charlie Kaufman, both of whom took home producer credits.

“I wanted to make this film as unique as possible, even if I was taking chances,” says Gondry, who is best known for his experimental video work with Bjork.

“The acting and the narrative, of course were important, but I didn’t want to forget the spirit of my work in the past. I didn’t want to lose my originality just because I had to tell a story.”

Gondry has since signed with USA Films to direct Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”