Machine’s recharged by U move

Co. trades a bit of its autonomy for distrib'n security

NEW YORK — Last week, Good Machine was one of the few remaining specialty shingles without the deep pockets of a studio behind it.

But, in a move that signals just how dependent so-called independent film has become, Good Machine has traded a bit of its autonomy for the security of a domestic distribution partner — Universal Pictures.

While the specialty film community grappled with the significance of U’s acquisition of Good Machine, to be renamed Focus and stay based in New York, Good Machine’s deal shows the maturation of the specialty pic business and, in New York particularly, that success depends on the broad financial support and marketing acumen associated with the West Coast majors.

Good Machine’s problem was cash flow and access to domestic distribution. Despite a one-year, first-look pact with Miramax that ended in March, and similar first-look deals with Fox and U, Good Machine’s strong suits were thought to be its international sales operation, its relationship to talent (particularly to director Ang Lee), and the reputation of toppers David Linde, James Schamus and Ted Hope. In his new role as studio exec, Schamus, who wrote many of the pics Lee helmed, will become one of the few exec-scribes.

Easier to make films

The new arrangement broadens Good Machine’s ability to make films and sell to the overseas market. “We will make eight to 12 films a year of varying budgets,” said Linde, who along with Schamus will run Focus. “If we believe in it and can rationalize it, we will make it. Universal has been very generous in giving us a lot of assurances that we can do what we want.”

Neither Linde nor Schamus, however, would say whether Focus would be able to greenlight a pic without Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider’s approval — the kind of autonomy that the Weinstein brothers have apart from their arrangement with Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney Co., and New Line has apart from AOL Time Warner.

U made the deal with Good Machine just before studio execs were headed to an annual retreat. It remained unclear whether Scott Greenstein — whose success with “Traffic,” “Gosford Park” and “Monsoon Wedding” appeared to put him in line to run an enlarged USA Films under Snider — would have any association with the studio. Also unclear was how StudioCanal’s U.S. operation, run by Stephane Sperry, would function within the new organization, whether U would retain a StudioCanal sales operation, and what would happen to pacts that USA Films has with such companies as Michael Douglas’ Furthur Films.

However, one shoe that has already dropped is USA’s planned “directors company,” which was to include Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne and others. That deal, one insider said, will not materialize under the new setup for an array of reasons.

A potentially lucrative side of Focus is its international sales apparatus, which Linde will spearhead. Because of its domestic distribution component, Focus Intl. will be a more attractive destination for the foreign producers who had been in business with Good Machine Intl. And even when Focus decides not to distribute a film domestically, it can serve as its third-party salesman in the overseas market, just as Buena Vista Film Sales had for the Walt Disney Co.

“Universal has a lot to gain from this arrangement,” ICM’s Ken Kamins said. “There are certain kinds of movies that UIP (U’s joint overseas distribution venture with Paramount) handles really well. It is designed to handle a movie like ‘Scorpion King.’ But handling independent films has to be done more personally, and that’s what Linde offers.”

Focus is Miramax rival

One thing seems certain: Good Machine neighbor Miramax has a real competitor in Focus. “Last year they were partners with Miramax,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, whose company distributed the Good Machine production “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “This year they’re a competitor. What a wild world.”

But a Gotham source not connected with either company remains skeptical: “They have incredible strength now, and access to talent and material. But it remains to be seen how much Stacey Snider will allow them to go toe-to-toe with Miramax. Harvey (Weinstein) is a tough act for anyone to follow.” Linde told Daily Variety that he expects key staff members of the now defunct USA Films label to continue in their present roles at Focus. Former USA Films marketing topper Steven Flynn, distribution head Jack Foley and publicity maven Adrienne Bowles will stay on, as will production prexy Glenn Williamson and most of his staff.

Hope, who formed Good Machine in 1991 with Schamus, will move into a first-look pact with Focus, taking with him nearly all of Good Machine’s existing projects and partnering with GM producers Anthony Bregman and Anne Carrey.

‘Exactly what I wanted’

“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Hope said. “I’m getting to do exactly what I wanted — to produce movies with people I like — still driven by one thing, my passion for them.” While some of Hope’s projects are set up outside of U, he, Bregman and Carrey, via their still-to-be named shingle, would like to make all future ones there.

“The real question that no one is asking,” a source said, “is what will happen when Hope’s division pitches his projects to James (Schamus) and David (Linde). These guys are now buyers, not sellers, which is a totally different game.”

Schamus, who two years ago argued in a speech at the Independent Spirit Awards that “independent film” was a label with little meaning, praised Miramax for the broad range of specialty pics it makes. “There’s a vast, varied playing field for independent film, and Miramax is great at what they do,” he said.

Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein praised the Good Machine team, adding, “We welcome and support any effort to enhance the market for great films.”

Bernard said the biz needs to come up with new classifications for independent film, noting the broad differences between companies like Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and micro shingles Strand, Cowboy and Zeitgeist.

Appetite for specialty fare

With exhibitors such as Landmark, Angelika, Madstone and UA/Regal opening new theaters across the country that have an increased appetite for specialty fare, Bernard said, “I think there’s much more room in the marketplace now for mid-priced movies.”

Schamus said the budgets of Focus pics will vary but, he added, “I am pretty sure we won’t be making ‘Gangs of New York II.’ ”

Good Machine’s pact with Miramax last year came just after Miramax picked up for domestic distribution the Todd Field-helmed “In the Bedroom,” produced by GreeneStreet Films and Good Machine, and after Sony Pictures Classics had released “Crouching Tiger.” During its one-year pact, Miramax also acquired the Good Machine/Film Four-produced “Buffalo Soldiers” at the Toronto Film Festival and will continue to develop “Fast Track” with Miramax. But the deal came quietly to a close in March, and Good Machine had been looking for more than just a first-look setup.

‘Logical step’

“If you look at the trajectory of our company over the last 11 years,” Schamus said, “this was the next logical step. It’s a very natural evolution for us.”

Until “Crouching Tiger” and “In the Bedroom,” Good Machine never had a sizable hit. Its top-grossing pic, a co-production with Fox Searchlight, was Ed Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen,” which took in $10.4 million. Other GM pics were Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” which netted $8 million for Fox Searchlight; Jenniphr Goodman’s SPC release “The Tao of Steve,” which grossed $4.5 million; and recent Fine Line releases Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling” and Michel Gondry’s “Human Nature.”

“I’m as surprised as anyone else,” said Scott Macaulay, co-president of Gotham-based Forensic Films. “But I can’t help but think this is a good thing. American independent film has been forced to think globally about the kinds of films they make and the way they make them. Th
ere’s no two smarter people than James and David.”

Added Bingham Ray, who heads United Artists Pictures: “I have known all those guys at Good Machine for a long time. I have all the respect in the world for them. They are capable and very bright film people, and I’m sure they will prove to be worthwhile competitors.”