Small budgets, big profits

Cinema Expo panel sees big bucks in small pix

AMSTERDAM — Hollywood will always offer some number of movies with more targeted appeal than popcorn pics, because smaller-budgeted films so often deliver the biggest profits, Cinema Expo panelists agreed Thursday.

“I don’t think the day of the medium-range picture is dead at all,” insisted Mark Zoradi, prexy of Mouse House’s international theatrical and homevid ops.

“There’s a huge draw in Hollywood toward profit, as opposed to gross,” said Zoradi, who noted moderately budgeted “Holes” and “Bringing Down the House” produced outsized profits recently for his studio.

Lest anyone infer that Disney was exiting the tentpole biz, he added, “I think we’re going to make a lot of money on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ ”

Other participants in the sesh — an international marketing and distribution seminar moderated by Daily Variety publisher Charles Koones — also underscored the merits of studio pics with moderate budgets.

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Holding onto gross

“You really make more of your money on those others, which don’t have all the (profit) participations,” said Scott Neeson, 20th Century Fox international theatrical prexy.

Film festivals are an established way of stretching marketing dollars on such pics, but producer Stefan Arndt of Germany film company X Filme said it’s also a potentially frustrating route.

“I’m fighting with Cannes for 12 years now,” said Arndt, producer of the successful “Run, Lola, Run” and “Good Bye Lenin!” “My dream is to build a cinema in the middle of Cannes and screen all of my films.”

Arndt and others said Berlin and Venice fests have grown in importance in recent years. And for certain smaller films — particularly those with successful fest preems — a regional bow prior to Stateside debut can help build word of mouth.

That’s what Zoradi is doing in the U.K. with “Calendar Girls,” a British laffer set to unspool in the U.K. in September and the U.S. in December. Carrying an estimated $10 million negative cost, “It’s going to more than break even out of the U.K. alone,” Zoradi predicted.

Similarly, Fox Searchlight drama “In America,” Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical immigrant tale, will bow in Ireland and the U.K. prior to its fall domestic opening. “I think it’s fair to say that will be a foreign film when it goes to the U.S., and most of the money will be made in Europe,” Neeson said.

Unified marketing

Mark Zucker, Sony’s senior exec VP of international distribution, noted his studio has combined oversight of domestic and international marketing in part to speed the circulation of pic campaign materials. That should benefit theater owners in emerging markets, he said.

“But exhibition will be on the leading edge of stimulating growth” in those territories, Zucker added.

Russia ranks among markets showing the strongest recent growth, he said, with Sony set to unspool “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” with a market-record 250 prints.

Fox’s Neeson stressed that marketing campaigns in many parts of Europe should be fine-tuned for regional sensibilities.

“The European audiences are smarter overall,” he said. “So you want to play up the intellectual aspects of a film, whereas in the United States you use more of a homogenized approach.”

Sequel snakepit

Sequels are sometimes said to market themselves, but panelists warned that missteps loom.

Studios often aim to build on core demos from the original film in an effort to broaden a sequel’s base, but MGM senior veep marketing Ian Sutherland observed the strategy “doesn’t always work.”

Talking-pig movie “Babe” seemed a sure-fire family franchise until producers killed the golden goose by making the sequel dramatically darker in an ill-advised attempt to woo adult auds, Sutherland said.

Meanwhile, no such seminar can avoid some discussion of day-and-date worldwide releasing, though sesh participants said staged rollouts will continue to be necessary on many films. On tentpoles, simultaneous domestic and foreign bows can help in the fight against movie piracy, they said.

MGM released last year’s James Bond actioner “Die Another Day” day-and-date in many territories but waited until later to release the film in certain markets for a number of skedding considerations.

“In some of the Asian markets, we probably waited too long,” Sutherland admitted, “and we were hurt by some piracy problems.”