H’wood renews niche pitch

Studios add fresh spin as they rev up 'art' division

Major studios aren’t all about chasing the next billion-dollar franchise. They also love specialized films. No, really.

Even Warner Bros., arguably Hollywood’s most tentpole-happy studio, is ramping up its plan for a new division to handle its less “Harry Potter”-ish fare and, it hopes, discover a “Shine” or “Full Monty” to call its own.

But this is not your father’s specialty business. Majors are reinventing the game, convinced they can reap talent relationships and a few Oscar noms from these divisions, not to mention a few bucks.

Today, terms like “indie” and “arthouse” are about as current as “Tarantino-esque.” In a product-saturated marketplace, you don’t sell tickets on the strength of a director’s oeuvre or a stellar review in the New York Times.

These days, ya gotta have a niche.

The studios’ current game plan for making money in the art business combines opportunism with a yogic flexibility. Specialty divisions can mean slick urban comedies like “Brown Sugar” or “Deliver Us From Eva.” Or unabashed crowd-pleasers like “Bend It Like Beckham.” Or Hong Kong action movies, or even foreign-lingo romance.

To put it another way, “niche” is a nice way of saying “anything we can sell.”

David Linde, co-president of Focus Features, has a self-definition typical of the new breed: “We don’t like to think of ourselves as arthouse. We’re street fighters for signature films.”

Befitting that warrior image, the front lines in the specialty battle are a chaotic melange of styles and personalities.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s the pennywise troika at Sony Pictures Classics: Tom Bernard, Michael Barker and Marcie Bloom. Their biggest hit of 2002 was Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,” not exactly an easy sell in Peoria.

At the other end are companies that rely heavily on their major-studio parent, like Fox Searchlight, whose recent releases “The Banger Sisters” and “Antwone Fisher” benefited greatly from the Fox machine. (See separate story.)

WB is currently gearing up its classics division, expecting to launch it before the end of the year. It will join the other niche divisions of the majors, Fine Line, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Paramount Classics and Sony Pictures Classics. All of them are aligned with a major but use their own distribution system. In addition, there are United Artists (married with MGM, and using the same distrib) and Screen Gems, another division of Sony.

And, of course, there is the self-distributing Miramax, which is owned by a major but could hardly be considered “Disney’s classics division” (see separate story).

Amid intensifying competition, one thing is clear: This is a long way from the business that blossomed around the time of Sundance hit “sex, lies & videotape.”

“These companies have all turned into another label in the system that feeds the foreign and TV deals and makes a cheaper level of picture,” says Bernard. “They become mirror images of what the studio does. Art movie companies have fallen by the wayside.”

Even Miramax, which came to define the bare-knuckled indie trade in the late 1980s and ’90s, has evolved to the point that it resembles a major. The company still vies for the same coveted specialty screens in New York and L.A., but it mixes in a lot of pics along the lines of “Cold Mountain,” and “View From the Top,” as well as Dimension franchises, along the way.

Some companies, like Sony’s Screen Gems, never made any bones about their mainstream intentions. Others, like Fox Searchlight, have slowly adjusted their slates to embrace genre fare.

Then there’s shingles like Fine Line Features that have undergone nothing less than a sea change.

Fine Line’s last release was Werner Herzog’s “Invincible,” which bowed last September and took in $82,000. The company expects to make quite a bit more on “Birth,” starring Nicole Kidman, which is in production on a $20 million budget.

There are a few holdouts. Paramount Classics remains bound to the conservative policies of its corporate parent, while SPC has supported its slate of 12-15 arthouse titles with the same low-overhead strategies for the last 13 years.

One of SPC’s major April releases was “Winged Migration,” an Oscar-nommed docu about bird flight. (Actual narration: “A year has passed. Millions of birds have traveled thousands of miles.”)

But most specialty divisions that have a media conglom to pay the bills now also have a mandate to make mainstream movies that make money.

So, for every Palme d’Or and Oscar winner like “The Pianist,” you can also expect to see at least one “Two Can Play That Game” or “The Banger Sisters.”

Keeping a measure of quirk (and Oscar bait) without sacrificing commerce is the kind of model that studios understand.

What this means for filmmakers and producers, however, is a re-education in what these shingles want.

“I’ve had to turn to clients and give them a general tutorial,” says ICM exec VP Ken Kamins. “Movies that were made two or three years ago are more difficult to make today.”

Kamin’s advice goes for rookies, Oscar-winners and movie stars. Unless you’re Steven Soderbergh and you can get Julia Roberts to work on your $2 million movie, high-caliber names are no longer accepted as dud insurance.

Look at “Edgardo Mortara.” Anthony Hopkins and Javier Bardem sound like a good deal on a $20 million budget. But when financing from Senator Films and Film Four fell apart, North American distrib Miramax Films declined to take over on the project, even though it was in full pre-production.

“Borgia” faced a similar battle. Myriad Pictures had no problem selling Neil Jordan’s Ewan McGregor-Christina Ricci starrer overseas, but domestic distribs saw it as a risky costume drama. Fox Searchlight finally agreed to put up $8 million for North America — a mere 14% of a $55 million budget, and not enough to keep the project alive.

Even happy endings come at a price. “Flora Plum,” Jodie Foster’s long-delayed circus drama, is on the verge of winning a new lease on life with a cast that includes McGregor, Clare Danes and Meryl Streep. The producers are mulling several offers, but all are lower than the $25 million now-defunct USA Films budgeted for the film three years ago.

After a decade of inflated expectations met with erratic B.O. returns, “indie” has lost much of its rugged appeal. It’s become shorthand for movies that are small in concept, weren’t produced with the bottom line in mind and were released by companies that are going out of business.

At the same time, despite perpetual moaning about a “Greek Wedding” mentality that will make Wonder Bread out of the specialty segment, there’s little risk these divisions will lose all character.

For one, that wouldn’t serve the purposes of their studio parents. Only a specialized shingle can take advantage of specialized marketing that targets the most specific (and lucrative) segments of the marketplace with tweezer-like precision.

On a more personal level, the only people suited to run these shops are an eccentric bunch who see the world from a different angle. In a town that loves to talk about being “filmmaker-friendly,” these are the execs who are closest to having filmmakers’ best interests at heart.

After all, no matter how much a studio exec may nurse his or her secret love of Cassavetes, the mission is to erect merchandisable franchises, not art. And if specialty execs loved film a little less, they probably would have taken a studio job where they could make more money.