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Fox Searchlight

Specialty division puts auteurs in Fox hole

Fox’s specialty division goes from strength to strength with its mandate to deliver targeted niche films. This year, it owes it all to soccer and zombies.

Fox Searchlight’s box office tally climbed 200% last year. Collectively, domestic grosses topped $135 million, the best in the company’s nine years of existence. Main drivers are Brit pics “Bend It Like Beckham” and “28 Days Later,” which are heading past $30 million and $40 million in domestic grosses, respectively. (Latter pic came to Searchlight via its relationship with helmer Danny Boyle and his DNA Films shingle.)

At Sundance, Searchlight picked up controversial competition entry “Thirteen,” which snagged first-time helmer Catherine Hardwicke the fest’s director kudo.

Searchlight also had a hit with the acquisition of Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl,” but saw less stellar returns from “Chasing Papi” and “L’Auberge Espanol.”

Ambitions focus on delivering pics from auteur filmmakers with a sprinkling of acquisitions. In the pipeline: Alexander Payne comedy “Sideways,” with Paul Giamatti and Sandra Oh; Woody Allen’s next film, skedded to start shooting this fall; and David O. Russell’s ensemble comedy “I Love Huckabee’s,” starring Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law and Dustin Hoffman.

Exec ranks: Peter Rice, president; Steve Gilula prexy, distribution; Nancy Utley, prexy, marketing; Claudia Lewis, exec VP, production; Julia Dray, senior veep, production

First-looks: None

Recent pickups: “Thirteen”; “Lucia, Lucia”

Year at B.O.: Top grosser: “28 Days Later” ($37.3 million); lowest grosser: “Garage Days” ($32,500)

Kudo watch: Expect campaigning for Jim Sheridan’s “In America,” due for a late-November bow.