MIA indie titles may resurface elsewhere

Potential remakes reported reason behind handful of acquired foreign films that remain in distributors' vaults

Call them movie orphans.

A number of films continue to get shelved, abandoned or dumped by some of the larger indie distributors.

Fine Line, for example, shopped “Ripley’s Game” to other Stateside distribs when poor foreign revenues made a theatrical release via its own pipelines an unattractive option. With no takers, pic is now poised for TV and DVD. And Miramax is rumored to be selling off some dust-gathering acquisitions such as 2001 fest favorite “Samsara” and Asif Kapadia’s recent BAFTA-winner “The Warrior” to other distribs.

“One would be surprised to discover the depth and breadth of films that we have been approached to distribute that have been in other companies’ hands,” says Lions Gate Films prexy Tom Ortenberg. “It’s a fairly steady flow.”

The recipient of a number of titles over the years — from Miramax trio “Dogma,” “O” and “The Golden Bowl” to the Universal-financed, MGM pick-up “The House of 1,000 Corpses” — Lions Gate has earned a reputation for rescuing discarded films.

“Whether that other distributor doesn’t like the financial model they’ve gotten themselves into or they’ve found the film too controversial,” says Ortenberg, “if it’s a good movie that we can market effectively, we’ll take it.”

But Lions Gate, in turn, also has changed its plans for theatrically bound pickups. After acquiring Tom DiCillo’s “Double Whammy” at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the company chose to take it straight to video after the film fared poorly in test screenings. Blame it on festival hype, some industry insiders say.

“People can get carried away,” says sales rep Andrew Herwitz, a former Miramax acquisition exec. “If you really respond to a film and it tests badly, what can you do?” he says. “It’s bad enough that you pay too much for a film, (but) do you spend another several million dollars releasing it?”

Herwitz and others dismiss the notion that distribs acquire films just to steal them from their competitors. But several other factors keep the dysfunctional adoption process going:

In the hopes of an Oscar nod, audience-friendly foreign films can look quite appetizing — but if the nomination doesn’t come through, neither does the release.

Potential remakes have been the reported reason behind a handful of acquired foreign films that remain in distributors’ vaults.

It’s not always distribs that are at fault: Producers, up to their waists in debt, are forced to take quick coin upfront over a theatrical commitment.

But ultimately, should the same company be producing $100-million-event pictures in Italy and New Zealand at the same time as acquiring low budget premieres at Sundance?

“We’ll never leave our roots,” argues Miramax’s Rick Sands. “The company is geared to handle different products, from the wide release Miramax and Dimension movies to the smallest documentaries.”

And what about the company’s unreleased films? “There aren’t many,” Sands replies. “We release movies when it’s the best time to release them.”

Most sales agents and producers’ reps agree, continuing to collaborate with the mini-majors. And while smaller distributors lament the pick-up practices of their larger competitors, they’ve also reaped some benefits.

Boutique outfits like Strand Releasing and Cowboy Pictures have released a number of cast-offs, consequently taking in needed revenue and the chance to help orphaned directors.

And Zeitgeist Films’ Emily Russo says, in the long run, filmmakers will turn to micro-distribs. “When they’ve figured out that selling smaller films to bigger distributors isn’t always a good idea — especially when they are never released.”