Oscar shift shuffles strategies

Indie distribs advocating opening prior to October witching hour

As head of distribution for Focus Features, Jack Foley abides by a steadfast strategy: “You better have the goods or you’ll be lost for good.”

That’s the predominant sentiment among indie distribs as they move into one of the most competitive, costly and commercial seasons in years.

Prompted by the Academy Awards shift to February, specialized films, studio prestige pics and blockbusters will meet in a no-holds-barred battle for screen, editorial and ad space in the last quarter of 2003.

To avoid the crunch, many indie distribs are advocating an opening prior to the October witching hour.

“I’d open up in September before everything slams down,” says Newmarket exec Bob Berney, who helped usher last year’s indie hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which opened in mid-April. “If you’ve got the buzz, then you can play into December for the awards.”

This year, Berney’s docket includes summer sleeper “Whale Rider.” “It will be remembered come Oscars time,” he vows, “and we won’t have to be fighting that fall glut.”

Likewise, Foley champions the early bird approach, touting that Focus’ “Lost in Translation,” opening Sept. 19, will not be lost in the blur. “When you’re first in and you have something really good, like last year’s ‘Far from Heaven,’ you become a comparative touchstone,” he says.

From “Howards End” to “Memento” and “Gladiator” to “Y tu mama tambien,” past successes show earlier releases don’t always fade from audience and Academy members’ minds. This year, Fox Searchlight’s “Bend It Like Beckham,” which opened March 12, continues the trend of solid-grossing pre-award season pics, with box office cracking the $28 million mark.

“We believe in year-round releasing,” says Searchlight head of distribution Steve Gilulo. “Forcing a film into the fall because of potential award recognition can potentially damage its commercial chances.”

Bert Manzari, exec VP at specialty chain Landmark Theaters, agrees.

“There’s only a finite number of screens, and if you’ve got films pushing other films off the screens, people start to cannibalize each other’s business,” he says. Both exhibs and distribs are hopeful that earlier awards season will also encourage companies to program award-contending pictures earlier in the year.

“You have to work hard to keep a movie in people’s consciousness, and you need the cooperation of the talent to promote themselves,” says Lions Gate Films president Tom Ortenberg. “But now the time you need to keep a film alive is one month less.”

While Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands says the only change in the company’s strategy will be to expand its last quarter’s films wider more quickly, he acknowledges the benefits of releasing specialized movies year round. “Audiences are getting older, and that audience is accessible 12 months a year,” he says.

But autumn will always be irresistible for indies eager to jumpstart a release off the fall film festivals. “(September’s) Toronto is critical for any company launching a film,” says IFC Films prexy Jonathan Sehring.

And there’s yet another reason smaller companies will continue to return to the fall: counterprogramming opportunities.

“We’re the beneficiaries of audiences being disenchanted with the big studio special-effects films this year,” says Sehring, who will release drag comedy “Girls Will Be Girls” Oct. 10 against such wide releases as “Intolerable Cruelty,” “Mystic River,” “Good Boy!” and “Kill Bill.”

Similarly, Wellspring Media’s Wendy Lidell will be looking to counterprogram artpics such as “Crimson Gold,” “In My Skin” and “29 Palms” this coming season — that is, if she can find the screens.

“We might just have to shift to the first quarter of next year,” Lidell says.

But that may be just the right time. While Oscar pics will create a more crowded January, indie distribs can look forward to smoother sailing in the spring as the Academy winners play out earlier.

Still, Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker calls the shifts much ado about nothing. While he admits to moving up films such as “My Life Without Me” and animation contender “The Triplets of Belleville” to allow for increased Academy viewing, he says: “The business will adapt. After all, it’s only four weeks.”