They are the maestros of micros. This year, Magnolia’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” ThinkFilms’ “Spellbound” and Zeitgeist’s “Nowhere in Africa” all surpassed expectations.
But the arthouse shingles behind these top titles and others know it’s a trend they can’t count on.
“There are usually one or two hits a year, but there are more than one or two of us (distributors),” says Jon Gerrans, co-prexy of Strand Releasing. “Those kinds of films come around so infrequently, you can’t build a business plan on getting lucky.”
Although “Spellbound” is moving toward the $3 million mark, Mark Urman, ThinkFilm’s head of U.S. theatrical, continues to keep his expectations real and his overhead low.
“Once upon a time, you could do your math on a reasonable case scenario,” he says. “It’s probably smarter now if you do your deal with the worst case in mind. It’s the one that comes up the most frequently.”
Urman, who originally anticipated releasing eight to 10 pics a year, isn’t married to those numbers. “You learn that you’re better off not releasing a film that doesn’t make money. We don’t have to bite off more than we can chew — there’s no benefit in choking.”
Palm Pictures’ head of theatrical distribution, Ryan Werner, is equally prudent. Palm may be backed by music mogul Chris Blackwell, but Werner keeps his eye on the bottom line. “We’re looking for projects where we can be creative and not spend a huge amount of money,” he says, citing “The Eye” and the “Cremaster” cycle.
For smaller companies, service deals allow them to take fewer risks and still deliver the goods.
Innovation prexy Mark Borde likens himself to a department store for distribution that handles a range of titles, from Mike Figgis’ “Hotel” to genre pics like “Snipes.” “We have a salon, a basement and few floors in between,” he says. “And absolutely no ego.”
MAC Releasing has several deals in place with Showtime, Lions Gate and Samy Boy Films, says founding partner Craig Baumgarten.
Like many of his colleagues, Strand’s Gerrans has counted on his library to help weather the storms of the theatrical business. Strand hasn’t co-produced a pic in more than a year to better concentrate on its home-video line.
“We were spending too much time chasing capital, and it was better spent building the library,” he says. We’re not out of (theatrical), but we’re not aggressive in it right now.’
The advantages of ancillary markets and changing technology also have not been lost on Wellspring. Though it had a good year with “Russian Ark,” theatrical business generates about 10% of the company’s revenue. Wellspring has some 700 library titles and is one of the top 10 suppliers of DVDs, says prexy and CEO Al Cattabiani.
“Every new technology changes the shape of its predecessor,” says Cattabiani. “We’re trying really hard to be agnostic about what channels we use to deliver our programming. We’re focused firstly on films and making curatorial choices. Taste first and marketplace second. A library sells year in and year out; that’s why we’re betting on quality.”
And despite the gamble that everyone seems to face on a daily basis, all agree it’s a game worth playing.
“As tempted as you are to ask how you weather it,” says Urman, “you can and you do.”