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Niche pics stoke summer heat

Specialized films more than doubled tix sales in 2003

Only three months remain before Warner Independent releases its first three pics — in June, July and August — and yet, its production prexy hasn’t even hired a distribution topper yet.

Are they worried? Not at all. While indie and specialized films usually account for 5%-6% of the year’s ticket sales, last year, they spiked to 13%.

“Gee, why is that?” Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill asks rhetorically. “Could it be that the specialized films were so good? No! It was that the studio films were so bad.”

This summer, specialized films won’t just fill in the gaps left by the big, expensive tentpoles — in many cases, they’re competing with them as counterprogramming.

But specialized films are beginning to face a summer problem shared by the majors: They’re crowding one another.

While summer is traditionally a time for popcorn movies, arthouse mavens are finding that audiences sometimes crave more serious fare. And what’s been bad news for big movies — lack of staying power at the box office — is translating into good news for small ones.

High-profile summer movies intended as franchises — “Hulk,” “SWAT” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” — last year saw second-week drop-offs of 50%-70%.

“Very few of them prevail,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker, of the blockbusters he faces. “It’s been two weeks in, two weeks out.”

Even summer holiday weekends, long the domain of big studio fare, are proving hospitable for arties.

On last year’s Fourth of July weekend, Universal Focus plunged in with “Swimming Pool.” With virtually no TV advertising and squaring off against “Terminator 3” and “Legally Blonde 2,” Francois Ozon’s pic opened well and eventually earned $10 million at the domestic B.O.

“Pool” is cited by numerous indie execs as proof of a shift in summer’s possibilities.

“It was out there as a prime target for exploitation,” says Jack Foley, prexy of distrib for Focus Features. “The idea that there’ve never been adult summer movies is a myth. The thing that’s been arising recently is that there are more of them.”

Even though Sony Classics, Newmarket, and Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics are all racing into the breach, they do not necessarily have the summer down to a science.

“Last summer, there was a train wreck of indie movies all at once,” says Bob Berney, Newmarket Films prexy and the engineer of summer indie hits like last year’s “Whale Rider” and 2001’s “Memento.” He adds: “No matter how good a movie you’ve got, if it opens against five or six others, you’re not going to get traction.”

That is what happened last August, when a raft of indie fare suddenly surfaced, after waiting out the blockbusters. Films like Fox Searchlight’s “Le Divorce” came and went, without enormous B.O. splash.

Now, as Fox Searchlight distrib prexy Steve Gilula puts it, “Everyone’s discovering the same opportunities,” occasionally, atop one another.

On June 11, three indies will compete not just against U’s Vin Diesel actioner “The Chronicles of Riddick” but for eggheads’ affections:

  • Newmarket’s heist thriller “Stander,” about South African policeman-turned-outlaw Andre Stander’s bank robbery spree, is set to play against…

  • Paramount Classics’ “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” — a gangster film from “Croupier” helmer Mike Hodges, which is facing off against …

  • Sony Classics “Facing Window” a Toronto Film Fest acquisition which is an Italo-lingo drama and romancer.

However, the bottleneck may not indicate a disastrous shift for specialized divisions, which in general are spreading out product more than ever before.

“They used to be stacked up at the end of August,” said Miramax Films CEO Rick Sands. “Now, we’re doing it throughout the summer.”

Far from putting all its eggs in an August basket, Sony Classics will open two pics on Memorial Day weekend (Roger Michell’s “The Mother” and “Badass”), and then in July roll out Stacy Peralta’s surfing epic “Riding Giants” on July 9; “Touch of Pink” on July 16, and Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me” on July 23.

Warner Independent will also release pics throughout the summer: “Before Sunset” on June 25; Michael Cunningham adaptation “A Home at the End of the World” on July 23 and John Curran’s marital strife drama “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” on Aug. 13.

Meanwhile, semi-indies like Miramax, New Line and MGM’s UA are taking on the blockbusters’ weekends by aggressively counterprogramming review-driven movies.

Miramax’s Japanese swordplay actioner “Zatoichi” will open against the third “Harry Potter” on June 4. UA’s Cole Porter biopic “De-lovely” will open on June 25 against New Line’s “The Notebook,” Fox’s “Garfield,” Sony’s “White Chicks” and Par’s “Sky Captain”

Sands admits that DreamWorks’ “Shrek 2” is “a vacuum cleaner” that will suck up most if not all moviegoers, but that hasn’t stopped Searchlight from putting the Robert Redford kidnap thriller “The Clearing” in its path.

“There’s room for elephants and mice,” says Gill of his summer plans. “We mice just need to squeak a little louder.”

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