The indies

Surviving another year, but barely

For indies, 2003 ended with both a bang and a whimper.

Even before Lions Gate Films attained official mini-major status by closing its deal to acquire Artisan Entertainment, it had been a banner year for the Canadian-owned company. “The Cooler,” “Shattered Glass” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring” all earned Golden Globe nominations, while the shingle minted money with cheap horror pickups “House of 1000 Corpses” ($12.6 million) and “Cabin Fever” ($21 million). Expect sequels.

Similarly, there was no shortage of critical and box-office fireworks for films like Focus Features’ “Lost in Translation,” United Artists’ “Pieces of April,” Newmarket Film Group’s “Whale Rider” and “Monster,” and Fox Searchlight’s “Bend It Like Beckham,” “In America” and “Thirteen.”

However, not only was the Artisan sale so long anticipated as to be almost anticlimactic, but it also pointed to the depressing reality of a still-shrinking indie marketplace.

In addition to the approximately 150 employees who lost their jobs in the Lions Gate-Artisan merger, the year saw the collapse of several microdistribs, including Cowboy Pictures, Fireworks Pictures and Lot 47 (though the latter remains active for releasing back titles).

However, indies have always been about survival.

Former UTA agent Howard Cohen teamed with “Lovely & Amazing” producer Eric d’Arbeloff to launch Roadside Attractions, which joined Samuel Goldwyn Films in the Independent Distribution Partners co-op.

Larry Meistrich shook off the collapse of Shooting Gallery and launched DVD distribber Film Movement. The peripatetic Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures continued to build a profile with titles such as Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster 3” and Japanese horror pic “The Eye.”

Warner Bros. also threw its hat in the ring with the long-anticipated launch of Warner Independent Pictures, with former Miramax Films and Stratus Film Co. exec Mark Gill as its president. Similarly, DreamWorks bowed its own mini-label, Go Fish.

Indies also proved to be about revival, thanks to the ongoing renaissance of the documentary.

Among the docs that earned both critical and B.O. favor were ThinkFilm’s “Spellbound” ($5.7 million), Sony Pictures’ Classics’ “Winged Migration” ($10.7 million to date), Magnolia Pictures’ “Capturing the Friedmans” ($3.1 million) and Artisan’s “Step Into Liquid” ($3.6 million).

Among those hoping for better luck next year are IFC Films, which lost distribution head Bob Berney to Newmarket, and Paramount Classics, which saw a modest year’s-end cume of just over $5 million.

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