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Picturehouse revs up specialty biz

Distrib's leisurely launch leaves strategy questions

After launching with a bang in May in Cannes, Picturehouse — the joint venture between New Line Cinema and HBO Films, headed by former Newmarket distribution maven Bob Berney — has kept a decidedly low profile back in the States.

Berney enjoyed an outpouring of favorable press for his work on “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — including a splashy New York Times magazine profile — but he has granted no interviews since joining the corporate fold.

However, expectations, both at Time Warner and among his rivals, are running high, even as questions continue to swirl around the company.

This much is known: Berney will be based in Gotham, in offices that are several blocks away from the separate headquarters of New Line and HBO, overseeing 33 staffers on both coasts, while working on about 10 pics annually.

In Los Angeles, Picturehouse execs will move into digs on Sunset Boulevard, also away from both corporate parents.

But other questions remain: Will Picturehouse make a big Oscar push in its first year, as Focus and Warner Independent Pictures did?

Will the banner go in for genre fare, as its rivals Focus and Miramax have, or stick with the arthouse fare more suited to Berney’s tastes?

And will HBO and New Line’s deep pockets rival Fox Searchlight when Picturehouse pushes its pics?

HBO and New Line seem intent on giving Berney free rein. At Newmarket, without the marketing muscle of a studio, the exec proved he could pick up overlooked pics at bargain prices (“Whale Rider”) and challenging fare (“Monster”), and turn them into crossover awards contenders and commercial successes. He’s also had luck with foreign-language films (IFC Films’ “Y tu mama tambien”) and has experience with wide releases (“The Passion of the Christ”).

Former New Line specialty arm Fine Line was great at capturing awards attention, but poor at getting pics with overwhelming critical support to cross over. What might Berney have done with a “Vera Drake” or “The Sea Inside” on his side last year?

Like Fox Searchlight’s distrib whiz Steve Gilula, or Focus’ Jack Foley, Berney also has the grassroots relationships with national exhibs that Picturehouse needs.

This year, Berney will work with a seven pic slate made up of new buys and leftovers.

On July 22, Picturehouse finally emerged from its shell with one of HBO’s pics, launching its first feature, Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” in five markets.

It was hardly a blockbuster start. Produced by HBO Films, “Last Days” is inspired by the final hours of Nirvana icon Kurt Cobain; it stars Michael Pitt as the doomed grunge rocker. Given Van Sant’s credentials, “Days” would seem the perfect movie to launch the division, except for the fact that the ultra-artsy pic has been getting some negative reviews (New York magazine called it “almost unendurable” and “excruciatingly boring”).

Picturehouse’s official launch in May on the Croisette was ambitious but also a bit confusing, perhaps even to those announcing it.

At the dais for the launch breakfast were four heavy-hitters: HBO’s Chris Albrecht and Colin Callender, Berney and New Line’s Michael Lynne.

Before Cannes, New Line and HBO had announced they would be detailing the unit’s new name, reporting structure and slate, creating rampant expectation for some news along the Croisette. But by the time of the announcement, details had leaked all over town.

Here’s the Picturehouse mandate outlined in Cannes: Berney reports to Callender and Lynne. Pics come from New Line and HBO. Or they might be pickups, or productions, jointly funded by the two companies. Berney may also pick up product himself — without approval from the others if it comes down to crunch time at a festival. And he’ll have a hand in shaping productions that the four execs greenlight.

So far Picturehouse is still a work in progress, but one main goal seems to be letting Berney do his thing. In a specialty film world filled with uncertainty, Berney’s hit rate has been eye-catching, and HBO and NL only landed the exec when talks between Newmarket and Paramount Classics broke down.

Eschewing Tribeca or Soho, where the Miramaxes and Focuses of the world reside, Berney will remain in Newmarket’s more corporate Midtown address, coincidentally equidistant between the two Time Warner buildings that house HBO and New Line.

But for all its independence from its corporate parents, the Picturehouse slate so far is a hodgepodge of HBO pics (“Last Days,” “The Notorious Bettie Page”), Newmarket titles (“Rock School,” “The Chumscrubber”) and the first Picturehouse buys, including Steven Shainberg’s Diane Arbus-inspired biopic “Fur,” Raymond De Felitta’s “The Thing About My Folks,” Hebrew-language “Ushpizin,” Matt Dillon starrer “Factotum” and historical drama “Mongol.”

Out on Aug. 5 is suburban teen angst story “Chumscrubber.” Seven more pics are skedded so far for release in 2005.

There’s docu “Rock School,” “Last Days,” Paul Reiser starrer “The Thing About My Folks,” “Ushpizin,” Steve Coogan starrer “A Cock and Bull Story” and HBO’s biopic of Bettie Page.

Perhaps the real test for Picturehouse will come with the September rollout of “My Folks,” a passion project for pic’s star and scribe Paul Reiser. Co-starring Peter Falk and Olympia Dukakis, pic is a comedy about grown children and their parents. Pic is the first the Picturehouse team acquired and will distrib as its own.

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