Flurry of niche films fight for attention

Specialty releases seek Awards season boost

When people complain about the movie business by saying “It’s a jungle out there,” they speak more truly than they know. Specialty films, it turns out, are like a jungle treat: the Brazil nut.

To reproduce, Brazil nut trees need virgin forest and a particular species of bee, which in turn, requires one species of orchid. No orchids? No bees. Ergo, no Brazil nuts.

So it is with the modestly budgeted, character-driven films that compete for Oscars, Spirits and guild prizes. They’ve evolved to depend on a very specific ecology of festival recognition, critical acclaim and awards buzz. Without it, they don’t thrive.

In recent years, though, the Academy has tampered with that ecology, inadvertently threatening the very films it loves to honor.

Award season helps specialty releases find a critical mass of audience, says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “For movies that have difficult subject matter or subject matter that can’t be communicated in 25 words or less, awards consideration puts those films out front for people to want to see them.”

But Barker points out that a fall premiere is often the end of a long rollout process. Buildup to the fall season can begin at Cannes and accelerate with the fall festivals: Toronto, Venice, Telluride, AFI Fest, Chicago and New York, to name just the biggest.

So the nurturing environment for specialty films includes award, festival recognition and critical acclaim, including 10-best lists.

By the time a film opens, Barker says, “It has a presence, it has a profile.”

Since these films lack the marketing resources of a “Spider-Man” or “Pirates of the Caribbean,” that profile is vital.

John Cameron, producer of “Lars and the Real Girl,” says, “For a film of our nature, which is small in terms of the general marketplace, both in production size and money for advertising and marketing, it really looms large.”

That, in turn, benefits the specialty exhibitors. Landmark Theaters COO Ted Mundorff says the fourth quarter, when these films debut, launches the first quarter, which is Academy season.

“If we have a strong fourth quarter, it foretells that we’ll have a strong first,” Mundorff says. “Last year the fourth was disappointing — a lot of films were gone by the first quarter.”

That weakness in the specialty market carried over into summer. Mundorff notes that unlike 2006, which had “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” “We had the little film that could, which was ‘Once.’ It’s a huge $10 million success story, but it’s only $10 million.”

So the specialty film business is longing for a strong fall and winter to make up for lost business. That opportunity is limited, though, by the Academy’s compressed calendar.

Nominated films, Mundorff says, get a box office boost from the time the Oscar nominations are announced to the actual ceremony. With a month trimmed off the schedule, though, there’s less time for fans to go out and see the nominated films, and Mundorff doesn’t like that:

“What the business used to love was the after-nominations period. People would rush out to see the best director, best actors.

“What I don’t like (now) is the season is so short between the nominations and the awards. It doesn’t give films a chance to find a bigger audience. There’s such a short window now, we’ve missed an opportunity we used to cultivate.

“If you take ‘The Queen,’ 30% of its gross was during the nomination period. “Chicago,” 40%. “Sideways” took in 42% during the nominations process.”

So by shortening Awards season, the Academy is, in effect, depriving specialty films, those delicate tropical flowers, of a big chunk of their growing season.

And Mundorff warns that the post-nomination bump doesn’t carry over past Oscar night.

“Bam! You can hear the door slam,” he says.