Prestige films compete for attention

Fall's wave of specialty films creating a glut

The recently wrapped Toronto, Venice and Deauville film fests were jam-packed with premieres and press junkets, all touting prestige fare from studio niche divisions and independent companies –along with studios themselves.

It’s no surprise the PR frenzy was at an all-time high: The level of year-end competition is unprecedented.

While specialty films used to require careful nurturing, the schedule is too crowded to allow much breathing room. The niche market is facing a harsh reality: Like bigger-budgeted brethren, niche pics have one weekend to make their mark. This means spending more and more on marketing, just like the majors.

The distribution pipeline is overflowing with product, with more players than ever, thanks to indie pics funded by private equity, Brad Grey’s having made Paramount Vantage a priority, the revival of United Artists and other new players.

And the definition of “specialty pics” has broadened to the point of confusion, since a lot of films from the major studios have the patina of specialty offerings. It’s become a chess game deciding when to open which films and how — whether to go wide or limited.

Thesps like George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron are headlining upcoming films, but these are not pics to be marketed to the “Mission: Impossible” or “Ocean’s Thirteen” crowd — in other words, they are major studio releases that will be treated like specialty films.

In 1992, Sony Pictures Classics was created, setting the standard for a studio’s specialty wing. In the ensuing years, virtually every studio has created (or acquired) variations of this mode.

But while SPC and Fox Searchlight Pictures have kept their identities separate from the parent company, other majors and their niche divisions have blurred the lines, raising the question: Is the old business model still working?

This fall will seriously test that model, as specialty units spend more and more marketing dollars just to break through. They also could end up rethinking their distribution strategies.

In a crowded release calendar when they are competing against studio fare for kudos attention and “serious” audiences, studio specialty arms will open two or even three high-profile releases on the same weekend, a situation that was unthinkable just a few years ago. That doesn’t even include the bevy of pics from other indie production houses and distribs.

All this puts a further strain on the traditional indie business model, whereby prestige pics need time to grow and build word-of-mouth. This fall, a film could have a hard time platforming if it doesn’t do decent business at the outset, simply because there will be so many releases.

“It’s going to be very tough. Indies have a core of theaters, so these movies are going to eat each other up,” one studio distribution topper says. “When you have five or six or seven movies opening a weekend, the pressure is enormous.”

The roster of directors, actors and actresses with films coming out in the next four months points up the proliferation of niche pics (see story, page xx).

As a symbol of the crowding, Sony Classics had nine films at Toronto. As a symbol of the blurring lines, Universal had five films, including “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (from parent company Universal) and “Atonement” (from specialty arm Focus).

U brass attended galas and parties for the two on back-to-back nights and were hard-pressed to explain the difference between a major release and a niche pic.

Bound to suffer the most are the prototypical arthouse titles produced by indie companies, which don’t have a studio behind it to up marketing budgets and refine distribution strategies.

Robert Lantos, the longtime Canadian producer whose Toronto pics included “Eastern Promises,” says the specialty space is marked by “shifting sands” as business models evolve.

“Specialty labels are making and financing movies that just a few years ago wouldn’t even be called specialty films,” Lantos says. “They’re the kind of adult films that the studios used to make, and the studios are now in the business of making franchises. So arthouse films that could make money a decade ago have an extremely difficult time surviving.”

Most of the studio specialty arms are all but certain to spend more this year on marketing, on the fest circuit and in media buys. Generally speaking, a specialty unit might spend $10 million on a marketing campaign, and more if the picture keeps expanding. An indie production company will generally spend far less.

Some, like Paramount Vantage, are pushing the boundaries in other ways as they look for an edge.

Vantage’s “Into the Wild” will the first film to be backed by Samsung as part of an ongoing campaign built around independent films that the electronics company hopes will boost the brand’s image in the U.S.

The multimillion-dollar effort includes a pact with Landmark Theaters to promote the pic through signage and on-screen ads in venues nationwide, exclusive content that will appear on Blueseat.com and other film-centric websites, billboards, and print ads in newspapers and mags.

Most indies usually don’t get the support of big brands, but that’s changing, with the Samsung pact, Picturehouse’s Gatorade-sponsored “Gracie,” and Starbucks-backed “Akeelah and the Bee” from Lionsgate and “Arctic Tale” from Par Classics.

Samsung is working closely with Par Vantage to coordinate media buys in order to not overlap in certain media.

“When an independent film partners with a company like Samsung, is it still indie?” asks Chris Hong, of Samsung’s ad shop Cheil Communications America.

“There’s a thin line between celebrating independent film and dominating independent film,” he continues. “We didn’t want to cross that line. We felt that Samsung shouldn’t be a partner to the film, but be there to showcase the film.”

That line is thin indeed.

When the specialty unit recipe turns out well, it can yield pics like “Brokeback Mountain” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” filling the parent company’s void at Oscar time and harvesting $100 million-plus grosses.

But the specialty hits of recent years, like “Brokeback” or “Sideways,” had plenty of elbow room to expand. Knowing how and when to expand might be the toughest racket in moviedom.

Hopefuls will be packed so tight that the margin for error will be non-existent and competition to keep screens more cutthroat than ever. That even applied over the summer to films that did well, such as Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Waitress” and “Once,” or the Weinstein Co.’s Lionsgate-released “Sicko.”

In that environment, well-regarded pics like “A Mighty Heart” self-destructed by opening wide. The fall crunch will inevitably mean a few films similarly burn out because flyover crowds don’t instantly get on board.

On the other hand, the danger for films opening limited and platforming slowly is that they won’t be able to hold over as new films bow. Such a problem has occurred in recent years, although this year is far and away the most crowded.

Last fall, Searchlight’s “Last King of Scotland” had difficulty retaining screens, even though the film was a solid performer and a critical favorite.

Big studios could have a key advantage in going wide from the outset. That gives them more exposure right away, minimizing the impact of then beginning to lose screens.

But don’t assume the release pattern when you see the studio logo — Warner Bros. will release the artily esteemed “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in five theaters initially. (And if that title seems unwieldy for a studio pic, it’s because star Brad Pitt’s contract reportedly forbids any title tweaks.)

A big studio decides to release a film that has the markings of a prestige picture — one that could easily go through their specialty arm –almost always for awards attention. They also believe such pics have a greater commercial potential.

Warners has decided to open the Clooney starrer “Michael Clayton” in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 5. The following frame, the pic goes nationwide. The studio is looking to get reviews out in front of the expansion.

Paramount decided to release Halle Berry-Benicio Del Toro starrer “Things We Lost in the Fire,” instead of Paramount Vantage, since Berry in particular is a more mainstream, commercial name.

Likewise, DreamWorks initially planned to go only limited with “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Burton and toplining Johnny Depp on Dec. 21, considering the musical’s dark storyline. Plans changed when DreamWorks and Paramount saw clips of the pic, realizing it could go wider than that. The film will likely roll out on something like 1,200 screens, not necessarily a wide debut, nor exactly limited.

Marc Graser and Ali Jaafar contributed to this report.

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