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Roadside: The little engine that could

Indie distrib nabbing high-profile specialty pics

After years of labor, Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff’s Roadside Attractions is suddenly becoming a favorite venue for the sort of high-profile pics that used to be the domain of studio specialty units.

This week in Toronto, Roadside and Lionsgate nabbed all U.S. rights to Robert Redford’s Robin Wright-James McAvoy Abraham Lincoln assassination drama “The Conspirator.” Roadside will take the lead on releasing the film theatrically, while Lionsgate — which has a minority stake in Roadside — will provide support.

That follows two other key acquisitions by Roadside in recent weeks: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Javier Bardem topliner “Biutiful” and edgy Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor comedy “I Love You Phillip Morris.”

With well-known talent, “Biutiful,” which begins its limited run on Dec. 29, and “Conspirator,” which opens next year, rep a bigger kind of film than Roadside previously sported. Likewise with “Phillip Morris,” which opens Dec. 3.

There are several reasons for Roadside’s raised profile in its seventh year in business, including a string of strong titles over the past year, topped by Debra Granik’s breakout drama “Winter’s Bone,” which has grossed nearly $6 million despite a difficult-to-market theme.

Roadside will wage award campaigns this fall for “Winter’s Bone,” “Biutiful” and “Phillip Morris” — an unprecedented number of kudos contenders for the indie distrib that puts it on par with studio specialty divisions like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features in terms of visibility.

Roadside, launched in 2003, has always been a lean and mean business and thus was able to weather the economic crisis. Cohen and d’Arbeloff never ran a flashy shop or had a lot of overhead.

Roadside also protected itself by striking a partnership with Lionsgate, which took a minority stake in Roadside in 2007.

The downside to this approach: Roadside didn’t have easy access to bigger projects. But that’s changed.

Roadside has begun structuring partnership deals by which financiers in a film put up part of the marketing coin. They aren’t traditional service deals, according to those familiar with the pacts. Rather, both sides have a stake. Such is the case with “Biutiful” and “Phillip Morris.” Roadside has partnered with producer Mickey Liddell on both.

And “Conspirator” producer Joe Ricketts, founder of Ameritrade and owner of the Chicago Cubs, will put up part of the marketing coin for that film. Ricketts produced the pic through his American Film Co.

Roadside is thus filling a gap left by the flight of several studio specialty units and other indie distribs, while those that remain are more cautious about buying films with marketing challenges, even if titles have big talent attached (“Conspirator” is a historical drama; “Biutiful” is partially in Spanish.)

“One of the reasons we’re prospering is that we’re more cautious on the financial front, and we’ve adapted to changing times, and we’ve trusted our instincts in terms of choosing films we think we can do a good job at,” Cohen said.

Cohen, a former agent who ran UTA’s indie group, has deep talent relationships.

Roadside continues to release fewer films than its competitors, such as IFC Films, Magnolia or even Sony Pictures Classics. That’s another way of keeping costs down.

Key B.O. wins for Roadside in the past 12 months include Oscar-winning docu “The Cove.” It also released “The September Issue” and “Good Hair” in 2009.

But a defining moment came with the June release of Granik’s Sundance winner “Winter’s Bone,” starring Jennifer Lawrence. Film, entering its 15th frame today and still playing in 100 theaters, has exceeded expectations for what was seen as a strictly arthouse title.

“In a short period of time, we’ve made significant successes out of noteworthy, independent films,” Cohen said. “They were all very different, and we’ve shown ourselves to be very versatile.”

“Winter’s Bone,” which has played well in regional areas, is the No. 2 top grosser for Roadside in recent years after “Bella,” which cumed $8.1 million in 2007. Lawrence also has nabbed several studio roles since the film, including in 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men: First Class,” now lensing.

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