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FilmDistrict weighs future plan

Open Road distribution deal could provide path for partnerships

FilmDistrict’s decision to release several titles, including “Red Dawn,” via Open Road Films (Variety, Dec. 6) is yet another example of an indie distrib that’s found the going tough in the mid-sized pic market.

It’s just one of several options for FilmDistrict going forward in the distribution game.

Even with experienced execs and solid backing, maintaining a successful domestic distrib operation entails considerable risk for mid-sized labels such as Relativity Media and CBS Films.

The challenges of acquiring attractively priced titles commercial enough to play wide in a sluggish theatrical climate have proved too much for many.

“It is a difficult business,” said one distrib exec. “You can’t take on too many films.”

FilmDistrict saw success earlier this year with “Insidious” and “Soul Surfer,” both of which were bought by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions. (Sony’s TriStar Pictures distribbed the latter pic, with FilmDistrict co-marketing — another potential strategy for the shingle.)

Summer releases “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” and “Drive” performed adequately, though some observers said FilmDistrict overspent on P&A for “Drive,” hoping the arty Ryan Gosling pic would crossover to mainstream auds.

Still, the combined $125 million domestic gross from all four films totals more than any other start-up’s first four films over the past 15 years, showing that there were other tensions affecting stability at FilmDistrict.

The move to offload pics to Open Road comes a month after Bob and Jeanne Berney announced their exit as FilmDistrict’s top distribution and marketing execs, a sudden shift for the start-up that’s packing up its New York office and moving to Los Angeles. The Berneys will continue handling FilmDistrict releases until March 1, including Angelina Jolie’s Christmas release “In the Land of Blood and Honey.”

Under the three-picture deal between Open Road and FilmDistrict, Open Road will release sci-fier “Escape From M.S. One,” starring Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace, on April 20, and the “Red Dawn” remake on Nov. 2. The third film hasn’t been selected.

But why partner with another start-up like Open Road, rather than

an experienced major? For starters, Open Road has a wide-open sked next year, with just two pics dated so far during the first quarter — “The Grey” on Jan. 27 and “Silent House” on March 9.

Headed by former Sony worldwide affairs and acquisitions topper Peter Schlessel, FilmDistrict would seem to have a natural partner in the Culver City studio, with its numerous releasing labels including TriStar and Screen Gems. But Sony has a packed 2012 slate; it will, however, distribute FilmDistrict’s Sept. 28 release “Looper” and the “Evil Dead” retread, both of which were based on prior agreements.

Schlessel also has a healthy relationship with Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg, from Schlessel’s time at Sony.

Whether FilmDistrict decides to stay the course as a distrib (it will release “Only God Forgives”), or becomes an acquisitions and production label using distribution partners, its partnership with Open Road could provide a template for its future direction.

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