Fox Searchlight defies tentpole tyranny

From 'Sound,' to 'Hotel,' specialty division charts its own summer course

Tentpole season is upon us, but a glance at the release schedule reveals an anomaly: Wedged between the superhero epics are some intriguing “specialty” films, five of them in the next few weeks from Fox Searchlight.

This is the small but gutsy mini-studio that annually displays its fixation for counterprogramming. Witness the fact that while “The Avengers” may star Hawkeye and the Hulk, Searchlight’s slate offers Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

I was tempted to inquire about this strategy when I remembered another Searchlight anomaly: The company famously resists inquiries. For some 18 years Searchlight has been like a stoic farmer, working a supposedly modest sector of the landscape but coming up with amazing crops — but never talking about them.

Searchlight is so publicity shy, even its press releases are off the record. One executive once told me he couldn’t answer my question and that his non-response was “for background only.”

But here are some of the Searchlight policies I find intriguing: It is run by a committee — usually a signal for risk-averse management — yet its slate continues to become edgier. Though its films have scored big on the awards circuit (think “Slumdog Millionaire”), Searchlight increasingly avoids the crowded Oscar corridor. While costs soar at major studios, the typical Searchlight budget still hovers around $8 million. Though the majors seem scared of comedy, Searchlight consistently displays an irreverent sense of humor (think “Juno,” “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Little Miss Sunshine”). Further, while it’s a filmmaker-driven company, Searchlight gambles with neophyte directors, preferably with complicated names — this year it’s Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”)

The three key players at Searchlight seem comfortable with risk — Nancy Utley, Stephen Gilula and Claudia Lewis have all been in their chairs for a decade. To be sure, two former Searchlight chieftains, Peter Rice and Tom Rothman, hover above them on the News Corp. executive chart, but they apparently look on approvingly as their brainchild turns out a steady diet of successes without relying on sequels or prequels. (There have also been flops like “I Heart Huckabees” or the stillborn Russell Crowe vehicle, “Eucalyptis.”)

This summer’s slate embraces two sought-after festival acquisitions, “Sound of My Voice” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Most Searchlight films, however, are in-house productions like “Ruby Sparks,” directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (from “Little Miss Sunshine”) and the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” directed by John Madden, which already has grossed some $70 million overseas (it opens in the U.S. May 4). No one at News Corp. offers to break out the numbers of Searchlight other than to characterize them as “consistent and healthy” and to point out that the entity, while autonomous, nonetheless benefits from involvement in the international and ancillary operations of the parent company.

Given its tight budgets, Searchlight is heavily dependent on the critics (those who are left) and the festival circuit to generate needed buzz. Now and then, snarky critics have argued that the company’s product has become too slick and too accessible for the arthouse circuit (witness “Juno” or even “The Descendants”) but then Searchlight comes along with “Black Swan” or “Shame” and mutes the criticism.

Still, Searchlight occupies a crowded sector of the business, with entities like the Weinstein Company, Focus and Sony Classics competing for pickups. Every new film project represents the start of a new industry.

“Each new release is an opportunity for disaster,” reflects one Searchlight executive. “You’re always standing on the edge of a cliff.”

True to Searchlight tradition, he declined to be identified, of course. At Searchlight, clearly, no one wants to be the first to fall off.