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Q&A: The Executives Behind Fox Searchlight’s Long Run of Success

It’s hard to survive as an independent label at a major studio. Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent are gone; Universal Pictures’ Focus Features has been retooled. Miramax is a shell of its former self. But Fox Searchlight, now in its 20th year, endures. The division that has backed such critical and commercial hits as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has had a particularly enviable past few months, picking up the best picture Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and scoring an arthouse breakout with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” ($171 million global gross, and counting). Fox Searchlight co-presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley and president of production Claudia Lewis sat down with Variety to talk about their film strategy, the rise of video-on-demand, and how they keep top movies running through the pipeline without the division spinning off the financial rails.

Do you try to find movies that appeal to Oscar voters?
Nancy Utley: We look at box office first, and we look at awards as gravy. We feel that if you make a movie thinking solely that it’s an awards movie, it’s very hard to get in the race.
Steve Gilula: The first evaluation is if there is going to be an audience for it. We see movies that we think are really well-made, but we scratch our heads and think, ‘Geez, how are we going to get people to show up to the theater?’

Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” is a hit, but by scheduling it in March, were you waving the white flag on an Oscar race?
NU: The DVD will be coming out, so that will create a secondary advertising campaign. It’s never easy to keep up momentum when you start earlier in the year, but you just make sure that people see the movie.
SG: There was a debate — should we rush it into the end of last year, which was already very crowded, or should we hold it until the end of 2014, or should we put it where it will stand out? We said, ‘Hey, the audience is No. 1.’

Fox has a reputation for tight budgets, and most Searchlight films cost less than $20 million. Is being economical part of your philosophy?
SG: You take creative gambles under pretty rigorous budget guidelines. The constraints on the budgets allows us a lot of freedom on how we can distribute the movie, so it is liberating in a lot of ways. The irony is, the bigger the budget, the more narrow your options are in terms of what you can do with the movie.
Claudia Lewis: We know where the money should go and what we can do to stretch a dollar. It’s about putting as much money on screen as possible, and working together to find ways to make that happen, so we never cheap out on the film.

Unlike other indie companies, you haven’t released your films simultaneously in theaters and on-demand. Will that change?
SG: We look at it a lot, but we’re always shooting for the upside. We have “Wild” coming up. We have “Birdman” coming up. We have “Far From the Madding Crowd” coming up. These are big theatrical movies that can reap great rewards in the theaters.

How independent are you?
NU: Jim (Gianopulos) has the greenlight authority, but we’re given a lot of latitude based on our track record. It’s our success or our failure.

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