Andrew Karpen has a word for the kinds of films he wants to see and likes to release through Bleecker Street, the indie distribution company he founded in August 2014. He calls them “smart-house.”
He believes it’s possible to combine the escapism of studio tentpoles with the artistic rigor of indie fare, a strategy that was once commonplace but hasn’t been in vogue since the 1990s. He did just that with one of the biggest art-house releases of 2016, “Eye in the Sky,” a drone-strike thriller that made $18.7 million. Karpen told the film’s director, Gavin Hood, that he was sick of people drawing a line between blockbusters and art films.
“They’re films that ask you to think but also entertain you,” says Hood. “There should be a place for them.”
There’s evidence that Karpen’s bet is paying off. Bleecker Street just landed its second consecutive best actor Oscar nomination, for Viggo Mortensen’s work in “Captain Fantastic,” following Bryan Cranston’s recognition last year for “Trumbo.” In addition to “Eye in the Sky,” Bleecker Street quietly scored with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a Blythe Danner dramedy that made nearly $8 million.
Not everything has worked, of course. “Pawn Sacrifice,” a chess drama with Tobey Maguire, and “Anthropoid,” a World War II thriller, each made less than $3 million. Still, the company has shown that it can sustain a business with highbrow dramas and comedies, at a time when other indie players, such as Broad Green and the Weinstein Co., are struggling or moving away from the film business.
So where’s the love? Perhaps Bleecker Street’s low profile has to do with the fact it isn’t the hippest film distributor, or the most innovative or technologically daring. But in a way, the company’s refusal to reinvent the wheel has been the key factor in its success. Bleecker Street is in the business of so-called “platform releases,” slowly expanding the number of theaters in which its films play over a period of weeks as word-of-mouth builds. There’s also a strategy of releasing films that tend to be aimed at older crowds.
“They’re one of the few distributors left that are trying to make and acquire films for adults,” notes Mark Pellington, director of “The Last Word,” an upcoming Bleecker Street release with Shirley MacLaine.
Bleecker Street’s employees are housed in an unassuming floor of a Manhattan office building. The low-key approach also applies to Karpen, who seems more like a suburban dad — genial, jokey, and usually decked out in jeans and Oxford button-downs — than a hard-charging movie mogul. He prefers to focus the attention on what Bleecker Street makes, rather than the people
calling the shots. “For me, it’s all about the movies,” he says.
Yet there was a point in time when Karpen thought he might have to abandon the film business. After spending more than a decade building up Focus Features out of its New York offices, he was told he would have to relocate to the West Coast if he wanted to continue guiding the indie label. For family reasons, he decided to stay behind and part ways.
“I had no idea what I would do,” he says.
But he was able to raise the equity financing he needed to strike out on his own after hooking up with 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava.
“I believed there was an opportunity for a company to distribute smaller, independent films with a traditional release strategy,” Karpen says. “I knew there was an opening in the marketplace.”
This year, Bleecker Street will release more than a half dozen movies, including “Megan Leavey,” a drama about a marine corporal (Kate Mara) who bonds with a combat dog, and “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a look at how Charles Dickens cooked up “A Christmas Carol.”
Karpen also won’t rule out a move into television or digital media.
“I don’t know where we’ll go in terms of connecting content to audiences,” he says. “We have an exciting slate we’re focused on, but that’s not to say that we won’t grow into other areas.”