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Niche riches

Success of specialty arms spurs frantic competition


Heading into Sundance last year, the specialty world was facing an identity crisis.

UA was disappearing; Miramax was in limbo; Warner Independent Pictures was besieged by rumblings of an imminent management shift.

The only constant was Fox Searchlight, whose commercial clout and kudos attention made it the envy of every studio label.

What a difference a year makes. Despite cyclical glitches like Searchlight’s fallow period, the studio specialty labels are stronger than ever, providing a dose of good news to their corporate parents at a time when bigger budgets are a much bigger risk.

As studios continue to ransack the videogame market and library titles for mass-market hits, their niche arms are one of the few remaining corners of the business where originality still matters — and in 2005, they were able to deliver a wide range of highbrow fare that stayed in the black.

The questions are whether this bounty can sustain itself, or even grow. With Sundance on the horizon, the niche sector is heading into a period of unprecedented competition.

As Focus Features, Warner Independent Pictures and Sony Classics are hitting their stride, Paramount Classics is mapping out a major revival.

Bob & Harvey Weinstein at the Weinstein Co. and Bob Berney and crew at Picturehouse are ramping up, while Fox Searchlight is working at a comeback. Add in the revamped Miramax, as well as hotshot indies like Lionsgate, and it’s obvious that there are a lot of contenders for niche riches.

While there was no box office phenom like “The Passion of the Christ” in 2005, there were plenty of examples of niche titles with stellar box office, like “Crash,” “March of the Penguins” and “Brokeback Mountain.” There are also plenty that are outpacing studio titles in the kudos race, like “The Squid and the Whale,” a low-budget drama acquired by Samuel Goldwyn that’s appeared on one 10-best list after another and grossed more than $5 million, despite its inscrutable title.

In “Penguins” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” WIP had two of the year’s breakout niche hits, offering a patina of prestige to a studio whose two biggest successes were kiddie lit adaptations “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

If “King Kong” got off to a slow start in Decemberfor Universal, there was U’s niche arm Focus Features setting B.O. records and racking up awards noms for “Brokeback Mountain.”

With a slate that also includes indie hits “The Constant Gardener” and “Pride & Prejudice,” Focus beat out all the studios and specialty labels when Golden Globes noms were announced earlier in December.

As Sony execs sip champagne at the Kodak Theater bar in March, trying to forget clunkers like “Bewitched,” “Stealth” and “The Legend of Zorro,” they’ll be rooting for niche attention-getters like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has earned widespread kudos attention for his role in Sony Pictures Classics’ “Capote.”

This isn’t to say the specialty business is predictable. If you consider what worked and what didn’t work in 2005, it’s clear that the indie world is as fickle as the climate in the Pacific Northwest, where as the saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.”

Last year, Fox Searchlight stole so much of the spotlight that the Fox-based mini-major’s humble brass — headed by Peter Rice — wished the press would just leave them alone. This year they got their wish.

The division responsible for “Bend It Like Beckham,” “28 Days Later,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Sideways” kicked off 2005 by flying off the rails with Rice skipping Sundance — where it had bought “Dynamite” a year before — to try and piece together, unsuccessfully, the planned Russell Crowe-Nicole Kidman starrer “Eucalyptus.”

Then Searchlight was, surprisingly, off the radar: Its “Bee Season” had no buzz, and Danny Boyle couldn’t replicate the success he’d had with London zombies with PG-rated kid pic “Millions.”

Rice’s attention is about to be diverted again, as he shifts gears to oversee an unnamed genre division, a trend that began when Bob and Harvey Weinstein carved Dimension out of Miramax.

Last year’s other outsized player in the specialty arena was Berney, who masterminded the campaign for “The Passion of the Christ” and who previously had spun gold with “Y tu mama tambien,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Whale Rider,” “Monster” and “Memento.”

After being courted by Paramount to rejig its Classics division, Berney landed at Picturehouse, a venture launched by Time Warner sisters HBO Films and New Line to replace NL’s anemic Fine Line banner.

But the startup is still struggling to forge an identity, and its initial releases have failed to connect with a wide audience. In other words, Berney is in the same position as Mark Gill was a year earlier: Taking the reins of a wholly new specialty film unit, perhaps laboring under the expectations that he would have a hit right off the bat.

Last year, while Berney was posing for profiles in the New York Times Magazine, Gill, the embattled head of WIP, was facing almost daily calls from reporters who’d heard he’d been axed by his Burbank bosses.

Weathering rumors that his authority to buy films was being undermined, Gill went to Sundance in January and picked up “Penguins.” The industry largely ignored the acquisition, while lavishing attention on Par Classics for beating the competition to the pimp pic “Hustle & Flow.”

“Penguins” was re-edited and retooled and, of course, has waddled right over “Hustle,” taking in over $55 million more in U.S. theaters.

Now Par, which publicly said it wanted to base its own Classics division on the Searchlight model, seems to be taking its cues from another niche arm, Warner Independent Pictures.

Par Classics recently sealed a deal to acquire National Geographic’s “Penguins” follow-up, “Call of the North,” which insiders have taken to calling “March of the Walrus.”

One of the greatest problems afflicting the studio’s niche arms is the expectations of their struggling parents.

“You don’t look at ‘March of the Penguins’ and think that’s going to be a huge family hit,” says Sundance head Geoffrey Gilmore, who once was rumored to be a candidate to top a Warners specialty division, and whose fest is offering distribs many of the year’s indie hits.

“This is a nobody-knows-nothing business. If you look at ‘Squid and the Whale’ or ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ or ‘Hustle & Flow,’ there’s a mixed level of success. But where it used to be that the $5 million range was a hit, now it’s the $20 million range. If a film makes below that, it doesn’t mean it didn’t succeed.”

It may have been to Lionsgate’s benefit that it has no corporate parents. The studio had the year’s biggest indie success in “Saw II,” which cost about $4 million and made $86.8 million. The freestanding distrib also had arty “Crash” and urban “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” as bargain investments that broke out.

The Weinsteins, meanwhile, seem to be picking up where they left off back at Miramax, wading into awards season with “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” and grabbing the most Globes noms behind Focus and Universal. Their first pic, “Derailed,” wasn’t a blockbuster, but at more than $35 million, the grosses were high enough that the film will turn a profit.

Fate also has helped Sony Classics, which inherited “Capote” as UA wound down in the wake of the Sony-MGM merger. The move seems beneficial for the pic, which is getting Tom Bernard and Michael Barker’s awards-season attention.

As studio grosses flatline, in the face of sagging box office, rising P&A costs and a dicey DVD market, the indie arms are delivering delicious possibilities.

That’s not to overlook the other obvious benefits of niche titles: Penguins have never been known to lock themselves in their trailers or call CAA to demand more herring in their riders. And they don’t get final cut.