Miramax—kaput, at least for now. ThinkFilm, long gone. Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures, Paramount Vantage all a distant memory. Apparition and Overture—who knows? As the major players in the distribution of independent and foreign films have dropped off the face of the film business, a number of new entities are entering the space this season. Every week, it seems, another never-before-seen logo pops up in movie ads: NeoClassics Films, CFI Releasing, and the aptly titled Cinema Purgatorio—to name a few. With more films in distribution purgatory than ever before, producers and filmmakers are exploring any and all options to get their movies into theaters.
Unfortunately for them, Hollywood ticket sales might be booming, but the market share for independents is crumbling. Fox Searchlight, once the King Midas of indies, hasn't struck gold in over a year. Despite their blockbuster Twilight franchise, Summit Entertainment's Oscar winner The Hurt Locker topped out at just over $16 million, the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. DVD sales continue to drop; VOD and Internet-streaming buys haven't caught up. One new company, Consolidated Pictures Group (which acquired the Jim Carrey gay dark comedy, I Love You, Phillip Morris, but failed to muster the money to release it), appears to have gone bust before getting out of the gate. Can the following new endeavors do any better in the upcoming months?
• Movies on deck: Mao's Last Dancer (August 6) • Origin story: Musician Dave Matthews co-founded this company in 2002 as a way to invest in films (Savage Grace, Choke). Just last month, ATO formally announced its move into distribution, with a round of veteran producers serving as executives, among them the backers of the much-loved indie The Squid and the Whale.
• Prognosis: While ATO stands optimistically for "Art Takes Over," the film business doesn't take kindly to art these days. In partnership with Samuel Goldwyn Films, the company's first release, Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer, about a Chinese performer's journey from poverty to international stardom, may have succeeded in Australia, but such ethnic inspirational dramas are far from a sure bet here. ATO's best asset is leveraging its resources in music and marketing. If they can re-create the promotional muscle of the Dave Matthews Band for movies, ATO has a shot.
• Movies on deck: Racing Dreams (June 11), Twelve (July 2), The Wild Hunt (July 16), happythankyoumoreplease (August 27)
• Origin story: Home entertainment company Hannover House had previously focused on book publishing (Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K.) and DVDs (Hounddog). Now it is trying to raise the profile of its library through theatrical releases.
• Prognosis: One of the most aggressive new players, Hannover wisely hired former Lionsgate veteran Tom Ortenberg to handle its releases and beat out several rivals at Sundance to acquire Joel Schumacher's Twelve and the twentysomething comedy happythankyoumoreplease, and plans to promote them bullishly—the latter could go up on 1,000 screens, according to CEO Eric Parkinson. But such ambitious plans are risky in these belt-tightening times.
• Movies on deck: Hesher (fall)
• Origin story: Newmarket's not exactly new but, rather, born-again. Founded in 1994 by two L.A.-based British financiers, the company found its distribution groove in 2000 with its much-ballyhooed release of its own production Memento. In the first half of the decade, the company's distribution arm had a string of successes with Donnie Darko, Monster, and The Passion of the Christ. After a period of near-dormancy, Newmarket is back in the game.
• Prognosis: The new Newmarket's first release, the Charles Darwin drama Creation, didn't evolve much in the marketplace (box office: $350,000). While the company made an aggressive buy at Sundance for Hesher, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an anarchic punk, mixed reviews may quash sales this fall. And just last weekend, the company opened Agora, a $70 million Spanish epic about a fourth-century mathematician (Rachel Weisz), conservatively—and smartly—on just two screens. None of these are game changers, but in its favor, Newmarket recently made a pact with indie heavyweight Lionsgate to handle home entertainment distribution for all of its titles. Still, though Newmarket has strong backing and strategic alliances, their choice of films lacks consistency.
Phase 4 Films
• Movies on deck: Finding Bliss (June 4), Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (July 30), The Freebie (September 17)
• Origin story: Originally a home entertainment division of Peace Arch Entertainment (releasers of Jean-Claude Van Damme cult item JCVD), Phase 4 has recently ventured into theatrical releasing in North America, having had some success with Valentino: The Last Emperor in Canada.
• Prognosis: With a background in DVDs, Phase 4 knows what works in the home entertainment market: Both Finding Bliss, a comedy set in the porn industry, and the Hefner doc, are natural fits. But in going outside that safety zone, it's a tougher sell. The company's 2009 theatrical release of the Irish crime thriller Fifty Dead Men Walking, CEO Berry Meyerowitz admits, "was hugely disappointing," although it fared better on DVD. Perhaps Phase 4 should stick to the home distribution market they know best.
Red Flag Releasing
• Movies on deck: 8: The Mormon Proposition (June 18)
• Origin story: Tossed-out executives from Warner Independent Pictures have joined forces to return to the distribution business on a more humble scale, working on extended theatrical campaigns for individual films one movie at a time.
• Prognosis: Working out of marketing guru Laura Kim's renovated garage in L.A., Red Flag certainly can't be accused of being spendthrift. A scaled-back infrastructure may be suited to the new economy, but modest Prints & Advertising budgets make it especially difficult to break through the clutter. However, Red Flag exec Paul Federbush believes their inaugural release, the hot-button documentary about California's controversial gay-rights proposition, will generate enough publicity on its own. "The long-haul plan," he says, "is to take it slow." To survive in the current marketplace, that may be the best strategy of all.
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