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Indie Fallout: Should Studio Specialty Units Change Focus?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 30, 2009 at 3:58AM

Ever since the Indie Summit last week, something has been nagging at me.
Thompson on Hollywood

Ever since the Indie Summit last week, something has been nagging at me.

We know there's a bottleneck in distribution. Small-scale movies with modest prospects are cherry-picked by Magnolia, IFC and Sony Pictures Classics at bargain prices, partly because nobody else is competing with them. But many others go begging.

Focus Features' James Schamus openly admits that he sees plenty of movies that he loves, but won't buy. (When he does pay $10 million for Hamlet 2, he gets punished.) Miramax's Daniel Battsek sits on the sidelines, waiting for various co-productions to be ready (he has a solid 2010 line-up), and says that he too wishes that he could release many of the movies that he declines to buy. As a studio subsidiary, he says, most of the time he would have to overpay. Fox Searchlight jumps in only when they see a marketable breakout opportunity, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Wrestler.

But SPC's Michael Barker and Tom Bernard don't spend too much. Is this a question of identity, perception, purpose? In the Weinstein era, Miramax released a wide range of movies of various budgets and genres, some 30 a year, and lived on the proceeds of the breakouts. SPC does something similar, but different: they manage their business so that each movie costs so little to make and/or acquire and release that they can get by with modest profits --and share them with the filmmakers. Do they spend as much as their studio colleagues to build major grosses? Not even close. But should they?

[Photo: At the Toronto Fest, The Weinstein Co. beat out the studio specialty divisions to acquire Tom Ford's A Single Man.]

If SPC is running a solid business, releasing more small movies and taking advantage of the product surplus, scooping up the best of international and indie cinema, why can't Searchlight, Focus and Miramax do the same? What if the future is about more narrow-niche movies, while the market for mid-budget movies for adults is falling apart and difficult to sustain? Why can't Searchlight, Miramax and Focus join the fray?

In a tough economy, studio parents may make it difficult for them to be in that business. I would argue that the marketing staffs at these companies are capable of handling more projects, even if does take a hideous amount of energy and work for small reward. That's why these companies only buy the hard-sell pictures when they fall in love, say, with the likes of Searchlight's Once or Miramax's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But Miramax, especially, seems to be so identified with an older adult demo. What if they broke out of that mold and went younger, hipper, cheaper?

No matter how tough things may be for his company right now, Harvey Weinstein still beat out the studios to acquire A Single Man, the biggest buy at Toronto.

Certainly, people get stuck with an established business plan, and are afraid to fail. But sometimes people become so accustomed to the way things are that they remain locked into an old paradigm. Until it's too late.

This article is related to: Festivals, Independents, Studios, Indies, Toronto, Universal/Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Sony/Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Classics, Disney

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.