With the sale of independent-minded ThinkFilm last week, can indie film distributors survive without big studio backing?
Author: Juliana Tringali
ThinkFilm, best known for releasing 2004’s "Born Into Brothels," was recently purchased by the Capco group for $25 million. Group head David Bergstein plans to merge ThinkFilm with Capitol Films (another formerly fledgling distribution company), creating a "formidable new force in the independent marketplace."
For five years, ThinkFilm has built a reputation for distributing daring films that many others wouldn’t touch. Its current theatrical releases include John Cameron Mitchell‘s sexually explicit "Shortbus" and "Half Nelson," the story of a drug addicted inner city teacher. Meanwhile, Capital Films has helped to sell such fare as "A Prairie Home Companion" to international markets.
Before the purchase, ThinkFilm was the one Canadian company distributing movies in the states. Their game plan was generally to acquire documentaries or daring low budget films and subsequently attempt to sell them to more mainstream audiences.
The strategy won an Oscar for "Brothels" (which scored a 96 percent on the Tomatometer), and garnered further nominations for other releases ("The Story of the Weeping Camel," "Murderball"). But despite some critical and moderate commercial successes (including "Spellbound"), none of the ThinkFilm’s offerings broke through to widespread box office popularity. Capco says the merger will allow ThinkFilm to be a bigger player in the global film market.
"Murderball": Better than "Rollerball!"
In the expensive world of film production, perhaps the acquisition of smaller companies has always been an uncomfortable but irrevocable truth. After all, when indie first went boom in 1994, its most powerful mainstays had already been snatched up.
Miramax was purchased by Walt Disney Co. in 1993 (just before releasing "Pulp Fiction," the shot that sounded out the new era in film). In 1994, Turner Broadcasting System purchased New Line Cinema, which had dared to produce movies from unknown filmmakers since 1967.
But 1994 was a time of optimism. Making films outside the studio system was not only possible, it was hot, and bright-eyed believers were standing up to be counted. Among them were Newmarket Films, then a new privately-owned production and distribution company (purchased by New Line/HBO in 2005), and the Independent Film Channel (IFC). Palm Pictures was started in 1998, and ThinkFilm began in 2001.
Studios had their finger on the pulse as well. In 1994, Fox Searchlight was introduced as the indie wing of 20th Century Fox and it went on to produce some of the most successful "independent" films of the 1990s. NBC Universal followed suit in 2002 with Focus Features. Not surprisingly, these smaller sectors of major studios have had more staying power than their more authentic counterparts.
Top Reviewed Limiteds
Opening last week in limited release: "Shut Up & Sing," a rockumentary about the Dixie Chicks, is at 93 percent with 30 reviews; "Exit: The Right to Die," a documentary about assisted suicide, is at 88 percent (8 reviews); "Absolute Wilson," a documentary about avant-gardist Robert Wilson, is at 82 percent (11 reviews); "Cocaine Cowboys," a documentary about drug smuggling in Miami in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is at 78 percent (23 reviews); "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s globetrotting film about despair and interconnectivity, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, is at 74 percent (61 reviews); and "The Bridge," a doc about suicides on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, is at 64 percent (28 reviews).
Top Performing Limiteds
"Babel" was the biggest indie winner this week, grossing $366,000 for a big per-screen average of $52,258, despite playing in only seven theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Stephen Frears‘ "The Queen," starring Helen Mirren, continued its strong performance, grossing $1.9 million, with a $12,638 per-screen average (it’s made $6.3 million during its theatrical run). "Shut Up & Sing" made $51,000 in four theaters, for an average of $12,750. But something of a disappointment was "Death of a President" which, despite the hum of controversy, made only $167,000 with a per-screen average of $1,835.
Blood will flow and screams will be deafening at North American multiplexes this weekend when the horror sequel "Saw III" buzzes its way into theaters. While there will be no fight for the number one spot, the rest of the top ten will see new films and holdovers scrambling for high positions.
The political thriller "Catch a Fire" opens on Friday in moderate national release and the comedy "Running with Scissors" expands into major markets after an impressive debut in limited release last weekend. Meanwhile, star-driven pics "The Prestige" and "The Departed" will try to remain popular choices with adult moviegoers.
If it’s Halloween, it must be "Saw." That’s the tagline that Lionsgate hopes will keep horror fans coming back for a third helping of pain for the newest chapter in its highly profitable fright franchise, "Saw III." The R-rated film finds Jigsaw returning to terrorize another set of young people. Once again, the formula of no stars plus extreme brutality unleashing its fury on the weekend before the pumpkin holiday remains intact. Now a major player in the horror genre, Lionsgate opened its first "Saw" in 2004 to the tune of $18.3M and grew its audience over the following year, especially with DVD, to propel the sequel to a $31.7M bow. Over the last 15 months, no other R-rated film has opened better. Now, a marketplace without many exciting choices for the 17-30 age group will embrace a film, though familiar, that appeals to young adults.
This month has already seen a pair of horror franchise pics open weaker than their predecessors which bowed in mid-October of recent years. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" debuted to $18.5M, down 34% from the $28.1M of 2003’s "Massacre," and "The Grudge 2" launched with $20.8M, a steep 47% less than the Gellar original. But "Saw III" is in a different situation. "Beginning" was a prequel three years later with not much new to offer while "Grudge 2" was no longer a star vehicle. "Saw III" promises more of what its fans want – brutality, gore, and torture – so it stands on almost equal footing when compared to the last installment. The fan base has probably not grown much in the last twelve months and some might even drop out thinking it’s just the same offering yet again. But with competing fright flicks fading fast, "Saw III" will basically be the only horror film in town for those getting ready for Halloween. Opening in over 3,000 theaters, "Saw III" might cut up around $30M.
Tim Robbins plays an elite South African leader and Derek Luke stars as an oppressed everyman in the apartheid drama "Catch a Fire." Directed by Phillip Noyce ("Patriot Games, "Clear and Present Danger"), the PG-13 political thriller tells the true story of a man captured and tortured by his government, only to become a radical freedom fighter for his people. Focus is likely to attract an audience similar to the one it saw last fall with another African-set political pic, "The Constant Gardener." The Ralph Fiennes–Rachel Weisz film boasted a similar level of starpower and screens when it bowed to $8.7M over three days from 1,346 locations for a solid $6,444 average.
Reviews for "Fire" have been generally positive, but it will not be an easy sell at the box office. Robbins is the top star here and his track record selling tickets is spotty when it comes to films where he is the solo anchor. Plus the marketplace is filled with pictures targeting mature adults like "The Departed," "The Prestige," and "Flags of Our Fathers" so a crowded field will make it tough for "Fire." Using the ‘based on a true story’ angle in the marketing is always a helpful thing and Focus will soon see how much mileage it can get from it. Attacking 1,305 locations, "Catch a Fire" might capture about $6M over the Friday-to-Sunday session.
Annette Bening‘s dysfunctional family pic "Running with Scissors" enjoyed a strong platform debut last weekend with a scorching $28,263 average from only six sites. This Friday, Sony hopes to build on its bow by expanding the R-rated film into 586 theaters across North America. Critics agree that "Scissors" is not the next "Little Miss Sunshine." Reviews have been unflattering which will limit the commercial potential of a film that will mostly play to upscale adult audiences. A weekend take of around $3M could result diluting the per-theater average down to the neighborhood of $5,000.
Arthouses continue to get more crowded with fall films hoping for critical buzz and possible awards attention. Paramount Vantage packs the most starpower with its Brad Pitt–Cate Blanchett drama "Babel" which took home Best Director honors at Cannes this year for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams"). The R-rated tale trots across the globe from Morocco to Mexico to Japan with four interweaving stories about people from around the world who have no idea how connected their lives are. "Babel" opens in just six locations in New York and Los Angeles, most of them major multiplexes, and expands nationally in November. Reviews have been solid.
With Election Day around the corner, President George W. Bush stars in two documentaries that will try to stir up some controversy in order to get audiences running to their local theater. Newmarket Films releases "Death of a President," a docudrama about the fictional assassination of Bush in October 2007 and its aftermath. The R-rated whodunit was one of the hottest films at the Toronto Film Festival last month and hopes to capitalize on its buzz when it invades over 100 theaters this Friday. Also trying to wage a Red State vs. Blue State rivalry is "Shut Up & Sing" which examines the hardships that The Dixie Chicks faced recording their new album after their public outcry against the current Commander-in-Chief. The Weinstein Company opens the film in New York and Los Angeles on Friday before expanding to much of the country on November 10.
Among holdovers, the period thriller "The Prestige" and the mob drama "The Departed" should remain popular contenders in the top five. "Saw III" should not detract from either pic too much and the frame’s other new films will not play wide enough to offer significant competition in the rankings. "Prestige" swiped the top spot last weekend and is well-liked by moviegoers. A 40% drop would give Buena Vista about $9M and a ten-day total of $28M. "The Departed" has been holding up superbly so another 30% dip would leave Warner Bros. with around $9.5M which could be good enough for a third consecutive weekend at number two. The cume would rise to $90M.
LAST YEAR: Doing what its predecessor couldn’t do, "Saw II" opened triumphantly at number one and grossed a sturdy $31.7M for Lionsgate on its way to $87M continuing its most popular horror franchise. Sony countered with its family friendly adventure sequel "The Legend of Zorro" which debuted in second place with a decent $16.3M. The pricey Antonio Banderas–Catherine Zeta-Jones pic went on to reach just $45.4M domestically. Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman quietly bowed in third with the comedy "Prime" which opened to $6.2M from less than 2,000 theaters. Universal found its way to a $22.8M final. The horse flick "Dreamer" held up well in its second jump taking in $6.1M while fellow kidpic "Wallace & Gromit" rounded out the top five with $4.3M in its fourth weekend. The fourth new wide release of the frame, Nicolas Cage‘s "The Weather Man," got rained out collecting a mere $4.2M leading to a wimpy $12.5M finish.
Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com
This week at the movies, we’ve got the return of Jigsaw ("Saw III," starring Tobin Bell), a tale of rebellion in apartheid-era South Africa ("Catch a Fire," starring Derek Luke and Tim Robbins), and a story of family dysfunction in the 1970s ("Running with Scissors," starring Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alec Baldwin). What do the critics have to say?
The sheer awfulness of South Africa’s apartheid system has been grist for Hollywood’s mill in recent years, but Phillip Noyce’s "Catch a Fire" may be one of the subgenre’s strongest entries to date. "Fire" tells the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a dedicated family man falsely accused of terrorism who in turn becomes a radical rebel fighter against the apartheid government. Critics say the film works as both a political thriller and as a potent history lesson, and it features a particularly strong performance from Luke. At 77 percent on the Tomatometer, you may want to "Catch" this one. (Check out RT editor Jen Yamato’s review from the Toronto Film Fest here.)
Augusten Burroughs’ memoir "Running with Scissors" struck a nerve as a bizarre depiction of dysfunctional families and a culture of therapy among the privileged. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the movie adaptation will do the same. The film is a coming-of-age story about a young man whose unstable mother sends him to live with her therapist’s family, at which point his life only gets weirder. The critics say the film features some sharp performances — particularly by Annette Bening — but also note the film is too awash with mannered eccentricity and cartoonish caricatures rather than fully developed characters. At 33 percent on the Tomatometer, this one’s "Running" on fumes.
They say the first cut is the deepest. And if the fact that it hasn’t been screened for critics is any indication, it appears that in the case of "Saw III," the blade’s gotten pretty dull. So kids, it’s time to bust out the old crystal balls and play Guess the Tomatometer!
Also in theaters this week in limited release: "Cocaine Cowboys," a documentary about drug smuggling in Miami in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is at 100 percent; "Exit: The Right to Die," a documentary about assisted suicide, is at 86 percent; "Shut Up & Sing," a rockumentary about the Dixie Chicks, is at 83 percent; "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s globetrotting film about despair and interconnectivity, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, is at 72 percent; "The Wild Blue Yonder: A Science Fiction Fantasy," Werner Herzog‘s latest epic journey, is at 70 percent; "The Bridge," a doc about suicides on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, is at 63 percent; "Climates," an atmospheric Turkish import about the decline of a relationship, is at 46 percent; and "Death of a President," the incendiary mockumentary about a plot against George W. Bush, bombed with the critics, as it’s at 33 percent.
Picturehouse led the pack of acquisitions at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, nabbing North American rights to "El Cantante," the biopic of Salsa singer Hector Lavoe starring Jennifer Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony.
“El Cantante,” or “The Singer,” tells the tragic tale of troubled Puerto Rican musician Lavoe (Anthony) and his steadfast wife Puchi (Lopez), who navigated the ups and downs of stardom together through the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s a big, flashy biopic driven by the infectious sounds of Lavoe’s Salsa songs – a pure vanity project, as Anne Thompson aptly writes – and what’s more, J.Lo and Marc Anthony went from just friends to husband-and-wife during pre-production on the film. Add to that a built-in audience, fans of Lavoe and the Nuyorican Salsa movement, and Picturehouse’s reported $6 million buy seems a smart move. The Leon Ichaso-directed flick is expected to hit theaters next summer.
Canadian actress Sarah Polley had her directorial debut, “Away From Her,” premiere in the prestigious Gala program at TIFF; festival buzz pegged it as a hot ticket film. So it came as some surprise when it was picked up – not surprise that it sold, but that genre distributor Lionsgate was the one to seal the deal. “Away From Her” stars Julie Christie as a woman whose loving, longstanding marriage is threatened by her increasing mental deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease, adapted from a short story by author Alice Munro. Lionsgate plans a spring 2007 release, expected to emulate the year-long Oscar campaign of last year’s winner, “Crash.”
Another planned spring release is “The Prisoner: Or How I Tried To Kill Tony Blair,” from the director of “Gunner Palace.” The visually-enhanced documentary tells the true story of an Iraqi journalist and his two brothers who were held at Abu Graib for nine months, interrogated, and eventually released by the American government. Netflix’s new distribution arm, Red Envelope, bought the pic; with plans to add footage to the now-60-minute film, “The Prisoner” will likely see theaters next spring.
Audiences can also look forward to seeing short film compilation "Paris, Je T’aime" early next year. First Look Pictures purchased North American rights mid-week, as the pic, a seventeen-part ode to Paris dedicated to each one of the cities’ neighborhoods, screened here after debuting in Cannes. Among the many international stars and directors involved are Steve Buscemi, Elijah Wood, Natalie Portman, Bob Hoskins, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Nick Nolte, Ludivine Sagnier, and Maggie Gyllenhaal; and Alfonso Cuaron, Walter Salles, Gurinder Chadha, Nobuhiro Suwa, Wes Craven, Alexander Payne, and the Coen brothers.
The Weinstein Co. snatched up two very different pics earlier in the fest. “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show,” which follows the actor and four comedians on a 30-day stand-up tour, sold for $2.5 million; teen slasher pic “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane” was a pricier deal at $3.5 million, despite a lack of recognizable cast members.
Hong Kong director Johnny To had three films in the festival, as his Triad intrigues “Election” and “Election 2” screened together as a Vanguard double feature and “Exiled” played in the Special Presentations category. “Exiled,” received well both at Venice and at Toronto, was sold to Magnolia Pictures and will be released sometime next year.
A number of films closed deals even before the festival began, including the Morgan Freeman starrer, “10 Items Or Less” (THINKFilm); Michael Apted’s 18th century pic, “Amazing Grace” (Samuel Goldwyn Films/Roadside Attractions); “Dixie Chicks – Shut Up And Sing” (The Weinstein Co.); and Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn” (MGM).
Many more festival films are expected to close distribution deals out of their Toronto screenings. Pics by established directors are likely to sell, like Paul Verhoeven’s WWII thriller “Black Book” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s samurai drama “Hana.” American pics with stars like the Joan Allen-Jessica Lange “Bonneville” and the Reese Witherspoon-Christina Ricci “Penelope” are also expected to make deals, despite garnering less than stellar, mixed reviews.
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