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As ‘Patti Cake$’ Stumbles, Fox Searchlight Faces a Battle To Remain on Top

Netflix. Amazon. A24. “Birth of a Nation.” It's been a tough couple of years — but Searchlight knows business is cyclical. And in the fall Oscar game, it’s without peer.

Danielle Macdonald in the film PATTI CAKE$. Photo by Andrew Boyle. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Danielle Macdonald in “Patti Cake$”

Andrew Boyle

Standing before the packed house at Manhattan’s Metrograph Theater, “Patti Cake$” director Geremy Jasper introduced his film. He was excited, in the way that first-time directors often are at their premieres, thanking his producers, his cast, his reps — but the most heartfelt thanks went to distributor Fox Searchlight. Not only did it make his Jersey girl-rapper tale one of the biggest buys of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, but it also represented a genuine dream come true. When the “Patti Cake$” team imagined their ideal distributor, he said, they agreed that nothing could be better than becoming a Fox Searchlight movie.

Headstones in the graveyard of studio specialty divisions include Warner Independent, Picturehouse, Fine Line Features, Paramount Classics, Paramount Vantage, and beyond. However, Fox Searchlight has persevered, and succeeded, for more than 20 years: Savvy, innovative, and astute, it’s known for its skill in finding acquisitions that reached audiences beyond the arthouse. Starting with “The Brothers McMullen” in 1995, these went on to include “The Full Monty,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Garden State,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and many more. In its prime, Searchlight could walk into any major film festival as every filmmaker’s fantasy buyer, knowing that it could scoop up whatever it wanted.

Today, in the face of a media landscape roiled by disruption, those days are gone. The Searchlight marketing team found audiences stubbornly resistant to 2015 Sundance Jury Prize winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” ($9 million worldwide) or its most recent Sundance pick-up, “Patti Cake$,” which it purchased for $9.5 million but earned just $68,000 on its opening weekend. (To date, it’s made $197,000 since its August 17 release.)

While Fox Searchlight has many competitors, it’s still top dog among major studios as a full-service operation that develops, acquires, and produces commercial specialty titles. Run by veteran co-presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula (with production co-heads Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum, and acquisition executives Ray Strache and Megan O’Brien), Fox Searchlight makes movies designed to cost less than $15 million, but are backed by a worldwide machine.

“Slumdog Millionaire”

Searchlight has long been a reliable Oscar magnet: It boasts three Best Picture winners, “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “12 Years a Slave” (2013), and “Birdman” (2014). Contenders over the decades include “The Full Monty,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Sideways,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno,” “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Descendants,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Wild” and “Brooklyn.”

The question now is whether Searchlight’s glory days are behind them as it faces multiple challenges going forward.

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick”

Amazon Studios

1. The Netflix and Amazon problem.

Today’s specialty market is far riskier than it was five years ago. Too many buyers, too few viable titles — these are familiar complaints, but now the presence of two major streaming services is also driving up prices and forcing distributors to make more North American pre-buys.

Case in point: To nab rap musical “Patti Cake$” at Sundance 2017, which earned upbeat reviews, the company plunked down $9.5 million after an intense bidding war, even though it knew that music-video import Jasper’s empowerment crowdpleaser about a doughy New Jersey girl with outsized rapping ambitions (Australian Danielle Macdonald) would not be an easy sell.

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