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by Eugene Hernandez
August 14, 2007 9:13 AM
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At IFC Films, "Penelope" Shift Points To A Change in Focus; Company Emphasizing First Take Slate

Less than a year ago, IFC Entertainment publicly touted a strategic change within the company, saying that IFC Films' preemptive acquisition of John Dahl's "You Kill Me" in Toronto marked a move to release bigger-budget movies. Now, the company is calling that move an experiment and instead pushing a different segment of their business. It has all but abandoned plans to acquire and distribute bigger movies. A theatrical release of Mark Palansky's "Penelope," the Toronto '06 premiere starring Reese Witherspoon which had been scheduled to open this Friday, was recently dropped. With no larger-budget releases on its longterm slate, IFC is instead focusing on its emerging IFC First Take label that simultaneously releases independent and foreign language films in theaters and via cable TV video-on-demand services.

Acquired jointly by IFC Films and The Weinstein Company out of Toronto last year (with IFC handling North American theatrical distribution and TWC taking home video), "Penelope" was initially slated for a wide release in April but ten days before opening day, IFC publicly announced that the film had been bumped to August 17th. A Type A Films production that was financed and produced by Stone Village Pictures, the film was written by Leslie Caveny and also stars James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara and Peter Dinklage.

In recent weeks, it became clear that IFC would not be releasing "Penelope" and indieWIRE has confirmed that the film's producers are planning a February 2008 release with another company. The IFC decision to abandon larger releases came ahead of their opening Dahl's "You Kill Me" on June 22nd, according to insiders. The company never expanded the "You Kill Me" release beyond about 250 screens and the film, on 26 screens this past weekend, has earned almost $2.4 million at the box office. Upcoming IFC Films releases include a pair of documentaries, next week's "Deep Water" and Jessica Yu's "Protagonist."

IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring declined to comment on the "Penelope" situation citing ongoing negotiations, but in a conversation with indieWIRE today he indicated that IFC is "sticking to its core" by emphasizing the IFC First Take program that it launched at Sundance last year. He explained that they are focusing on niche titles or, "providing independent films with the strongest vehicle and the broadest reach possible."

Asked to explain the apparent strategy shift, Sehring added that even outside the studio specialty divisions, the landscape for larger independent releases has changed since IFC's "You Kill Me" and "Penelope" announcements nearly a year ago. Since then the industry has seen the emergence of company's like Starz' Overture Films (lead by Chris McGurk), the new Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (now headed by former IFC Films consultant Bingham Ray), among others. "There are more distributors for films in the 5, 15, 20 million budget range," noted Sehring in today's conversation with indieWIRE, adding that competition for those films has become more intense, while "truly independent films are left without a sustained distribution mechanism."

IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring (right) with "My Best Friend" director Patrice Leconte during the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

News of specifc layoffs affecting three people within IFC Films' PR department, coupled with the word that the company was abandoning the high-profile "Penelope" release, raised questions among rivals and observers late last month. Two IFC Films staffers are leaving the company soon and a longtime PR executive will exit in the coming months. While IFC's Sehring declined to comment on the departures except to praise the work of the affected employees, IFC parent Rainbow Media indicated that the cutbacks are unrelated and are part of a recent Rainbow restructing.

Meanwhile IFC First Take is flourishing, according to those at IFC and Rainbow. According to the company, the bi-monthly releases are available for download by some 40 million national cable TV subscribers when those titles are simultaneously relased in movie theaters. Recent releases include Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" and Shane Meadows' "This Is England," while next week IFC First Take will release Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes The Stairs" and kick-off a series of DIY American independent films at its IFC Center in downtown Manhattan. Also on the upcoming First Take slate are Cannes acquisitions that include Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," Christian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "Flight of The Red Balloon." The company has some seven films screening at next month's Toronto International Film Festival and four titles on the slate of the upcoming New York Film Festival.

"The growth of this service [known as IFC In Theaters on national cable systems] from zero to forty million in about a year is pretty much unparalleled," Rainbow spokesperson Matthew Frankel told indieWIRE this afternoon, citing the widespread availability of IFC First Take's films to subscribers of DirecTV, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable, beyond just Rainbow parent Cablevision. While not releasing specific download numbers for the First Take films, he noted, "And in regard to the films, we are very pleased with the kind of demand for this small independent film -- not only are these films available in Des Moines, Iowa but people are actually buying them in Des Moines, Iowa."

Emphasizing the point, Frankel added, "You have a company that has been focused on providing the strongest voice possible for small independent films and we are going to continue doing that."

As for the fate of the IFC Films label, company president Jonathan Sehring said that the brand is by no means dead, even though IFC Entertainment is currently emphasizing its First Take program. Saying that he wouldn't jump at the chance to work on another John Dahl film, Sehring told indieWIRE, "I am not going to rule out the possibility for a movie here and a movie there that would go out as a more traditional IFC Films release."

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