[EDITORS NOTE: This is the second in a series of 5 articles looking back at some of the notable people, trends and companies of 2005. Additional articles in this series will be published this week.]
Integration is the key to success in the risky specialized film business. Or so believe three new movie companies jockeying for position in Indiewood. Over the past several months, Picturehouse, The Weinstein Company, and 2929 Entertainment have all made headlines, pronouncements, and even released a few pictures. But in 2006, their true colors -- along with their business models, taste and acumen -- will be revealed, for better or for worse.
One Part New Line + One Part HBO = Picturehouse
Picturehouse, Time Warner's new big kid on the specialty block, gets enormous leverage out of its closely integrated relationships with HBO and New Line Cinema. But looking at the few pictures the distributor has released this year, you'd think the company was a minor-league indie: Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," which made under half-a-million dollars, as well as the family comedy "The Thing About My Folks" and the Israeli orthodox Jewish drama "Ushipizin," both of which hovered around the $1 million mark.
But Picturehouse is ramping up for a potentially big 2006. With Bob Berney at the helm -- the man behind such indie juggernauts as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "The Passion of the Christ" -- Time Warner is hoping for another sleeper hit. Originally scheduled for release this year, the company moved Michael Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" out of the busy award-season and into late January.
Other upcoming releases include Killer Films' HBO portrait "The Notorious Bettie Page," Steven Shainberg's "Fur," starring Nicole Kidman as photographer Diane Arbus, and Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion." For the latter pic, a star-studded affair (Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lindsey Lohan, Virginia Madsen, etc.), the company flexed its moneyed muscles, beating out several competitors with a reportedly hefty $3.75 million deal. [EDITORS NOTE: After publication of this story, Picturehouse clarified that it will no longer be releasing Bent Hamer's upcoming Sundance entry "Factotum," which it acquired in Cannes, citing an inability to conclude delivery of the movie.]
Together with HBO, the company's '06 slate is rounded out by Section 8's comedy-thriller "PU-239," romantic comedy "Starter for Ten," and Kenneth Branagh's latest Shakespeare adaptation "As You Like It."
The low-cost, high-reward model of the specialized business only makes sense if there are, in fact, high rewards at the end of the tunnel. It's still up for grabs whether any of these films will break out. "Bettie Page" received mixed reviews out of Toronto. "Tristram Shandy" is a critics' favorite, while the last Branagh Shakespeare film, 2000's "Love's Labour's Lost," tanked at the box office.
But Berney's known for tricks under his sleeve and strong relationships with exhibitors. And he's got a strong team, including former Fine Line marketers Marian Koltai, Jennifer Stott, and Nina Baron as well as United Artists veterans Sara Rose, in acquisitions, Mary Ann Hult, in publicity and Dennis O'Connor, in marketing on the West Coast.
So far, the company has strayed away from the genre fare that's defined the moneymakers at Focus Features' Rogue Pictures and Miramax's Dimension Films (now part of the Weinstein Co), perhaps because parent company New Line Cinema has its fair share of such pictures. Foreign-language films are also rare: it's not until 2007 that the company plans to release its Russian epic "Mongol," about the life of Genghis Khan.
Miriam & Max's Sons Birth The Weinstein Company
Picturehouse will face fierce competition at Sundance from the heavily bankrolled specialty divisions, like Focus, Fox Searchlight, Miramax and Paramount's new specialty division. But all eyes are on the Weinstein brothers, the entertainment showmen who are proving they can build a media empire from the ground up. Unlike their rivals, the Weinstein Company is not bound by MPAA rules and corporate higher-ups; they are now arguably the most powerful men in the truly independent film arena. If anything, the Weinsteins' only watchdogs are on Wall Street.
The Weinsteins raised $490 million in private equity through various investors and companies to get up-and-running. And off they went, announcing their control of a new home video label formed with Genius Products (along with 70% ownership of art-house distributor Wellspring Media), an international sales arm lead by Glen Basner (plucked from Focus International), a TV development slate, and strategic partnerships with Rainbow Media, serving as their exclusive home video distributor and foreign sales agent for IFC Films. It wouldn't be surprising if they announced their own television channel, with the help of Rainbow.
The company's first release, the critically lambasted "Derailed," met box office expectations (grossing over $33 million). In a one-week Academy run, "The Libertine," starring Johnny Depp, showed promise, but the film could easily flounder if nominations don't come through; other releases "Transamerica" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents" are also coming out strong in limited release.
Together with films they acquired while working under Miramax, the Weinsteins have amassed dozens of films in various stages of production. Soon to be released are Chen Kaige's epic "Master of the Crimson Armor," animated comedy "Hoodwinked!," Aussie horror film "Wolf Creek" and Sundance Premiere "Lucky Number Slevin."
The company's production slate resembles the kind of eclectic mix the Weinsteins have been known for, balancing genre titles ("Scary Movie 4," "Pulse," "Killshot") with director-favorites (Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City 2," Kevin Smith's "Passion of the Clerks," Quentin Tarantino's "Grind House"). But so far, the Weinstein Company's slate is missing the kind of Oscar bait they could push in 2006. But there's always Sundance: Why drop millions into a commercially challenged prestige picture if you can buy a ready-made one in Park City?
New Technologies and New Ideas From Mark Cuban & 2929
Among the Weinsteins' many investors is one Mark Cuban, the new tech billionaire turned Dallas Mavericks owner turned media entrepreneur. Together with partner Todd Wagner, Cuban has put together a mini-empire called 2929 Entertainment, which includes 2929 Productions (co-financiers of "Good Night, and Good Luck"), distributor Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia's new home video label and the Landmark Theatres chain. They also own a controlling stake in HDNet Films (producers of "Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room" and upcoming flicks from Katherine Dieckmann and Hal Hartley) and a pair of HDNet cable channels. Like the Weinsteins, Cuban and Wagner have created a completely integrated media company, which serves them well in the corporate-dominated specialized arena.
Wagner and Cuban made headlines when they announced their Hi-Def digital collaboration with Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh, who will make six films for HDNet. The first, "Bubble," will be released at the same time in theaters, on DVD and on HDNet in January. While the big studios are dismissing the impact of Magnolia's controversial all-format release, citing the film's small stature, the specialized community will be watching closely: Will "Bubble's" bottom line ultimately be helped or hurt by the simultaneous release?
Another new 2929 Entertainment endeavor that's drawn some detractors is Truly Indie. Similar to a service deal, filmmakers pay an up-front fee of $40,000 to $150,000 for a guaranteed one-week run from five to twenty markets. Critics call it glorified four-walling, but 2929 maintains that their exhibition access and marketing expertise makes the deal worthwhile for filmmakers.
When the program was first announced, one indieWIRE reader posted an illuminating critique: "For the same amount of money a filmmaker can hire an independent distributor who can secure open ended play dates, oversee your advertising campaign creation and independently steer your release through the entire country, not just the 20 Landmark cities."
Again, whether the program is ultimately beneficial or opportunistic remains to be seen. But Wagner and Cuban are happy to take that risk. As Cuban writes on his own blog about the company's innovations, "If it works, everyone, particularly consumers, benefit. If it doesn’t, everyone calls me a dumbass, and we go back to doing it the way it was always done."