Rivals React: The Day After the HBO/New Line Announcement
by Eugene Hernandez
Indie circles have been buzzing about the launch of a new specialty division from HBO and New Line Cinema. The decision to form the unit by integrating Newmarket Films and Fine Line Features has created significant speculation about who will stay and who will go at the various companies involved. Beyond that, since the announcement was made without many details about the types of films that will be released, or their budgets, insiders remain curious about the new entity. As we tend to do the day after a major announcement, indieWIRE polled a few of the heads of leading theatrical distribution companies to get their take.
"This was a surprising development, but as is often the case, if you think about it after the fact, it makes sense," said Mark Urman, head of theatrical distribution at ThinkFilm. "New Line showed, quite recently, with 'Sea Inside' and 'Vera Drake', that it still has an appetite for a prestige strand; HBO Films has been producing a higher incidence of theatrical quality product that needs proper handling; and Newmarket had been the subject of recent rumors. So, NOW it seems logical, but one couldn't have seen it coming. One can only see it now."
"It is fantastic news for both filmmakers and movie going public," enthused film rep Jeff Dowd, "Bob Berney has been willing to take on and meet the challenge of 'difficult to market' films like 'Y Tu Mama Tambien', 'Whale Rider', 'Memento', 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding', 'Monster' and even 'The Passion of the Christ' because he comes out of a grassroots background and is in touch enough with the public to know that those movies had an audience that would give them compelling word of mouth."
"With Bob joining a multi-national corporation he leaves a real gap in the stand alone Indies world," explained Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard.
Over at Roadside Attractions, company partner Howard Cohen sees the news very personally. "Our business plan is about what I would call singles and doubles -- movies that gross between $1 and $5 million at the U.S. box office. (Although we had two home runs in our first year - 'Super Size Me' and 'What the Bleep...' -- we're not counting on that nor are we suddenly changing course). With the exit of Newmarket, we have one fewer competitor in this area."
Continuing, Cohen added, "The bad news is that all these studio divisions with new staffs and something to prove will bid crazily for films that smell even vaguely like they could break out. And occasionally they'll overpay for films that belong in our tier -- like Focus buying "My Summer of Love" at Toronto for over $2 million, which we wanted. It's great news for Sloss, WMA and the other sellers, I guess, if they have a hot film. But in general this change will bifurcate the business somewhat and we will benefit."
"Certainly, things are always volatile wherever major corporations are involved," offered Mark Urman. "They start, change, abandon, re-start, and re-think these divisions, because that's they way they work. Working without a parent company has it share of instability. Being part of one does too!"
A leader at an Indiewood division raised a few key questions, namely, "Who makes the final decision on buying movies? Is there a production component beyond HBO Films? How is Bob going to be involved in production decisions or is he just distributing/acquiring?" Asked to survey the current shifting that is happening at numerous companies and studios, the anonymous chief touted the success of his own company, praised a few competitors and signaled that the fates of numerous other shingles remains to be seen.
"Will they be doing day and date releases with HBO -- it seems that the studios are chasing big dollars and feel that there is a new model based on Miramax/Fox Searchlight that will grow into the next Orion, New World, New Line type mini major," noted SPC's Bernard. "They will have to invent a new name instead of specialty divisions. And will the IFP have to raise the budgets for the cut off point to qualify for the 2006 Spirit awards?"
Another anonymous exec signaled the importance of autonomy at Indiewood and specialty companies. "How 'indie' really are any of the studio specialty divisions," the insider asked, calling them companies that "seem to take fewer risks...ultimately a lot of the product they make is formulaic."
"On a simplistic level one can say that these specialty divisions are lower risk and relatively high reward in terms of the bottom line and prestigious films and that is why studios are backing them," said Jeff Dowd, "But don't underestimate that there is a lot of humanity out there wearing corporate suits who know how to play the game within the bottom line and at times conservative media conglomerates." Continuing he added, "Bob Berney isn't the only chance taker out there who knows how to market specialized films."
"It is a very good thing and critical to the future of cinema, our society and maybe even the future of the planet that there are specialty divisions at several studios," noted Jeff Dowd, "Like Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent, Paramount Classics and whatever fortified specialty division Tom Freston and Brad Grey create, Focus Features, and of course the indie companies like Lions Gate, Magnolia, THINKFilm, Goldwyn and IFC. And of course whatever happens next with Harvey and Bob Weinstein." He also added plugs for Roadside Attractions and Tartan Films.
Asked to predict what might happen next, a company chief who asked for anonymity, quipped, "Some studio will overpay for Lion's Gate because they will feel the need to make some bold move."
"I do see a shakeout eventually -- not sure if there is enough good product and weekends and screens to support the ambitions of all these distributors swinging for the fences: Searchlight, Focus, the new Miramax, WIP, Fine Line/HBO, NewCo. (Weinstein venture), Paramount Classics and Lions Gate," offered Howard Cohen from Roadside, "And I think there will be consolidation but not sure where it will come from yet."
"When it comes to distributing specialty films, it's all about the people, not the logo, nor the source of funding, and not even the amount of funding," concluded Mark Urman, "Bob Berney has proven time and time (and time) again, the he is good at what he does. The companies may come and go, and his business card may change, but he is here to stay."