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“Pride & Prejudice,” “Capote,” “Brokeback Mountain” (and more), and Why Audiences Matter

"Pride & Prejudice," "Capote," "Brokeback Mountain" (and more), and Why Audiences Matter

Prior to the release of Joe Wright‘s “Pride & Prejudice” in the U.K. two months ago, the film’s producers, Working Title, decided to shorten the original romantic ending of the movie, apparently feeling it was a bit too sappy for British audiences. Focus Features on the other hand, which opened the movie over the weekend in the U.S., kept Wright’s original ending, releasing a different, slightly longer version of the film in this country. In a statement to indieWIRE Wednesday, a Focus spokesperson explained that in the U.K., “audiences prefer a less overtly romantic wrap-up, so the filmmakers had prepared the movie accordingly.” Standing by their decision to release the film with the more romantic coda Stateside, the Focus spokesperson added, “What’s most gratifying is that, wherever in the world ‘Pride & Prejudice’ is being shown, critics and moviegoers are enjoying this classic love story.” Such decisions, reiterating how audience reactions are anticipated and accommodated ahead of major film releases, are increasingly commonplace in Indiewood, as a panel of insiders discussed Monday night at a New York Women in Film and Television seminar.

“I do wonder whether audience does in fact matter,” posed Ed Arentz of Empire Pictures and Manhattan’s Cinema Village, singling out such factors as casting, genre, the adaptation of well known books or plays, and sequels as proof that bigger movies, typically in Hollywood, are made with audiences in mind. SVP of acquisitions and production at Sony Pictures Classics Dylan Leiner explained, “I don’t think that anyone at this table looks at any of the factors you raised — in this part of the business we don’t have to answer those questions.” He added that at his company the target audience is a “specialized” one — “The audience that goes to museums, that reads books, that tends to be a college educated or a very self-educated audience, the audience that reads reviews, and an audience that likes to seek out aspects of culture.”

Sometimes, decisions that would embrace audiences are made, and on occasion they clearly work. Although such moves often bother those who prefer to patronize films with fewer studio fingerprints. “Pride & Prejudice” was a hit with audiences in its opening weekend, earning Focus Features nearly $3 million, with plans in place to expand the film to perhaps as many as 1,500 theaters next week. “At the risk of praising a competitors film,” said New Line Cinema acquisitions and production VP Merideth Finn Monday night during the session, before heaping tremendous praise upon Wright’s adaptation, the film is “exceptional”. She indicated that its a film from a director with a new point of view, and is a film aimed at a younger, literate audience that includes teenaged girls.

What’s especially clear is that in the many case studies cited Monday night, it’s often a small group of individuals who see something that another executive hasn’t and a company rolls the dice. Witness Warner Independent Pictures‘ decision to dub “March of the Penguins” into English and release it this summer, or the acquisition of the seemingly small “Whale Rider” by Newmarket, taking it to a large audience.

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Or what about a recent story regarding Focus Features‘ upcoming release of “Brokeback Mountain.” According to a Newsweek report, Ang Lee was asked — from a marketing standpoint — to detail the target audience for the film, the director responded, “The gay audience.” Focus co-president James Schamus corrected him during an early meeting, “No, women.” And as such, journalists and bloggers have noted the company surveyed one-sheets for the most romantic movies ever made and created a poster that seems to evoke “Titanic.” Clearly, in Indiewood audience matters.

Screening his film “Nil By Mouth” at Cannes in 1997, an overwhelmed director Gary Oldman told a crowd that he didn’t think anyone would ever see his film. Sony Pictures Classics’ co-president Michael Barker later corrected him, ordering that the filmmaker never say such a thing again. “You made this film for them. You made it for everyone who’s ever had a difficult childhood,” related Sony’s Leiner Monday night, adding, “To continue to allow this art form to be an art form for people is to find ways to foster a theatrical audience for these movies.”

“I think it is really hard to make movies for audiences,” explained New Line’s Merideth Finn at Monday’s panel. “I am sure I will get a lot of scripts modeled after ‘Capote’, she explained, asking rhetorically Monday, “Does lightning strike twice? Sometimes even good movies don’t make it.” She concluded, “Its not just that its the movie and the marketing, it’s the zeitgeist.”

A scene from Bennett Miller’s “Capote”. Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

So why is “Capote” working? Likening the success of the film (it has already made more than $6.5 million at the box office) to the performance of Warner Independent’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” (which has made $15 million), Sony Classics’ Leiner said, “Seeing these films makes you feel smarter.” The movies offer a take on history and a historical figure previously unknown or unseen he explained. Leiner touted the film a sort of “perfect storm” of talent, citing the work of star Philip Seymour Hoffman, director Bennett Miller, and writer Dan Futterman he explained that only now, as the film release widens, are they positioning it more as a thriller. Also on the panel, “Capote” producer Caroline Baron said that many of the financiers who rejected her project early on saw the film narrowly as a bio-pic. “I saw it as something much bigger than that, about art and subject, writer and subject, very American, about what we do to get what we want.”

But as filmmaker and producer Michael Corrente explained on the panel, projects that seem like they will be sure-fire hits with audiences, many times are not. Citing Focus Features’ “Door in the Floor” which he produced, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger (from a novel by John Irving), Corrente said he expected that the movie would draw crowds — it simply didn’t. “With ‘Door in the Floor’, how could you miss right? It didn’t happen.” Was it the film’s marketing that failed the film?

“Everyone is scared right now,” explained Corrente, who said the most common quote he hears from distribution companies today is, “That’s a brilliant movie, I just don’t know how to market it.” Concluding he added, “The biggest movies of this year are ‘Wedding Crashers’ and a movie about Penguins.”

“I think marketers always get the blame for everything,” IFC Films‘ VP of marketing Ryan Werner explained during the panel. “It is tougher for challenging movies to get seen, there was a time when edgy and controversial meant a lot more. The trick is to position the movie in a way that can broaden the film.” Concluding Werner added, “We work in independent film, we are trying to reach a sophisticated, upscale audience. Studios can buy a gross, but we rarely can.”

“There is a caution that exists,” explained Leiner, “Its harder than its ever been. In twelve years I have watched it, year after year, become more challenging.” He concluded, “Its not so much a fear of not knowing what to do with movies, but a fear of the marketplace. You can’t get a theater for six months today.”

Back to Brokeback, in a few week’s Ang Lee’s “gay cowboy movie” will be a test for Focus Features, challenging the ability to make a movie that might have seemed limited to a niche audience, but taking it to a wider one. But, with film’s like “The Constant Gardener” and now “Pride and Prejudice,” some panelists charged that Focus is more interested in films aimed at mainstream audiences. “Most of the people that want to be in this business — who don’t want to create another studio business — are still risk-takers,” explained Sony Classics’ Leiner.

Anne Thompson, in her weekly business column in the Hollywood Reporter, explored the “Brokeback” plans, noting, “In an industry that happily explores the outer limits of gore and violence, movies that smack of realistic intimacy are taboo — especially between men.” However mainstream Focus may be getting as it courts wider audiences for its films, with the $13 million “Brokeback Mountain,” company co-president James Schamus is embracing the challenge. “We have never made an apology from the beginning for making this movie, which we believe will deliver an emotional experience to a larger audience than the art house,” Schamus told Thompson, “The movie gives us the tools to create that appeal. We’re saying, ‘Here’s the movie, here’s what it looks like, come join us.'”

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