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A New Millennium: With ‘Rampart,’ Can Avi Lerner Finally Make a Run at the Art House?

A New Millennium: With 'Rampart,' Can Avi Lerner Finally Make a Run at the Art House?

Today’s New York and Los Angeles release of “Rampart” will test the marketability of Woody Harrelson playing a corrupt L.A. cop — and the mettle of its fledgling distributor, Millennium Entertainment.

“The old model of the company was primarily direct-to-video titles like ‘Shark Attack 5,'” jokes Millennium’s Brooke Ford, executive VP marketing of the new distribution entity. She’s only partly teasing.

Millennium is owned by Avi Lerner. For years, the Israeli mogul was successful producing cheap titles for mostly international audiences through Nu Image, the label that gave us “Shark Attack” (and its sequels) as well as films like “Bird Flu Horror,” “Vampire in Vegas” and “Mega Snake.”

Less impressive, however, is Lerner’s track record producing movies for specialty audiences. Lerner and his Nu Image partners launched their production arm Millennium Films in Cannes nearly 15 years ago. As Lerner told The Hollywood Reporter in 1999, “It’s a gamble, but if we get lucky, there’s a lot more upside than making the action films.”

In that regard, his luck hasn’t been great. Films like “Guinevere,” “Big Brass Ring,” “Prozac Nation,” “The Grey Zone” and “Try Seventeen” didn’t perform. More recently, Millennium productions like Dito Montiel’s “The Son of No One” and David Schwimmer’s “Trust,” were also relative flops. Lerner’s ambitions found more success within genre films such as “Righteous Kill,” released by Overture, and action blockbuster “The Expendables,” which was released by Lionsgate.

Now Lerner is trying the art house once more, this time with homegrown distributor Millennium Entertainment. Technically, the company isn’t brand new; many of its employees emerged from the ashes of First Look Studios. Lerner purchased that distributor in 2007, which foreclosed on its assets and went out of business in late 2010.

What is new is Millennium Entertainment’s strategy. Previously associated with VOD-targeted titles, including Millennium Films productions “Trust” and the Nicole Kidman/Nicolas Cage thriller “Trespass,” as well as fest acquisition “Puncture,” Millennium Entertainment is turning over a new leaf with the more critically lauded “Rampart,” and a slate of more traditional art-house acquisitions it plans to release this year, including Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” Nicole Kassell’s “A Little Bit of Heaven,” Elgin James’ “Little Birds” and recent Sundance pickup “Red Lights.”

Ford says Millennium Entertainment is trying to “elevate” the type of films they’re seeking as “cast-driven, that will be resonant for critics,” says Ford. She also suggests that installing former Blockbuster merchandising officer Bill Lee (and former First Look CEO) as Millennium Entertainment’s CEO was meant “to change the business model.”

“Truthfully, there’s no room in the market for that direct-to-video fare,” Ford says. “The rental business has shifted so dramatically. And while digital and VOD are exciting new platforms, it’s not the same thing when an iTunes customer can go to Rotten Tomatoes instantly and see if a movie has been panned by critics.”

Indeed, given the competition for quality content, and the number of distributors who are fighting to dominate the niche space, why do Millennium executives think they have a chance to succeed now?

“We’re small and we’re nimble,” says Lee, “and we believe we can find the right audience in the most economical way.”

Lee specifically touts Millennium’s ability to eschew “a one-size-fits-all approach” in favor of selecting one of four distinct release plans to best fit a film’s needs.

For example, “Rampart” and “Red Lights” will get a theatrical platform release, as will “Bernie” later this spring. Nicole Kassell’s “A Little Bit of Heaven” will go “Ultra VOD” — i.e., on VOD for a month before a platform theatrical. “Trespass” was an example of day-and-date VOD and theatrical. And then there¹s the “Shark Attack” model — digital-only distribution, with some level of DVD release.*

“The whole industry is still searching for the best possible formula,” says Lee. “But we’re studying each film, studying the market and coordinating with retailers, filmmakers and exhibitors to find the best release for them.”

Prior to First Look and Millennium, Lee worked at a sales and marketing firm with clients that included Disney, Xbox, Best Buy and Walmart; he was also a senior retail officer for Bloomingdales. Given this background, Millennium might seem well positioned as a distributor that can specifically target ancillary outlets.

Indeed, Lee notes that “Trespass” had VOD transactions in the seven figures — close to that of “Margin Call” — and did even better on DVD.

Millennium also recently launched Millennium Media Services, a content aggregation and distribution venture that aims to “streamline the physical and digital distribution of independent content to major retailers.”

According to Lee, MMS has a number of close relationships with stores like Best Buy and Target, and is working with them to best identify when films should be sold, “so we’re not all on top of each other and we’re all better served,” he says.

But what does this mean for a movie like “Rampart,” which needs a strong traditional theatrical outing to make a dent in the marketplace?

Millennium mounted an Oscar-qualifying one-week run in late November that generated some strong reviews for “Rampart” (“terrific — tense, shocking, complex [and] mesmerizing:” Entertainment Weekly), but the film saw little award-season recognition beyond a Spirit Award nomination for Harrelson. Ford says the preliminary release produced fairly good initial sales and helped “keep up the momentum” on the film.

“Rampart” producer Lawrence Inglee acknowledges that the film is serving as a kind of guinea pig for the modified Millennium.

“We knew we would be the first film in this new concept,” he says. “But Bill Lee described a distribution company that we were all hoping for, and their vision for the film was more compelling than anything else we heard.”

What also convinced the “Rampart” team was a commitment from Millennium Films production president Mark Gill, the veteran distribution executive who presided over Warner Independent Pictures in its heyday (“March of the Penguins”), to consult on the film’s theatrical release.

While Gill will only consult on the theatrical releases of “Rampart” and “Bernie,” Bill Lee says his contributions so far have been “invaluable.”

As Gill says, “It never hurts to have a different voice and a fresh set of eyes in the room.”

Producer Jamie Patricof, whose “Little Birds” was acquired by Millennium in May 2011, says the company appears to operate more as a unit, lacking a figurehead like Harvey Weinstein, or Michael Barker and Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics.

“But it was nice to have marketing and PR and distribution all on the same page, especially on a specialty film,” says Patricof. “It takes a village to release one of these things.”

Over the next few weeks, Millennium’s village, which includes First Look veterans Ford as well as distribution executive VP Andy Grunberg, will set out to prove they’ve got the marketing and releasing savvy to make good on their plans. The company also hired Vicky Eguia as VP of publicity, who previously worked under Bob Berney at Apparition and Picturehouse.

Inglee says he never considered Millennium to be a new iteration of First Look. “We never thought about that, because it was always seen as a new distribution company with seasoned professionals,” says Inglee. “But the big question remains: Will their new process work?”

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