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Major Arthouse Distributors Face Big Changes, From Fox Searchlight to Amazon: Here’s What It Means for Oscar Season

Things are far from stable in the evolving specialty film market, as film festivals and award season loom.

Jennifer SalkeVariety's Power of Women Presented by Lifetime, Los Angeles, USA - 13 Oct 2017

Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke

Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

This has been a good summer at the arthouse, but as Oscar season approaches, it’s clear that the pressures on the specialty film world have never been greater. Fox Searchlight will soon have to prove itself in the Disney hothouse, while Annapurna believes its model can best traditional studios. Amazon is in the midst of a full-scale overhaul, and is looking for a new leader. And everyone’s facing a shrinking specialty market and feels intense pressure from Netflix, which barely engages in theatrical distribution.

Fox Searchlight Has a New Home

Obviously, as Rupert Murdoch’s sale of his Twentieth Century Fox movie and television assets to Disney moves forward, Fox Searchlight is in that mix. So far, Disney executives have been friendly, but current Fox Film chairwoman Stacey Snider wasted no time announcing new multi-year deals — and exalted chairman titles — for 18-year Searchlight veterans Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley, riding high after their multiple Oscar wins for Best Picture winner “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which took home Best Actress for Frances McDormand. Both films topped $100-million worldwide.

Over their tenure, Searchlight has won 36 Oscars out of 132 Oscar nominations, and scored a total 15 Best Picture nods, including four out of the past 10 Oscar winners, from “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave” to “Birdman” and “The Shape of Water.” Disney isn’t in that business, so there’s no duplication.

Nothing changes on the film side, really, until Utley and Gilula know their exact fit at Disney, where they may be able to increase their low-budget output with OTT titles, when the time is right. But the chaos created by the Fox-Disney merger enabled Searchlight to finally launch in April (without worrying about competing in-house) their long-planned television division, which allows them to keep top talent such as Guillermo del Toro for Searchlight-branded television opportunities, and not lose their favorites to other studios. This would allow them to spin off their own TV series of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” for example.

Launched in April, Searchlight Television will be run by FSL’s recently-promoted presidents of production for film and television, Matthew Greenfield, and David Greenbaum. In June, Searchlight brought in former FX Network and HBO executives Danny Samit and Kara Buckley, respectively, as television production vice-presidents.

"The Favourite"

“The Favourite”

Fox Searchlight

Awards Season Awaits

Searchlight has a strong fall slate. Hitting fall festivals are David Lowery’s romantic caper “The Old Man & the Gun,” starring Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek; Marielle Heller’s true story “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starring Melissa McCarthy as an author-turned-con-artist and Richard E. Grant as her boozy sidekick (it’s written by Nicole Holofcener); and a buzzy Oscar contender from Yorgos Lanthimos, New York Film Festival opener “The Favourite,” a period royal intrigue starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Also in the awards mix is Wes Anderson’s animation frontrunner “Isle of Dogs”; the company previously scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated feature for Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Amazon Studios Needs a New Boss

Under new management after the scandal-tainted departure of film and television leader Roy Price, Amazon Studios is now run by ex-NBC executive Jennifer Salke, who has wasted no time overhauling Amazon’s television content. She is now addressing the direction of the movie side, seeking a motion picture chief after pushing out Jason Ropell. His duties will be jointly handled for now by production head Ted Hope and Matt Newman, head of strategic initiatives and international distribution, with indie veteran and distribution and marketing president Bob Berney remaining in place. Amazon’s future course will be charted by its new boss, whoever that turns out to be.

The question only Salke can answer is how close she plans to hew to the current theatrical strategy, which until recently embraced high-end titles likely to build audience via enhanced awards attention. Unfortunately, while Sundance pickup “Manchester By the Sea” was an Oscar-winning success, chasing such auteurs as a post-“Boyhood” Richard Linklater (“Last Flag Flying”) and post-“Carol” Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”) yielded coveted film festival slots but did not play well for critics or audiences.

Amazon Original Movies struggled with its corporate structure, which siloed production, distribution, and finance. This led to some strange configurations around budgeting, for example; finance could authorize a budget without input from the production or distribution teams. Hope is a gifted producer; both he and Berney have nourished extraordinary relationships that could bear fruit. Give them room to really run and they could yet prove themselves. Amazon chose to invest in a theatrical model, which should be a lure for filmmakers.

And yet, as Netflix spends more and adds more staff, especially on the marketing and awards side, Amazon Studios’ entertainment output looks small by comparison.

"Beautiful Boy"

“Beautiful Boy”

Amazon

Amazon Has Oscar Movies, Too

While Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” won Best Actor at Cannes 2017 for Joaquin Phoenix, the film topped out at modestly respectable $2.5 million stateside and may not be able to mount an award-season return against the fall noise. And Gus Van Sant’s Sundance debut “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” scored raves for Phoenix and Jonah Hill but an anemic 67 Metascore; it’s limping at the box office.

However, Amazon boasts a promising fall slate. While Cannes did not invite Oscar-perennial Mike Leigh’s period battle epic “Peterloo” into the Competition (it lacks red-carpet stars), it will play Venice and likely Telluride, and could be a strong Academy contender through the tech categories. “Cold War,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to “Ida,” played well at Cannes and will likely be Poland’s Oscar submission. True father-son story “Beautiful Boy” boasts likely acting contenders Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. Mainstream family drama “Life Itself,” from “This Is Us” series creator Dan Fogelman (starring Antonio Banderas, Oscar Isaac, Samuel L. Jackson, Olivia Cooke, and Olivia Wilde), and Venice contender Luca Guadagnino’s gory remake of “Suspiria” (starring Dakota Johnson) should both be commercial plays, if not easy Oscar sells.

Annapurna Takes a New Turn

Billionaire Megan Ellison jettisoned her president, seasoned former Fox and Sony marketing executive Marc Weinstock, just as she seeks to establish her company as not only a top-flight production house but also a distribution entity. Either Weinstock’s taste was more mainstream (one repeated scenario) or they had too many creative differences (another). Ellison, finally, is the boss (and never talks on-record to the press).

When it came to Kathryn Bigelow’s $34 million “Detroit,” though, Ellison gave the filmmaker her lead instead of following the dictates of commercial logic. Even with critical support, the movie was too tough on audiences and topped out at $24 million worldwide, a serious loss for the fledgling studio.

Weinstock was closely involved in the joint venture with MGM, which has Annapurna releasing MGM product. Where do the companies go from here?

“If Beale Street Could Talk”

Annapurna

Awards for Annapurna, Too?

Annapurna’s fall slate is alluring, but all the films require special handling, and the distributor is still feeling its way. Adam McKay’s political biopic “Backseat” (December 14, Plan B), starring a beefy Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as his wife Lynn, is heading toward a title change. “Moonlight” filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ anticipated adaptation of James Baldwin’s period Harlem romance, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is a surprise Toronto world premiere — it was expected to play Telluride as well as New York, where it may still wind up. Annapurna is also booking Jacques Audiard’s English-language western “The Sisters Brothers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and John C. Reilly, into Venice and Toronto.

Not showing up on the festival rosters so far: Karyn Kusama’s undated feminist action thriller “Destroyer.” And pushed back to 2019 is Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of the bestseller, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

“Capernaum”

Fares Sokhon

…And Everyone Else

Still celebrating their Best Foreign Language Oscar for “A Fantastic Woman,” Sony Pictures Classics will inevitably supply several candidates for next year’s race. Opening ahead of the fall festivals, delicious literary two-hander “The Wife” stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and it should play well to adult audiences as well as the Academy.

Who will be at SPC co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard’s annual Toronto dinner? Well, we can expect Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, accompanying her Cannes prize-winning heart-tugger “Capernaum,” trimmed by 13 minutes, with a tighter score, as well as German tall drink of water Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose Oscar-winner “The Lives of Others” SPC released 12 years ago. He went back to Germany after shooting studio flop “The Tourist” and will show psychological thriller “Work Without Author,” starring Tom Schilling and Sebastian Koch, in Venice and Toronto.

A candidate for opening night in Toronto is French-Canadian auteur Denys Arcand, whose “The Fall of the American Empire” is a follow-up to 1986’s Oscar-nominated  “Decline of the American Empire.”

“It’s a spoof on American culture today,” said Tom Bernard. “We picked it up in Cannes.” And who else is likelier to pick up “Sunset,” Hungarian Lazlo Nemes’ follow-up to SPC’s Oscar-winner “Son of Saul”? It’s playing Toronto.

"Eighth Grade"

“Eighth Grade”

Meanwhile, A24 has fewer fall festival titles than usual; this year had a front-loaded schedule. During awards season, A24 will pitch for long-overdue Oscar recognition Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” starring the extraordinary Ethan Hawke, as well as Toni Collette’s performance in summer smash “Hereditary,” despite its horror bonafides. Also up are Bo Burnham’s original screenplay for “Eighth Grade,” which is humming along pulling younger audiences; they hope the same for Jonah Hill’s directing debut, “Mid90s.”

"Boy Erased"

“Boy Erased”

Focus Features

Also not in the fall festival hunt (so far) is Focus Features. Where in all these festival announcements is Joel Edgerton’s gay conversion therapy family drama “Boy Erased,” starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe? Is Focus holding out for New York Film Festival closing night, or Toronto’s opener? It looks like the company is keeping back its December releases, costume drama “Mary, Queen of Scots,” starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, as well as Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Focus will also give an awards push to Asghar Farhadi’s Cannes opener “Everybody Knows,” starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, which could be submitted for Oscar consideration by either Spain or Iran, as well as Morgan Neville smash documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and Spike Lee’s controversial Cannes prize-winner “BlacKkKlansman.”

For its part, Magnolia Pictures will push lauded documentary contender “RBG,” its highest-grossing release to date, as well as possible Cannes Palme d’Or-winner “Shoplifters,” the likely Japanese Oscar submission from Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Italian foreign submission, Cannes 2018 Best Actor prize-winner “Dogman,” from Matteo Garrone.

“Colette”

Bleecker Street will bring back to the fall festivals Sundance crowdpleaser biopic “Colette,” starring two Brits at their best, Keira Knightley and Dominic West, and will push Debra Granik’s father-daughter drama “Leave No Trace,” which scored among the best reviews of the year so far. And they will push documentary “McQueen,” also earning raves.

“The Death of Stalin”

IFC Films will campaign for breakout indie hit “The Death of Stalin,” from Armando Ianucci, who could land a second writing Oscar nomination following “In the Loop,” as well as Paul Dano’s Sundance entry “Wildlife,” featuring an awards-worthy performance from Carey Mulligan.

CBS Films is releasing Julian Schnabel’s follow-up to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a Vincent Van Gogh biopic starring Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate.” When CBS’s Terry Press gets behind an awards contender, she leaves no stone unturned. (See: “Hell or High Water”).

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