Little pictures have a big year

Times Staff Writer

Call it the year of the niche-buster.

Flying well under "Spider-Man's" big-budget radar was an intriguing spate of little movies that made lots of money by playing against Hollywood stereotype.

Movies such as "Bowling for Columbine," "One Hour Photo," "Monsoon Wedding," "Empire," and even the obscure French film "Brotherhood of the Wolf," made 2002 one of the most successful years ever for specialized fare.

"What you saw [in 2002] was a lot of really good specialty or niche films in their genre," said Chris McGurk, MGM's chief operating officer. "They were these unexpected little gems." The shiniest jewel, of course, was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the $5-million movie that turned into the highest-grossing independent film ever, so far earning $222 million to yield the year's largest return on investment for any movie, large or small.

However, "Greek Wedding" was just one of the so-called specialized films that contributed to Hollywood's record-breaking year at the box office, with ticket sales for all films projected to surpass $9.3 billion, compared with 2001's $8.1 billion, a 13.8% increase. Admissions for 2002 are estimated to exceed 1.5 billion people, compared with 2001's 1.4 billion.

Of course, the year's blockbusters, like "Spider-Man," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," were the dominant players at the box office, and no one expects Hollywood to retreat from its heavy reliance on sequels and big-budget movies.

But the performance of 2002's specialized films -- which range from such easily accessible feel-good fare as "Greek Wedding" to more challenging offerings such as "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- has given studios the financial incentive to make and distribute more smaller-budget movies.

Last year, specialized films accounted for nearly 7% of the market -- a 3% increase from 2001. While "Greek Wedding" accounted for most of that jump, each of the top 10 specialized films grossed more than $10 million, according to Nielsen EDI Inc., a box-office tracking firm. (The company defined "specialized" as films that played in fewer than 500 theaters in their first three weeks and fewer than 1,500 theaters in weeks four through six.)

"It's an encouraging picture," said Nancy Utley, head of marketing for Fox Searchlight, which turned a profit on such relatively inexpensive films as "The Banger Sisters" and "One Hour Photo." "The selection was spread over a number of different films, and I think that is helping all of us."

For example, MGM's "Barbershop," which cost only $12 million to make and an additional $10 million to market, has made more than $75 million.

"If they are made at the right cost, then that is a very good business and a satisfying business to be in," said Jeff Blake, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony, which had its best year ever with "Spider-Man" but also made one of 2002's more offbeat movies, "Adaptation," for $30 million. (So far, the box office verdict is out on "Adaptation," which has grossed $4 million on only 100 screens.)

Conventional wisdom has it that a big Hollywood movie needs to gross more than $100 million to be considered a hit. But as budgets and marketing costs continue to skyrocket, crossing that threshold does not guarantee profitability. "Road to Perdition," "Minority Report" and "Red Dragon" grossed a collective $330 million, but due to steep profit and production budgets and profits divided among stars, producers and directors, the three movies together will not make much, if anything, for the studios.

Despite their modest size or "indie" style, most of the year's successful specialized movies had a big studio behind them. Every studio except Warner Bros. has a specialty division, such as Fox Searchlight, MGM's United Artists or Universal's Focus Features, which find or produce smaller movies and market them to specific audiences.

"I think that there is a big, smart, upscale audience out there," said Peter Rice, head of Fox Searchlight, who added that the movie industry is also taking advantage of the proliferation of cable-TV outlets to reach niche audiences.

Fox Searchlight's Utley said a good marketing campaign has a very targeted message. For "One Hour Photo," the ads focused on the idea that your friendly neighborhood photo developer guy could be a stalker. "We let people get that shiver of recognition that this was something that could happen to them too," Utley said. An effective campaign also targets a specific audience, she said. For Jennifer Aniston's "The Good Girl," Utley's team advertised on reruns of the actress' TV show, "Friends" -- a cheaper and effective way to target her hard-core fans.

Even the Universal-distributed French period film "Le Pacte des Loups," or "Brotherhood of the Wolf," succeeded last year in finding an unlikely audience -- teenage boys. Universal sold the 18th century tale of a rampaging beast as a " 'Matrix'-meets-'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' " martial-arts flick, making it the second-highest-grossing French film in the United States in the last two decades.

Universal bought the film for a few hundred thousand dollars in an internal exchange with its sister company, Studio Canal, which produced it; the film has grossed $10.9 million. The ads for the movie, which ran on such cable-TV networks as MTV, did not give a hint that the film was in French. Thus, many moviegoers turned out for the film, never realizing that they were in for subtitles. In the end, said Universal Co-Chairman Marc Shmuger, it didn't matter. "The last place a lot of that audience would find itself is in a foreign-language movie and yet they found themselves there," said Shmuger, who added that the film is doing brisk video and DVD sales.

And clearly, teenage boys aren't the only desirable target for specialized fare. While they still are the most reliable movie fans, sure to turn out on opening weekend, grown-ups increasingly are well-represented too. From 1990 to 2000, the proportion of moviegoing 50- to 59-year-olds doubled, from 5% to 10%, while the proportion of 16- to 20-year-olds dropped, from 20% to 17%.

"The baby boomers are big moviegoers. Now that we are getting older, we are going to the show more often than the comparable [World War II generation]," said Dan Marks, president of Nielsen EDI Inc.

The diverse array of potential audiences is what prompted the studios to form their specialty divisions in the first place. Although some complain that indie filmmaking is being corrupted by studio involvement, the backing of the entertainment giants can bring some clear benefits to a smaller film, especially in terms of getting it placed in theaters or video stores.

But some, like Newmarket Films President Bob Berney, say good marketing and good movies are more important than big studio clout.

"I don't think it has anything to do with studio clout; it's all about the specialized marketing coming from these [studio] divisions," said Berney, previously vice president of marketing and distribution for IFC Films, where he oversaw the campaigns for both "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the Mexican film "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which was bought for less than $1 million and went on to make more than $13 million.

At Newmarket, Berney headed the marketing campaign for the $1-million HBO-produced film "Real Women Have Curves," which has made about $5 million by finding its audience -- women of all ethnicities and ages. The selling point? Body weight and self-image issues.

Universal, along with its Latino specialty arm, Arenas Entertainment, also made a bundle on the urban drama "Empire," which cost $650,000 to acquire and has gone on to make more than $15 million.

"The image that comes to mind with specialized film tends to be very up-market, and yet both of those movies played to a quite different crowd than that stereotype," said Shmuger. "The success of ['Brotherhood of the Wolf' and 'Empire'] is indicative of the fact that specialty film is not a single flavor. It is really a huge multitude of styles and forms."

"Bowling for Columbine," a Michael Moore documentary on America's fascination with firearms, has become the highest-grossing documentary ever, even surpassing 1991's "Madonna: Truth or Dare." Moore's entertaining and unapologetically political documentary, which MGM/UA picked up at Cannes for less than $3 million, has gone on to make $15 million. Beyond the big cities, it is also resonating in the country's heartland, playing to sold-out crowds in such places as Omaha, Neb., and Milwaukee.

MGM, whose year was marked by both the expensive war flop "Windtalkers" and the highly successful James Bond franchise movie "Die Another Day," also got a boost toward the end of the year from such small wonders as "Bowling," "Barbershop" and "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course."

This year, MGM is coming out with more of the same $15-million to $25-million fare, including "Molly Gunn" with Brittany Murphy and "Agent Cody Banks" with Frankie Muniz.

"I know you are going to see more of the higher-concept-marketable-lower-budget-niche movies from MGM," said McGurk. "You know exactly what you've got and who the audience is. The bulk of our slate is movies that are in that realm."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Top 10 specialized films for 2002

Specialized films are defined as those that play in fewer than 500 theaters in their first three weeks of release and fewer than 1,500 theaters in weeks four through six. This ranking includes films released between Jan. 2 and Dec. 29 and excludes Imax films.

*--* Rank Film Distributor Total to date 1 My Big Fat Greek Wedding IFC Films $222,517,469 2 One Hour Photo Fox Searchlight $31,575,595 3 Frida Miramax $20,305,922 4 Punch-Drunk Love Sony Pictures $17,791,031 5 Bowling For Columbine MGM/UA $15,203,743 6 The Good Girl Fox Searchlight $14,018,296 7 Monsoon Wedding Focus Features $13,882,786 8 Y Tu Mama Tambien IFC Films $13,649,881 9 Brotherhood Of The Wolf Universal $10,928,863 10 Far From Heaven Focus Features $10,048,405

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Source: Nielsen EDI

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Times Staff Writer John Horn contributed to this report.

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