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Goliaths, meet David

Times Staff Writer

One film stars several of the hottest young actors -- in Australia. The directors include one of the most promising filmmakers -- from France. And another movie already has sold tons of tickets -- across Britain. It’s hardly a typical summer slate, but Fox Searchlight is hardly a typical summer player.

While the major studios throw huge stars and exorbitant budgets into the summer season, Fox Searchlight is navigating a far different course. Recently the most consistently successful of the many specialized film companies, the art-house division of 20th Century Fox is releasing no fewer than six movies this summer.

In what is either a fearless or suicidal scheme, Searchlight will release its comparatively minuscule movies head to head against “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “Bad Boys II” and “S.W.A.T.”

“Do you think we are crazy?” asks Peter Rice, Searchlight’s president. If the company’s history serves as a guide, the answer is definitely not. Nevertheless, summer can be perilous -- especially for smaller films without big-name stars and big-dollar advertising budgets.

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The conventional wisdom holds that specialized film studios avoid the summer, fearful their inexpensive, highbrow works will be crushed by pricey, hormone-raging action films. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Like many successful art-house companies, Searchlight has found some of its greatest success in the year’s hottest months.

“We’ve had great luck in the summertime,” says Stephen Gilula, Searchlight’s president of distribution. “Adventurous moviegoers will go to the movies year round.”

In fact, several of the 9-year-old outfit’s earliest and biggest hits were released directly in the shadows of summer studio blockbusters. “The Brothers McMullen” debuted Aug. 9, 1995, and grossed $10.3 million. “The Full Monty” came out Aug. 13, 1997, and had receipts of $45.9 million. “Sexy Beast” and “The Deep End” were both released in the summer of 2001, respectively grossing a healthy $6.9 million and $8.8 million.

Last year, Searchlight’s summer strategy yielded two smashes. Purchased at the Sundance Film Festival for $4 million, the dark romantic comedy “The Good Girl” grossed more than $14 million. Produced by Fox Searchlight for a minuscule $12 million, the thriller “One Hour Photo” grossed $31.6 million, the second highest-grossing film in the company’s history behind “The Full Monty.”

With a company record 13 films planned for release in 2003, it was inevitable Searchlight might have to throw a few movies into the summer. That said, putting half a dozen titles -- or nearly half of its whole slate -- into the season is remarkable.

Miramax, far and away the largest maker and distributor of specialized films, is releasing only nine movies this summer, even though Miramax released 31 movies last year, compared with Searchlight’s seven.

But Rice and his team are convinced that summer makes Searchlight’s intelligent movies more attractive than the films might be in other parts of the year, especially during and immediately after the Christmas holidays, when the studios flood the market with their “quality” movies. “The only time I don’t want to release a movie is in the first six weeks of the year,” Rice says.

Summer schedule

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Searchlight’s summer begins with the French film “L’Auberge Espagnole,” the company’s first foreign-language movie. (Fox passed on making the 2001 French hit “Amelie” and has been kicking itself since.) The story of young students sharing an apartment in Barcelona, “L’Auberge” opens May 16. Next is end-of-the-world thriller “28 Days Later,” directed by “Trainspotting’s” Danny Boyle, which opens June 27. It is followed by the Spanish-language romantic comedy “Lucia, Lucia” on July 11.

A week later, Searchlight will release “Garage Days,” a comedy about a struggling Australian rock band. “Le Divorce,” a star-studded ensemble directed from the filmmaking troika (director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) that made “The Remains of the Day” and “Howards End,” opens Aug. 8. Finally, “Thirteen,” a disturbing portrait of troubled adolescents, premieres Aug. 20.

Not all of the movies were originally set to debut in the summer months. “Lucia, Lucia” had been slated to come out in the fall, but Searchlight was concerned that pirated DVDs would cross the American border from Mexico, where the movie opened in January, and thus damage the film’s domestic box office.

Boyle’s terrifying new movie “28 Days Later” had been set to open in the spring (the film debuted in Britain last November, where it was a sensation). “But we just decided it would be good summer counter-programming,” Rice says.

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The thinking makes sense. June’s studio action movies -- “The Hulk,” “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” -- are all rated PG-13. “28 Days Later,” which is rated R and conceivably might have been tagged NC-17, presents a clear alternative.

“I’m not sure a 21-year-old would want to go see something that has been sanitized for his 13-year-old brother,” Rice says of the PG-13 studio titles. “This is really scary and really intense. It’s a really hard R rating. It’s not a movie for kids, but for young adults.”

All the same, Searchlight can struggle getting its films noticed. While the studios spend fortunes on television and newspaper advertisements, Searchlight spends less marketing each movie than “Bad Boys II” spent on its countless screenplays. “And if you even try to advertise on television, it’s very hard to stand out because there are so many other movies out there screaming at you,” says Nancy Utley, Searchlight’s president of marketing.

Trying to get publicity, particularly on television, for the lesser-known actors who tend to populate Searchlight movies is never easy. It’s almost impossible in the summer, when Jay Leno and David Letterman are choosing among Cameron Diaz, Keanu Reeves, Reese Witherspoon and Jim Carrey.

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And if Searchlight has a breakout hit, it may have trouble securing enough theaters to show it in competitive markets like Southern California. “There are too many movies,” Gilula says, even among specialized films. “It’s an incredibly crowded marketplace.” In the worst-case scenario, Searchlight could have to perform triage, and pull the plug on one of its own movies to make room for another.

This summer provides an important test in Searchlight’s quickly improving fortunes. The unit rarely spends more than $12 million making a film, compared with the studio average of $59 million.

Even though April’s “The Good Thief” is struggling, Searchlight’s recent batting average has been second to none. In addition to “The Good Girl” and “One Hour Photo,” every other 2002 release but one was an outright hit: “Super Troopers,” “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “The Banger Sisters” and “Brown Sugar.” The March release “Bend It Like Beckham” is an art-house phenomenon and could gross as much as $20 million.

The only real Searchlight disappointment was Denzel Washington’s “Antwone Fisher.” Searchlight expected it would be an awards winner; when trophies didn’t come its way, the movie quickly vanished. Still, it grossed $21 million.

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There’s another tactic underlying much of Searchlight’s plans for the summer: For movie critics and moviegoers exhausted by all this summer’s studio sequels and comic-book adaptations, films from directors like Boyle and Ivory can deliver welcome relief.

“Our audience gets blockbuster fatigue,” Utley says. “After a few of these movies, they say, ‘I’ve had my popcorn fix.’ ”


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