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Indie films could use a little more ‘Sunshine’

Times Staff Writer

Hear the screaming? That’s the cri de coeur coming out of Indiewood this fall as multiple films emerge to good critical reviews only to find scant audiences waiting for them.

After years of scooping up awards and having micro-budgeted films go on to mainstream success, the specialty divisions en masse are having a down cycle. So far, 2007 has not borne any breakouts like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Brokeback Mountain” or “The Queen.”

“We’re all suffering. It’s the entire business,” says Focus Features Chief Executive James Schamus. “At least someone should be succeeding. It’s as bad a fall as I’ve ever seen.”

Why haven’t more people shown up to see “A Mighty Heart,” “In the Valley of Elah” or even the comedy “Lars and the Real Girl”? Some films -- like Richard Gere’s “The Hunting Party,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” or the Mark Ruffalo-Joaquin Phoenix film “Reservation Road” -- haven’t made even $1 million. And a crew of classy star vehicles from studios -- essentially art films with bigger budgets -- has been flailing at the box office. Despite George Clooney’s tub-thumping, “Michael Clayton” has earned only $21 million. Cate Blanchett’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” has taken in $11 million, and the Brad Pitt western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” has earned only $2 million, according to Boxofficemojo.com.

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This weekend, ThinkFilm wades into the choppy waters with director Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which features Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei.

“I never thought this would happen. There’s such a glut of films that the audience can’t go to them all,” says Picturehouse President Bob Berney, pointing to a ream of recently released art films that haven’t gotten any traction in the marketplace. “At any other times these films would be lasting longer and doing better. It is very scary. I just keep hoping it’s temporary. I have these nightmares that this is the way it’s going to be forever.”

Indeed, part of the problem is that the art sector of the market is getting the blow-back from its previous success. Companies such as Miramax did so well that almost every entertainment conglomerate started its own specialty division, and a range of independent financiers, such as Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, also jumped into the fray.

“There are too many movies,” says Miramax chief Daniel Battsek. “Even if your movie is the best of the bunch, the fact that there are several other movies released on that date all chipping away at the audience is bound to have an overall reducing effect on your movie.”

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He notes that in days past a mini-studio could open a movie in February and keep it on-screen until September, allowing its audience to steadily grow.

That’s not possible in this environment. Explains Berney, “If your film is in the 20-complex, and if you’re in the bottom five [grossing films of the week], you’re out, no matter what. There’s literally no space.”

The fact that Oscar season begins in late summer compounds the problem.

“Nobody wants to release any of those films any earlier than Sept. 15. Part of that is tradition, and part of that is the fear that you have no hope of an Oscar unless you release in that period,” says former Warner Independent Pictures president turned producer Mark Gill, adding, “I love these movies. I’m going to three to four movies a week and I’m still behind. A frequent moviegoer is defined as someone who goes to one movie every three to four months. It’s impossible to have enough upscale audiences to go to these movies.”

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As the studios jostle for attention, more specialty units have tried going wide with their films, bombarding audiences with advertising and mainstream attention-getting techniques. Conversely, this doesn’t always work with the art-house crowd, which prefers to discover movies on its own. Berney says that his most successful films (which include such phenomena as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”) “were films where word of mouth was the driving influence.”

“A certain zone of the art house and smart suburban consumer likes to be part of a conversation. Now it has to work before they start talking about it,” says Schamus, noting the change in consumer consciousness. “It’s basically trying to get to the third base on the first date. You know how that works. You can’t hurry love.”

What no one in the specialty market wants to contemplate is the possibility of a wholesale change in audience taste. Given the war in Iraq, the housing slump, global warming, the fires, are audiences just tired of challenging -- and sometimes depressing -- fare? The art diet this year has been heavy on the political-and-gut-punching fare.

Schamus thinks there is “the same finite amount of appetite for depressing films as we’ve always had, but that appetite is being serviced by so many options on the menu that it’s difficult to make a choice.” He jokes, “In two years, as a result of this fall, there will be not one single drama on the slate. The market will be flooded by lousy comedies and consumers will be howling with disappointment.”

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Battsek says that he fights the idea that consumers don’t want to be challenged. “I’m not saying it isn’t a potential trend, but I believe that quality cinema-going audiences seek out quality cinema. It doesn’t matter the subject matter.”

Still, films that cognoscenti peg as potential breakout hits tend not to be too gloomy; they include the delightful comedy “Juno” and the romantic-drama “Atonement,” which could hit that “English Patient” sweet spot.

Says Gill, “It is certainly getting harder and harder to successfully market a film if at the end you’re left with a sinking feeling in your stomach.”

rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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