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Indie Picturehouse tries to stay in the big picture

Times Staff Writer

Goodbye, “Pan’s Labyrinth”? That’s the question hanging over Indiewood, as Warner Bros. contemplates the future of Picturehouse, the stalwart independent division of New Line that in its three years of existence helped introduce Americans to unique foreign flavors, winning three Oscars for Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical dream of Franco’s Spain in “Pan’s” and another Oscar this year for Marion Cotillard’s performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.”

Unlike the rest of the studios, Warner Bros. has been a Johnny-come-lately to the independent game. As recently as five years ago, the studio had no specialty division. Now it has two: Warner Independent Pictures, launched in 2004, and Picturehouse, which became part of the portfolio when Warners decided this year to absorb New Line, Picturehouse’s parent company.

For the last few weeks, Warner Bros. has been in talks with Picturehouse head Bob Berney about taking over as co-president with Warner Independent President Polly Cohen of some merged entity, though talks appear to have bogged down over the exact parameters of such a venture, according to various inside sources.

Many in the community wonder about the seriousness of big Warners’ commitment to a specialty division. For the past two years, the studio, home to such juggernauts as “Harry Potter” and the “Batman” franchise, has kept Warner Independent on low-grade life support, ever since its founding president, Mark Gill, resigned after repeated clashes with his boss, Jeff Robinov, president of the Warner Bros. Pictures group. Gill had released the Oscar-winning documentary “March of the Penguins” (also a box-office champ) as well as the Oscar-nominated “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Since his departure, the division hasn’t green lighted any pictures and has slowed its acquisition rate to a trickle, releasing such nonperformers as “Snow Angels,” “Introducing the Dwights” and “Funny Games.”

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Last year, its highest-profile entry was “In the Valley of Elah,” which grossed only $7 million at the domestic box office, though it nabbed an Oscar nomination for star Tommy Lee Jones. Warner Independent’s most notable upcoming project is Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon. According to someone involved with the film, “The Informant” was developed by Warner Bros. proper but has been given to Warner Independent to release in part to prop up the division.

By contrast, Picturehouse’s Berney is considered a star in the independent world, with a knack for turning obscure films into mainstream hits. In his earlier career jumping between various nonstudio-aligned indies, his discoveries included “Memento,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Monster” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” one of the most successful independent movies of all time.

When all the majors shied away from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Berney leaped to distribute the film, which went on to gross $370 million domestically. The list is long of artists whose careers Berney has burnished, from Christopher Nolan to Charlize Theron to Del Toro, who is now slated to direct “The Hobbit,” the follow-up to “The Lord of the Rings.”

Still, it’s unclear how much Picturehouse’s bottom line has profited from Berney’s creativity. Sources say the division is profitable. Unfortunately, however, Picturehouse owned only the American rights to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “La Vie en Rose” and another Spanish-language horror film, “The Orphanage,” which were all bigger hits overseas.

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For instance, “La Vie en Rose” grossed only $10 million here but $73 million abroad. Less successful fare include such box-office fizzles as “Silk,” the Jennifer Lopez starrer “El Cantate” and the recent comedy “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” which has taken in only $6 million domestically, even though Picturehouse spent more than $15 million to market it.

A variety of Warner Bros. spokesmen said that neither Warner Bros. Chairman Alan Horn nor Robinov nor Berney nor Cohen would comment.

Surfeit of product

The studio isn’t exactly crazy for being nervous about the independent film world, which has changed dramatically since the Miramax heyday in the late ‘90s. Last year, the market was glutted with independent films, many which died ignoble and costly deaths. In 2002, there were 450 films released. In 2007, that figure jumped to 600, and it’s not the majors who are churning out more product.

There was only one bona-fide breakout indie hit, “Juno,” which cost $7 million and grossed $225 million worldwide. Miramax’s Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men” got to $159 million worldwide with a lot of specialized hand-holding from producer Scott Rudin and is certainly a success but not as big a financial jackpot as the Miramax films of yore like 2002’s “Chicago” ($307 million) or 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” ($289 million).

This year has already brought the downsizing of premiere financier Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which backed such commercial misfires as “Married Life” and “Lars and the Real Girl,” which both cost about $12 million and have grossed $1.3 million and $9 million, respectively. While the Oscar nominees have generally prospered, no other independent films have seized the public imagination this year.

“It’s feast or famine in the independent world,” says Gill, now a producer with private financing. “ ‘Once,’ ‘Waitress’ -- the well-reviewed movies -- have done well, but everything else is a disaster. It feels like there is not a middle class anymore. It’s either a big hit or a big miss. It used to be true of the studio pictures, and it’s increasingly true of the indies.”

Risky business

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Part of the conundrum is that specialty divisions have become increasingly Oscar divisions, where the films are made by established filmmakers with big stars. Those films often cost more, in the $25-million to $30-million range. That’s less than a $300-million installment of “Spider-Man,” but it’s hardly a risk-free number, and there’s no comic-book hook to ensure a built-in fan base. The presence of movie stars too tends to drive up the marketing costs.

Ironically enough, part of the impetus in launching Warner Independent was to get into the Oscar game, which Warner Bros. had been veritably shut out of for years. Yet as soon as the division launched, the parent company won best picture Oscars for both “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Departed.” Still, there is a whole community of adult moviegoers who wilt at the prospect of a summer filled with “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Made of Honor.”

Still, indie filmmakers remain optimistic that Warner Bros. will continue to gamble at the independent film table. “Little Miss Sunshine” producer Albert Berger, who has a deal with Warner Independent, notes: “They’ve been aggressive on our behalf of late. They picked up ‘Beautiful Children,’ ” he says, referring to Charles Bock’s acclaimed novel.

Berger says he and his partner, Ron Yerxa, are also barreling ahead with “The Abstinence Teacher,” a Tom Perrotta project to be directed by the “Sunshine” team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.

“It doesn’t make sense for the larger companies not to be in the filmmaker-driven world of smaller films when their movies cost of an average of $80- to $100 million,” says one veteran independent producer who has business there. “I understand it’s a lot of time and money and doesn’t generate as much money as what [the major studios] do, but I think they’ll stay in.”

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rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com


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