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Fox film unit aims to shine once again

Eller is a Times staff writer

Fox Searchlight is one of the premiere specialty labels in Hollywood, releasing successful movies such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” and the pop-culture juggernaut “Juno.”

But lately Searchlight has been in the dark.

The unit of News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox, known for picking quirky films that resonate with the public, has released only a handful this year, far fewer than in the recent past. Two pictures it had high hopes for flopped. Others performed adequately but hardly with distinction.

In another miscue, a separate division set up by Searchlight chief Peter Rice to make thrillers and comedies aimed at teens has yet to catch on after nearly two years. In January, the label, Fox Atomic, folded its marketing operation and laid off nearly two dozen employees.

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It has been an unusual stumble for Rice, the British executive who has run Searchlight for nine years. Rice, who prefers a low profile in a town where executives often seek as much publicity for themselves as they do for their movies, declined requests for an interview.

Now Searchlight hopes to finally emerge from the shadows Wednesday when it opens “Slumdog Millionaire,” a film from director Danny Boyle about an 18-year-old Mumbai orphan who has a shot at winning the jackpot on India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Then in December, Searchlight will release Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” a redemption tale about a washed-up pro wrestler played by Mickey Rourke.

Once hot corners of Hollywood because of the prestige they conferred on their corporate parents, specialty film labels such as Searchlight have had a rough time lately.

A glut of films, combined with high overhead and marketing costs, has forced several studios to shut or reduce the size of their specialty labels. Time Warner Inc. closed two divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, that focused on smaller movies. Viacom Inc. curtailed Paramount Vantage, laying off dozens of employees. And struggling Weinstein Co., citing a crowded marketplace, has pushed back the release of several films to next year.

As a result of this retrenchment, Searchlight will be operating in a considerably less crowded field.

“Searchlight is like what Miramax was in the ‘90s,” said “Juno” director Jason Reitman, referring to the maverick independent studio founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. “They’re great at identifying the right films and not letting them go.”

This fall, “Slumdog Millionaire” won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, and “The Wrestler” captured the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival. Both are being buzzed about as potential contenders in the upcoming awards season.

Of the two, pundits are betting that “Slumdog Millionaire,” which opens this week in six cities including Los Angeles and New York, will have appeal beyond the art-house crowd. It won’t be an easy sell. A portion of the film’s dialogue is in Hindi. The cast features no U.S. actors, let alone stars. Scenes show children being tortured. Finally, it has an oddball title, potentially putting off filmgoers.

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Nonetheless, “Slumdog Millionaire” is “humanistic and exotic and has the potential to break through,” said Bob Berney, the former head of Picturehouse.

Berney had tried to persuade his bosses at Warner Bros. to keep Picturehouse open long enough to distribute the film, but was turned down because of cost concerns. Warner Independent had originally bought the domestic rights to the picture for $5 million, but after it was closed, parent Warner Bros. brought Searchlight in as a partner for $2.5 million.

Director Boyle was happy the picture landed at Searchlight, where he has made several films, including the 2003 sci-fi horror film “28 Days Later.” Boyle hoped for a PG-13 rating, but the ratings board gave “Slumdog” a R for “some violence, disturbing images and language.” Although that could limit the film’s potential audience, Boyle said Rice didn’t flinch.

“To his credit, Peter said, ‘Just put out the film you want the audience to see, and we’ll live with an R.’ ”

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Searchlight will also have its work cut out selling audiences on “The Wrestler,” a dark and gritty film for which it paid $3.5 million for U.S. distribution rights. But Oscar handicappers are predicting a possible Best Actor nomination for Rourke, a respected character actor from the 1980s whose career lapsed and who has rarely been seen since.

But Searchlight has a good track record at marketing nonmainstream films that catch on with the broader public, whether it’s an off-center comedy such as “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Boys Don’t Cry,” a drama about a transgendered teen that catapulted Hilary Swank to movie stardom.

Rice leans heavily on two chief lieutenants, marketing chief Nancy Utley and distribution head Steve Gilula. In fact, it was Gilula who discovered the British film “Bend It Like Beckham” when he saw it in a London movie theater in the summer of 2002 just before the Cannes Film Festival, and Utley who championed “Napoleon Dynamite” after she and her associates saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

That kind of reliance may be the reason Rice felt comfortable enough to absent himself at times this last year from Searchlight while he oversaw “Australia,” a big-budget period drama from director Baz Luhrmann starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

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Normally that wouldn’t be noteworthy, except “Australia” is being produced by parent studio 20th Century Fox -- not Searchlight. Rice was put in charge because of his close relationship with the Australian director, with whom he worked on such past Fox hits as “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet.”

Although Rice is given autonomy at Searchlight, he nonetheless must get approval to greenlight productions from his bosses, Fox co-Chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos.

Rothman, who launched Searchlight 14 years ago when he first came to Fox, said the specialty label had survived while others went by the wayside because the unit operates under strict financial discipline and is “creatively reckless.”

Movie budgets are generally kept under $15 million. And instead of spending heavily on advertising before a movie opens, Searchlight holds back until a film has clicked with audiences. That minimizes losses if a film doesn’t work.

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“They’re consistently profitable, and I don’t believe they’ve ever lost in the double digits on any one movie,” Rothman said.

Occasionally Searchlight will have a blockbuster-size profit of more than $100 million on one of its movies, as it did with “Juno.” The comedy, about a precocious pregnant teenager with an arresting argot, cost $7.5 million to produce and generated $231 million in worldwide ticket sales. Searchlight spent $45 million to market “Juno” worldwide -- but only after it began to win over audiences.

But Searchlight has not been immune to miscalculations. Its fall release “Choke,” adapted from Chuck Palaniuk’s novel about an unregenerate sex addict, quickly suffocated at the box office. “Young@Heart,” a documentary about a senior citizen choir that belts out rock tunes for which Searchlight had high hopes, never caught on.

Its current release “The Secret Life of Bees,” based on the novel about a young girl haunted by the loss of her mother, is doing respectable business among older women but hasn’t attracted a wider audience.

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Fox Atomic, the teen label that Rice began in 2006 and has released only five films -- including the recent dud “The Rocker” -- is still looking for its first hit.

Rothman said he was not ready to give up on what he still thinks is a good idea.

“We believe in it,” he said.

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Two box-office contenders

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“SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”

Story line: A poor, uneducated lovestruck Mumbai teen stands to win the jackpot on India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Marketing dilemma: Set in India; no U.S. actors; some dialogue is in Hindi; child torture scene; R rating.

Searchlight solution: Sell it as a love story and feel-good alternative to the dark, serious movies crowding the Academy Awards season.

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“THE WRESTLER”

Story line: A washed-up professional wrestler tries to stage a heroic comeback and get a shot at redemption.

Marketing dilemma: Stars Mickey Rourke, a onetime respected character actor whose career went into a tailspin.

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Searchlight solution: Sell it as a heroic and redemptive comeback for an actor and “this generation’s ‘Raging Bull.’ ”

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Los Angeles Times


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