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JACK MATHEWS

A World Of Films For A Mass Of Markets

September 05, 1986|JACK MATHEWS

A couple of weeks ago, the late Joseph Losey's last film, "Steaming," was opened for an art-house run in New York City. It will soon get a similar launch in Los Angeles.

Set for release this fall is "Miss Mary," an English-language movie made in Argentina by Argentine director Maria Luisa Bemberg ("Camila").

Just completed, and due out sometime next year, is Robert Altman's "Beyond Therapy."

These three seemingly disparate films have several things in common. They were all made outside the United States for a fraction of the average cost of an American movie. Each has a major cast ("Steaming" stars Vanessa Redgrave; "Miss Mary" stars Julie Christie; "Beyond Therapy" stars Glenda Jackson, Tom Conti and Jeff Goldblum). And each is being distributed by . . . New World Pictures.

No kidding. New World Pictures. The same company that thrilled us with "Godzilla 1985," worked us up with "Grunt," the wrestling movie, and is currently titillating us with "Reform School Girls" ("So young . . . so bad . . . so what?") is now serving up high-protein brain food.

From the outhouse to the art house, the new New World covers the waterfront. That's OK. Most of its competitors just cover the outhouse.

New World, Roger Corman's old studio now under the guidance of former Universal Pictures president Robert Rehme, is thriving on a something-for-everyone philosophy that combines low-overhead management and modest production budgets with a keen ability to exploit the marketplace.

The word exploit in this case does not mean bad. New World is financing and distributing films for a wide variety of audiences rather than trying to slug it out with the major studios for the mass audience. While the big boys are risking financial hernias trying to hit commercial home runs with every trip to the plate, New World is operating under the old saw that you can't score if you don't get to first base.

Since 1983, when investors Harry Sloan and Lawrence Kuppin bought New World from Corman and brought in Rehme as a partner and chief executive officer, the company has gone from annual revenues of $8 million to projected 1986 earnings of $175 million. When Rehme left Universal to join them, New World had few assets and almost no movies. This year it is releasing 34 pictures and has another two dozen being prepared for 1987.

And there are assets. New World recently bought Lion's Gate Studio, a post-production facility in West Los Angeles, and Learning Corp. of America, a documentary and educational film company with a library of more than 700 titles. Its television division, less than two years old, has three network series coming this fall, and Rehme said revenues from network billings alone will pass $80 million this year.

But the best news for moviegoers, at least for those who aren't getting a full dietary supplement of intelligent films from the major studios, is New World's aggressive entrance into the art house market. FilmDallas Pictures, a New World subsidiary, will release six to 10 quality English-language films a year.

"Years ago, when I was sales manager for Corman's New World, art films were foreign films," Rehme said. "Specifically, they were French and Italian films, and an occasional South American film. Today, those foreign-language movies aren't that strong, but there is a big audience for English-language films like 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and 'The Trip to Bountiful,' films the majors don't want to mess around with."

The audience for low-fat art-house fare hasn't so much grown as been rediscovered. In the last decade, with "progress" in research and advertising methods, the major studios have concentrated most of their resources on mass-audience movies. They all but stopped making pictures that would appeal to people at a level somewhere above the waist.

Their classics divisions, set up to exploit more demanding tastes, were actually counterproductive for that audience. In competing for the most commercial non-commercial films, the studios elbowed the smaller, more experienced distributors out of the market and created unrealistic expectations among producers of those films.

Now, with most of the majors out of the classics business, less greedy hands at such companies as Samuel Goldwyn Co., Island, Alive, Atlantic Releasing, Cinecom and now New World are dipping into a profitable market.

The key to New World's almost instantaneous film success is its video division. Rehme said New World will not acquire any movie without getting the video, cable and TV syndication rights, along with theatrical. And it won't sell off any of those ancillary rights to its own movies.

With a budget cap set at $7 million and an average film cost of less than $5 million, New World is operating at low risk. The company is getting anywhere from $2 million to $4 million per title in video sales alone.

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