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Independent Films Showing Mainstream Muscle : Movies: Low-budget works are finding a home in multiplexes and small towns that were once the exclusive domain of the major studios.


Except for the occasional exploitation film, summer used to be a time when the makers of low-budget independent movies sat in the shade while the major studios duked it out in the heat.

That's all changed.

Over the past two years such independent hits as "Much Ado About Nothing," "Like Water for Chocolate," "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Barcelona" have played profitably through the summer months, even in suburban multiplexes and small towns that were once the exclusive purview of major studio films.

"The whole year has been truly spectacular for specialized films," says exhibitor Bob Laemmle, who runs the Los Angeles-based Laemmle theater chain. "A dozen titles have opened big in the past few months and are holding surprisingly well. I've never seen this many films doing so well at one time."

While there's been no low-budget blockbuster of the magnitude of "Much Ado" or "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the wealth has been spread among a number of popular titles, including "Kids," "Il Postino," "Smoke," "The Secret of Roan Inish," "The Brothers McMullen," "Jeffrey," "The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love," "The Usual Suspects," "Wild Reeds," the documentaries "Unzipped" and "Crumb" and the reissue of Luis Bunuel's 1967 classic "Belle de Jour."

Some of these films opened in midsummer, while others have played since earlier in the year but have demonstrated renewed vigor the past couple of months, such as "The Secret of Roan Inish" and "Wild Reeds."

"The studios come in at the start of the summer, and by the Fourth of July audiences are burned out on guns and macho bluster and looking for something different in spirit and tone," says Liz Manne, marketing head of Fine Line Pictures. "That's where we come in."

Beyond the core art-house audience, says M.J. Pekos, senior vice president of domestic marketing and distribution for First Look Pictures, there are younger and older crowds on either side of them that are now more available for specialized products, having taken the plunge with films like "Four Weddings" and "Pulp Fiction."

First Look's "Roan Inish," directed by John Sayles, has been playing since February and is far from played out, still breaking records after half a year in medium-sized places like Minneapolis. Some theaters have brought the film back three or four times, Pekos says. It recently became Sayles' biggest-grossing film, with more than $6 million.

On a per-screen basis, some specialty films are actually outgrossing major studio competition. "Unzipped" opened to $52,000 its first week at West L.A.'s Royal--as strong as any big-budget commercial film's single-theater take. "Jeffrey" grossed $61,000 its first week on two Sunset 5 screens. "The Brothers McMullen" grossed $40,000 a theater on seven screens its first week (a film, by the way, that cost only $25,000 to produce).

The broadening audience is due, in part, to the kinds of theaters now playing specialized movies. Viewers no longer have to travel to downtown art houses in major cities to catch "Belle de Jour," for instance. It has been playing in Valley mall theaters despite the punishing crunch of more commercial major studio titles this summer.

Surprisingly, the nearly 30-year-old French film will do as well as most subtitled hits--about $5 million. But "Il Postino" will do twice that, making it a "blockbuster," the biggest foreign-language film since "Like Water for Chocolate," according to Miramax marketing chief Mark Gill.

In addition, Sony Classics co-founder Tom Bernard points out, chains like United Artists Theaters have turned over 30 to 40 of their screens to specialized fare in previously untapped markets such as Little Rock, Ark.; Baton Rouge, La.; St. Petersburg, Fla., and Las Vegas. Other major chains like American Multi Cinema and Cineplex-Odeon are also paying closer attention to American independent and even some foreign titles for their theaters in suburbs and smaller U.S. cities.

Bernard says 500 to 600 theaters are willing to carry specialized films, double the number from just five years ago. While it's rare for film companies to praise the competition, 20th Century Fox senior executive Tom Sherak tips his hat to Miramax Films. "I think they're responsible for more arty titles broadening into commercial theaters," he says.

Whereas $10 million was once considered the top end for a so-called art-house film, Miramax broke those barriers with such crossover titles as "The Crying Game" ($60 million), "The Piano" ($40 million) and "Pulp Fiction" ($108 million).

Companies such as Miramax and the newer Gramercy Pictures can also provide the kind of continuity of product that has always been the major studios' forte. Like more commercial fare, art-house films are hit-or-miss. The difference is that now independent companies have another film waiting in the wings if a particular title fails--as all the major studios do.

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