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SUMMER SNEAKS

Now, for a Little Variety . . . : Tired of the ear-shattering, eye-popping special effects? Amid the high-profile films, the little guys can prosper too.

May 02, 1999|RICHARD NATALE | Richard Natale is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Big-budget, broad-appeal summer movies attract the bulk of the media attention and earn the highest opening-week box-office figures, but the season has actually opened up for alternative fare in recent years. This has happened for a number of reasons, among them the fact that there are still people hungry for films that offer more than effects and explosions, and more theaters are willing to book those pictures.

Such specialized movies as "Ulee's Gold," "Il Postino," "Lone Star," "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Mrs. Brown," "The Opposite of Sex" and "The Spanish Prisoner" have all done well during summer months. Once a season where smaller distributors feared to tread, this summer is packed with specialized films of every stripe. Fall (or spring) used to be the traditional safe havens for these movies, but that has changed. With major movies now flooding theaters throughout the year, specialized distributors no longer have a period they can truly call their own. They've had to learn how to compete by squeezing into a market dominated by blockbusters.

One way has been to lay claim on the late summer period. High-profile films have successfully extended their reach to late July and early August. But audiences, largely exhausted by a steady barrage of big effects and frenetic action, have seemed more willing to give so-called alternative fare a chance.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 9, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Page 83 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie distributor--Lions Gate Films is the distributor of "The Dinner Game." A story about alternative movies in Summer Sneaks was incorrect.

That strategy will continue this year. But some distributors have also adopted the practice of front-loading--jumping into the game at the beginning of summer along with the big guys, opening in the shadow of "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace." This is because, believe or not, there will be some moviegoers who are immune to the sci-fi spectacular's siren call.

"Just as with the bigger films, audiences are available every night during summer," reasons Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is joining the fray May 14 with a starry adaptation of "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart.

Law figures that even "Star Wars" fans can't all see just one movie over and over again (though there will be those who do) and there is increased interest these days in all things Shakespeare.

Another way of competing could be called dodging and end-running. Unlike big studio releases, which because of mass advertising require commitment to a particular opening date, those on the specialized circuit can afford to be more flexible about shifting their openings.

So if the wide-release films in the market prove particularly strong, they can nudge a film's release back or forward a week or two. They can even slow down (or even speed up) the national roll-out without fear of incurring the wrath of theater owners or big-name promotional partners. Or if one of their own releases is doing particularly well, they can delay the release of their follow-up movies to maximize the successful film's potential.

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As with all movies these days, big or small, says John Hegeman, head of marketing for Artisan Films, each film must have the aura of an event. Otherwise, summer affords an excellent opportunity to launch into oblivion, given the depth and variety of movies being offered.

For the makers of specialized films, events come in all kinds of packages. Some build slowly through reviews and word of mouth from major urban markets like New York and Los Angeles, carving out a niche with a particular segment of the population, mostly sophisticated city and suburban audiences. Other films offer the kind of star power than enables them to break out wide relatively quickly.

In the former category is Bernardo Bertolucci's latest effort, "Besieged." Albert Brooks' comedy "The Muse," starring Sharon Stone and Brooks, is an example of the latter. The third alternative, and one that's becoming increasingly popular, is a moderately wide opening in several major cities followed by a larger national roll-out. Significantly, specialized distributors are getting increasingly savvy in borrowing the studios' time-tested marketing techniques (Miramax being the undisputed master), especially with genre movies that fit into the middle ground between studio films and art-house releases, according to Hegeman.

For example, Artisan's summer release of the Sundance entry "The Blair Witch Project" has multiple trailers for different segments of the audience for the horror film.

"Blair Witch" has a book tie-in with Penguin. And Hegeman is also employing the Internet to sell the film. A "Blair Witch" Web site (http://www.blairwitch.com), which evolves from week to week, has already racked up 750,000 hits since its April 2 launch. It's the perfect word-of-mouth location for horror film fans and will be further expanded through the film's scheduled release July 16.

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