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With a Break in the Action, Lions Gate Pounces

September 08, 2002|JON BURLINGAME

Say you're the head of a company that produces and releases independent films. Your fall slate includes a dark comedy about an office assistant whose boss is into spanking; a drama about moral dilemmas Jews faced in Auschwitz; a social satire with a cast of teen heartthrobs; and an erotic thriller that's been on the shelf for two years.

Do you release any of these films against "Spider-Man," "Star Wars: Episode II" or "Austin Powers in Goldmember"?

Probably not. You wait until the multiplexes are less crowded, the critics are sick of the stream of mindless summer action films, and you no longer have to compete with Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck talk-show time.

That's why Lions Gate Films is releasing "Secretary," "The Grey Zone," "The Rules of Attraction" and "The Weight of Water" in the next eight weeks.

Lions Gate is the company that released "Monster's Ball" and "Affliction," which won acting Oscars for Halle Berry and James Coburn, respectively. It has enjoyed a degree of commercial success with provocative, edgy fare, including such films as "Dogma," "American Psycho" and "O." It releases an average of 15 movies a year. (By comparison, the major studios often release anywhere from 15 to 30 films annually and the studio "classics" divisions average six to 10 a year.) And, unlike the major studios, which can spend $30 million or $40 million on prints and advertising for a single blockbuster opening in thousands of theaters, it spends a million or two for a film that may appear in a few hundred.

"Dogma" and "Monster's Ball" are Lions Gate's two most successful films, each bringing in about $31 million at the box office.

"Typically for the small independent ... they look for windows, or holes, in the studio releasing game so they can get a little more exposure and not have to face stiff competition," says Dan Marks, executive vice president of Nielsen EDI, which tracks box office numbers for the industry.

According to Lions Gate Chief Executive Jon Feltheimer, the company's strategy is to find films that already have a built-in audience hook.

"We're always looking for pictures that have some level of marketing built into them, whether it's the [Bret Easton Ellis] book in 'American Psycho,' the intensity and sexuality of 'Monster's Ball,' or the edginess of 'Rules of Attraction,' " he says. "Either through the content, the casting, the filmmaker or a combination, we're looking for some angle when we're greenlighting or acquiring a movie that we believe will make it stand out."

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, is the man in charge of the company's marketing and distribution. Although many of the company's films are cutting-edge, he says that everything it does isn't necessarily destined for the art house. He calls "The Rules of Attraction," for example, "a more straightforward commercial proposition" than the others.

"These films all landed in this season independently of each other, on their own set of circumstances," Ortenberg says. "This play period just felt right for each movie." All four, incidentally, are expected to be rated R.

"Secretary" opens Sept. 20 in New York and L.A. and in the top 15 markets a week later. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a troubled young woman who takes a job as secretary to a lawyer (James Spader) and embarks on a surprising sexual relationship with him. Variety referred to it as "an S&M romance," and Ortenberg says that "it's a very risky film," although he also calls it "the most original love story of the year."

Lions Gate acquired it after it played the Sundance Film Festival and initially considered a summer release. But, Ortenberg says, the company "wanted critics and feature writers around the country to discover Maggie Gyllenhaal" and decided to launch it at the Toronto Film Festival.

"The Rules of Attraction" is the sole wide commercial release of the quartet, opening on 1,500 screens Oct. 11. "We're playing our strongest hand right out of the gate," Ortenberg says. James Van Der Beek (of the WB TV series "Dawson's Creek"), Jessica Biel ("7th Heaven," also a WB series) and Shannon Sossamon ("A Knight's Tale") are in this adaptation of another Bret Easton Ellis novel, a satire about disaffected college students discovering sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Ortenberg calls it "a dark comedy dripping with satire," which was briefly considered for a summer release. But it was ultimately deemed a smarter bet to target college audiences who have just returned to classes. The posters are aimed at the college crowd, campus screenings are being set, and an entire marketing campaign is being directed toward the post-high-school demographic.

"The Grey Zone" is probably the toughest marketing challenge but is being positioned as an early Oscar contender. David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino star in this Holocaust drama about the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who become Nazi collaborators. Tim Blake Nelson ("O") wrote and directed it.

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