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Little pictures have a big year

Playing against type, 'Monsoon Wedding' and other niche films were very profitable for Hollywood in 2002.

January 03, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Call it the year of the niche-buster.

Flying well under "Spider-Man's" big-budget radar was an intriguing spate of little movies that made lots of money by playing against Hollywood stereotype.

Movies such as "Bowling for Columbine," "One Hour Photo," "Monsoon Wedding," "Empire," and even the obscure French film "Brotherhood of the Wolf," made 2002 one of the most successful years ever for specialized fare.

"What you saw [in 2002] was a lot of really good specialty or niche films in their genre," said Chris McGurk, MGM's chief operating officer. "They were these unexpected little gems." The shiniest jewel, of course, was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the $5-million movie that turned into the highest-grossing independent film ever, so far earning $222 million to yield the year's largest return on investment for any movie, large or small.

However, "Greek Wedding" was just one of the so-called specialized films that contributed to Hollywood's record-breaking year at the box office, with ticket sales for all films projected to surpass $9.3 billion, compared with 2001's $8.1 billion, a 13.8% increase. Admissions for 2002 are estimated to exceed 1.5 billion people, compared with 2001's 1.4 billion.

Of course, the year's blockbusters, like "Spider-Man," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," were the dominant players at the box office, and no one expects Hollywood to retreat from its heavy reliance on sequels and big-budget movies.

But the performance of 2002's specialized films -- which range from such easily accessible feel-good fare as "Greek Wedding" to more challenging offerings such as "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- has given studios the financial incentive to make and distribute more smaller-budget movies.

Last year, specialized films accounted for nearly 7% of the market -- a 3% increase from 2001. While "Greek Wedding" accounted for most of that jump, each of the top 10 specialized films grossed more than $10 million, according to Nielsen EDI Inc., a box-office tracking firm. (The company defined "specialized" as films that played in fewer than 500 theaters in their first three weeks and fewer than 1,500 theaters in weeks four through six.)

"It's an encouraging picture," said Nancy Utley, head of marketing for Fox Searchlight, which turned a profit on such relatively inexpensive films as "The Banger Sisters" and "One Hour Photo." "The selection was spread over a number of different films, and I think that is helping all of us."

For example, MGM's "Barbershop," which cost only $12 million to make and an additional $10 million to market, has made more than $75 million.

"If they are made at the right cost, then that is a very good business and a satisfying business to be in," said Jeff Blake, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony, which had its best year ever with "Spider-Man" but also made one of 2002's more offbeat movies, "Adaptation," for $30 million. (So far, the box office verdict is out on "Adaptation," which has grossed $4 million on only 100 screens.)

Conventional wisdom has it that a big Hollywood movie needs to gross more than $100 million to be considered a hit. But as budgets and marketing costs continue to skyrocket, crossing that threshold does not guarantee profitability. "Road to Perdition," "Minority Report" and "Red Dragon" grossed a collective $330 million, but due to steep profit and production budgets and profits divided among stars, producers and directors, the three movies together will not make much, if anything, for the studios.

Despite their modest size or "indie" style, most of the year's successful specialized movies had a big studio behind them. Every studio except Warner Bros. has a specialty division, such as Fox Searchlight, MGM's United Artists or Universal's Focus Features, which find or produce smaller movies and market them to specific audiences.

"I think that there is a big, smart, upscale audience out there," said Peter Rice, head of Fox Searchlight, who added that the movie industry is also taking advantage of the proliferation of cable-TV outlets to reach niche audiences.

Fox Searchlight's Utley said a good marketing campaign has a very targeted message. For "One Hour Photo," the ads focused on the idea that your friendly neighborhood photo developer guy could be a stalker. "We let people get that shiver of recognition that this was something that could happen to them too," Utley said. An effective campaign also targets a specific audience, she said. For Jennifer Aniston's "The Good Girl," Utley's team advertised on reruns of the actress' TV show, "Friends" -- a cheaper and effective way to target her hard-core fans.

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