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Movies

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

Even the Universal-distributed French period film "Le Pacte des Loups," or "Brotherhood of the Wolf," succeeded last year in finding an unlikely audience -- teenage boys. Universal sold the 18th century tale of a rampaging beast as a " 'Matrix'-meets-'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' " martial-arts flick, making it the second-highest-grossing French film in the United States in the last two decades.

Universal bought the film for a few hundred thousand dollars in an internal exchange with its sister company, Studio Canal, which produced it; the film has grossed $10.9 million. The ads for the movie, which ran on such cable-TV networks as MTV, did not give a hint that the film was in French. Thus, many moviegoers turned out for the film, never realizing that they were in for subtitles. In the end, said Universal Co-Chairman Marc Shmuger, it didn't matter. "The last place a lot of that audience would find itself is in a foreign-language movie and yet they found themselves there," said Shmuger, who added that the film is doing brisk video and DVD sales.

And clearly, teenage boys aren't the only desirable target for specialized fare. While they still are the most reliable movie fans, sure to turn out on opening weekend, grown-ups increasingly are well-represented too. From 1990 to 2000, the proportion of moviegoing 50- to 59-year-olds doubled, from 5% to 10%, while the proportion of 16- to 20-year-olds dropped, from 20% to 17%.

"The baby boomers are big moviegoers. Now that we are getting older, we are going to the show more often than the comparable [World War II generation]," said Dan Marks, president of Nielsen EDI Inc.

The diverse array of potential audiences is what prompted the studios to form their specialty divisions in the first place. Although some complain that indie filmmaking is being corrupted by studio involvement, the backing of the entertainment giants can bring some clear benefits to a smaller film, especially in terms of getting it placed in theaters or video stores.

But some, like Newmarket Films President Bob Berney, say good marketing and good movies are more important than big studio clout.

"I don't think it has anything to do with studio clout; it's all about the specialized marketing coming from these [studio] divisions," said Berney, previously vice president of marketing and distribution for IFC Films, where he oversaw the campaigns for both "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the Mexican film "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which was bought for less than $1 million and went on to make more than $13 million.

At Newmarket, Berney headed the marketing campaign for the $1-million HBO-produced film "Real Women Have Curves," which has made about $5 million by finding its audience -- women of all ethnicities and ages. The selling point? Body weight and self-image issues.

Universal, along with its Latino specialty arm, Arenas Entertainment, also made a bundle on the urban drama "Empire," which cost $650,000 to acquire and has gone on to make more than $15 million.

"The image that comes to mind with specialized film tends to be very up-market, and yet both of those movies played to a quite different crowd than that stereotype," said Shmuger. "The success of ['Brotherhood of the Wolf' and 'Empire'] is indicative of the fact that specialty film is not a single flavor. It is really a huge multitude of styles and forms."

"Bowling for Columbine," a Michael Moore documentary on America's fascination with firearms, has become the highest-grossing documentary ever, even surpassing 1991's "Madonna: Truth or Dare." Moore's entertaining and unapologetically political documentary, which MGM/UA picked up at Cannes for less than $3 million, has gone on to make $15 million. Beyond the big cities, it is also resonating in the country's heartland, playing to sold-out crowds in such places as Omaha, Neb., and Milwaukee.

MGM, whose year was marked by both the expensive war flop "Windtalkers" and the highly successful James Bond franchise movie "Die Another Day," also got a boost toward the end of the year from such small wonders as "Bowling," "Barbershop" and "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course."

This year, MGM is coming out with more of the same $15-million to $25-million fare, including "Molly Gunn" with Brittany Murphy and "Agent Cody Banks" with Frankie Muniz.

"I know you are going to see more of the higher-concept-marketable-lower-budget-niche movies from MGM," said McGurk. "You know exactly what you've got and who the audience is. The bulk of our slate is movies that are in that realm."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Top 10 specialized films for 2002

Specialized films are defined as those that play in fewer than 500 theaters in their first three weeks of release and fewer than 1,500 theaters in weeks four through six. This ranking includes films released between Jan. 2 and Dec. 29 and excludes Imax films.

*--* Rank Film Distributor Total to date 1 My Big Fat Greek Wedding IFC Films $222,517,469 2 One Hour Photo Fox Searchlight $31,575,595 3 Frida Miramax $20,305,922 4 Punch-Drunk Love Sony Pictures $17,791,031 5 Bowling For Columbine MGM/UA $15,203,743 6 The Good Girl Fox Searchlight $14,018,296 7 Monsoon Wedding Focus Features $13,882,786 8 Y Tu Mama Tambien IFC Films $13,649,881 9 Brotherhood Of The Wolf Universal $10,928,863 10 Far From Heaven Focus Features $10,048,405

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Source: Nielsen EDI

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Times Staff Writer John Horn contributed to this report.

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