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Universal sees its strategies succeeding

Attention to diversity and freedom makes the studio attractive to work with and pays off in nominations.

December 14, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

General Electric Co. might have had DreamWorks snatched out of its grasp at the last minute, but the conglomerate's two movie divisions, Universal Pictures and Focus Features, bested their corporate rivals Tuesday in scooping up the most Golden Globe nominations, 22, for the widest array of pictures.

With kudos raining down on "Brokeback Mountain," "The Producers," Rachel Weisz, Russell Crowe and Steven Spielberg, the bounty suggests that big business hasn't yet managed to kill off all intelligence in Hollywood. The films honored have ranged from the political ("Munich," "The Constant Gardener") to the culturally risky ("Brokeback Mountain") to the entertaining ("Pride & Prejudice," "King Kong").

"What I'm really proud of is really the diverse and eclectic range of movies that we have," said Universal Chairwoman Stacey Snider, who supervises both divisions. "We try not to see what other people are doing and say, 'Ooooh, let's do that.' We try to follow an organic approach and feel for the marketplace."

Three of Universal's most ambitious projects -- "Munich," "Cinderella Man" and "King Kong" -- received multiple nominations, but not in the all-important best picture category. Still, "The Producers" landed that gold ring, as well as acting nominations for two of its headliners, Nathan Lane and Will Ferrell. The general adulation and the arrival of Peter Jackson's "King Kong," widely expected to be a box office juggernaut, is also a boon to the studio, which ranks as one of the most popular places to work in Hollywood.

What's more, these nominations also cement Focus Features' status as the most consistent and reliable of the indies, with the ability to market art films to the masses. All three of the Focus Films -- "Brokeback Mountain," "The Constant Gardener" and "Pride & Prejudice" (green-lighted, in fact, at big Universal but released through the specialty division) -- tell starkly different stories of love, but not with the usual romantic comedy shtick.

"Constant Gardener" and "Pride & Prejudice" have been art-house hits, earning $53 million and $70 million, respectively, according to "Brokeback Mountain," by far the most critically lauded film of the year, is just moving into wider release. But its tale of two cowboys in love will be the company's biggest marketing challenge yet.

Focus Co-President James Schamus says, "One of the things we've done is stayed true to our business plan" of making movies largely under $30 million. "We're never going to get into a situation you got into with some unnamed specialty divisions where they think they can play the studio business better than their colleagues. We want to be as good as we can at our business, while our colleagues at the studio are as good as they can be at the studio business." (Miramax, under the Weinstein brothers, saw its financial returns begin to fall when it began releasing studio-sized movies, such as "The Aviator" or "Cold Mountain.")

"Constant Gardener" producer Simon Channing-Williams, a veteran of a number of Mike Leigh films, had his pick of the studio specialty divisions when he put together his film production with hot director Fernando Meirelles but opted for Focus. "They offered the promise of the freedom to be ourselves, and they delivered. They couldn't have been more supportive."

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