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Warners shuts 2 divisions

Warner Independent, Picturehouse closed to cut costs. Studio is left with no indie unit.

May 09, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

An increasingly precarious independent film world claimed two more victims.

Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse -- respectively, the art-house film division of Warner Bros. and the indie movie arm of New Line Cinema -- are closing, Warner Bros. Chief Executive Alan Horn announced Thursday.

Many industry observers had been predicting a shakeup since February, when New Line merged with Warner Bros., its corporate sibling under the Time Warner umbrella. Since March, Warner Bros. was in talks with Picturehouse head Bob Berney about taking a co-presidency, along with WIP head Polly Cohen, of some new merged venture, though Warner Bros. decided ultimately that even one indie division was not feasible. More than 70 jobs will be eliminated.

"We're not abandoning the specialty business," Horn said in an interview. He suggested that this was more a decision to cut costs -- and rid themselves of duplicate production, marketing and distribution infrastructure -- than to cut independent films. "We still want to have movies like 'Pan's Labyrinth' or 'In the Valley of Elah' or 'La Vie en Rose.' But after a lot of introspection, we decided that, for us, what distinguishes a specialty movie from a big Warners movie isn't the marketing and distribution but the movie itself. So we'll still be looking for movies that interest us creatively. But when we make the movie or acquire the movie, we'll hand it over to our existing marketing and distribution group. They've proven they can handle any kind of film."

Although Warners has had success ushering mainstream hits "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Departed" to Oscar glory, it's unclear if the main studio has the chops to foster more quirky independent films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" or even this year's Oscar winner, "No Country for Old Men," which benefited from careful marketing and award campaigning from studios' specialty divisions.

Warner isn't the only studio streamlining its focus. For instance, Disney abandoned making any movies other than family films and those under the Jerry Bruckheimer window.

"As they said in their [news release], Warners is a tent-pole company. This business is different, and they made the decision of what they wanted to do," says Berney.

Both WIP and Picturehouse were relatively new, and neither had proved to be an indie powerhouse like Miramax or Fox Searchlight.

Launched in 2004, WIP had early successes with the Oscar-winning documentary "March of the Penguins" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," though its productivity slowed considerably after its founding president, Mark Gill, resigned after repeated clashes Jeff Robinov, president of the Warner Bros. motion picture group.

In the last two years, WIP has not greenlighted any films and has acquired only a handful, including "In the Valley of Elah," "Snow Angels" and "Funny Games," all of which fizzled at the box office.

By contrast, Picturehouse, founded in 2005, was already proving to be a tastemaker, launching such Oscar-winning foreign-language films as "Pan's Labyrinth" and "La Vie en Rose." Insiders say the division was profitable, but it was unclear how profitable, since Picturehouse owned only the American rights to some of their biggest successes. For instance, "La Vie en Rose" earned only $10 million here but $73 million abroad. Picturehouse also had its share of commercial clinkers, including "Silk" and the recent "Run, Fat Boy, Run."

Finding box-office success in the independent world has become increasingly difficult in the last year, as heavily promoted films such as "A Mighty Heart" and "Into the Wild" failed to connect with moviegoers. The market was also glutted. In 2002, 450 films were released. In 2007, that figure jumped to 600, mostly from independent films. The only bona fide breakout indie hit was Fox Searchlight's "Juno," which cost $7 million and earned $225 million worldwide.

Picturehouse will release its last three films itself: "Mongol," "Kit Kittredge" and a remake of "The Women."

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes .com

Times staff writer Patrick Goldstein contributed to this report.

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