Hollywood's commitment to independently financed movies has declined as much as the stock market. Now, a distributor wants to take advantage of the retrenchment -- the fatalities include Warner Independent Pictures, Yari Film Group, Picturehouse, Paramount Vantage, New Line Cinema and ThinkFilm -- by launching a specialty film label.
Today, Anchor Bay Entertainment, better known as a purveyor of straight-to-video horror and exercise titles, will introduce its first release as a newly formed theatrical distributor, a tiny art film called "The Education of Charlie Banks."
The 2-year-old movie, which was directed by Limp Bizkit rocker Fred Durst and whose most recognizable star is "The Squid and the Whale's" Jesse Eisenberg, isn't likely to make a splash in its limited theatrical release. But Anchor Bay's parent company, Overture Films, which is backed by cable TV magnate John Malone's Liberty Media Corp., believes it can fill a void for independent pictures at the multiplex, particularly at a time when many film festival movies can't find a theatrical distributor.
"There's a ton of product out there with recognizable talent that isn't getting bought these days," said Chris McGurk, chief executive of Anchor Bay and Overture. Added Bill Clark, Anchor Bay's president, "While everybody else is cutting back, we are aggressively investing in growth."
In the coming months, Anchor Bay will begin rolling out films with bigger stars, such as "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt," starring Michael Douglas, on May 1 and "Spread," with Ashton Kutcher, in August. It plans as many as 10 releases annually. "Doubt" and "Spread" were acquired from independent financiers. But Anchor Bay also is starting to make its own films.
The company is producing "Frozen," a drama about skiers abandoned on a ski lift (think "Dead Calm" in the snow), and "The Shortcut," a low-budget thriller made in conjunction with Adam Sandler's production company.
Anchor Bay isn't aiming to become the next Miramax -- McGurk acknowledges that many of the company's releases aren't likely to attract four-star reviews -- and neither does it aspire to emulate Paramount Vantage, which would spend tens of millions of dollars making and marketing highbrow dramas such as "Babel" and "Into the Wild."
Instead, the company hopes to fill the niche market between the mid-budget movies Overture makes for mainstream audiences and the how-to videos and grind-house pictures Anchor Bay has traditionally distributed.
As a video company, Anchor Bay has a nearly 4,000-title library filled with straight-to-video productions -- including the fitness DVD "10 Minute Solution: Quick Tummy Toners" and the no-budget horror movie "Red Mist" -- that pass under almost everyone's radar but can still generate a steady stream of cash.
Whereas Overture might spend $15 million in theatrical prints and advertising costs in a national release, Anchor Bay intends to spend a tenth of that, hitting only a couple of key cities in some cases.
"The idea with Anchor Bay titles is to start in 25 markets or so, with no guarantees that it will get to 100 screens," McGurk said. Moreover, he plans to rush the movies onto the DVD shelves of stores like Target and Wal-Mart within weeks, rather than the typical months, of their appearance in theaters to get a sales lift from the theatrical advertising campaign.
"In some ways, the theatrical release is just setting up the DVD release," McGurk said.
McGurk and Clark say they are not worried about how exhibitors might react to the shortening of the so-called window between a theatrical release and its home video debut. Theater operators are generally against shortening the window because they fear it will undercut ticket sales at the box office.
Greg Laemmle, whose Laemmle Theatres chain caters to specialty film audiences, nonetheless said he's open-minded about Anchor Bay's rush-to-video strategy.
"In theory, it's not a problem," Laemmle said. "It's just finding out what the details are." "Charlie Banks" does not yet have a DVD release date.
"There are problems in the independent film world, but there were really problems about how these divisions were run and what the corporate expectations were," Laemmle said. "You can make $30-million art films. But you're not going to make money with a lot of them."
The makers of several of the films snapped up by Anchor Bay are grateful their pictures will have a distributor, even if it means much of their films' revenue (90% by McGurk's estimate) will come through DVD sales, rather than movie tickets.
"They loved our movie and made a good case for what they could do with it," said Galt Niederhoffer, a producer on the coming-of-age story "Bart Got a Room," which Anchor Bay is set to release April 3. "This company has shown more expertise and enthusiasm and ingenuity in releasing the movie than many of the more established companies."
Jason Goldberg, Kutcher's producing partner on "Spread," understands that Anchor Bay's move from straight-to-video movies to theatrical films is a leap. But he believes the video background will be crucial to Anchor Bay's success, as it has taught the company how to create interest economically and creatively.
"Their understanding of that market is absolutely the key," Goldberg said. "And I love the fact that this is one of the first movies on their label. They are going to make it work. We are not fearful in the least."