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Small Films, Now Smaller Than Ever

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2000; Page C01

It's fall, the Serious Movie Season, and theaters were packed this past weekend with fans eager to see one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, "You Can Count on Me," winner of the Sundance Film Festival.

Never heard of it? Maybe that's because the film opened on a grand total of eight screens, and expanded to another 27 this weekend, including two in Northern Virginia and two in Washington. There is a slim chance that this bittersweet drama about a sister (Laura Linney) and brother (Mark Ruffalo) in small-town New England will make it into your local megaplex--but only if it continues to rack up big audiences at small theaters.

And that's tough to do. Despite the diminishing profits of art house movies--once known as "independent" films, now usually called "niche" or "specialty" or "low-budget"--a tidal wave of them continues to flood the market. The result is that very few ever find an audience, no matter how good they are.

"A film like 'You Can Count on Me' is one of the best films I've seen this year. You sit there watching it and you want to tell all your friends about it, but how many people will get to see it?" asks Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tallies box office results. "At its widest point I don't know if it'll be in 2,000 theaters."

Paramount Classics put the film in additional theaters based on its encouraging opening a week ago, and after that, "you just don't know," says studio head David Dinerstein. "The question is, how wide can this go at the end of the day? Can it cross over?"

Increasingly, the answer for art house movies is, probably not.

Of the fall films, only the crowd-pleasing "Billy Elliot"--about a working-class kid striving to be a ballet dancer--has been sneaking its way out of tiny theaters into larger ones, so far making about $6 million. The film cost $11 million.

A study last month by Variety found that the box office for art house films is down a massive 15 percent compared with last year. Even more worrisome for studio executives: Ticket sales for specialty films are down 31 percent overall since 1990, even as the number of films released has gone up.

(Variety considered movies released on fewer than 600 screens as art house fare.)

That is in sharp contrast with the overall picture. The box office total for all movies is up significantly over the past 10 years, from about $5 billion to $7.5 billion.

The weekend of Nov. 11-12 was typical. Of the 13 films that opened across the country, most were obscure titles such as "Looking for an Echo" and "Rebels With a Cause," and none of these is likely to make it to multi-screen theaters where most audiences see movies. Instead, those theaters are taken up by the Adam Sandler comedy "Little Nicky," the remake of "Charlie's Angels" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Even when large exhibitors are willing to take specialty films, the studios that release them are often reluctant to spend the millions of dollars needed to advertise them, especially when the film is commonly yanked off the marquee within a couple of weeks.

The art house business "is in the worst shape it's been in in years, there's no doubt about that," says Mark Gill, who heads Miramax's West Coast operation. "There are far too many movies opening every weekend. Because there's more of a squeeze at theaters, it's almost impossible to hit critical mass, for a movie to galvanize the public and make them want to go. Everywhere you look is another ad, another five pieces of publicity for another art house film."

With the fall season about halfway done, art house schedules are littered with the carcasses of films that were expected to perform well. "Girlfight," about a young Latina boxer, won a prize at Sundance and had hugely favorable reviews, but took in only $2.8 million at the box office. "Woman on Top," Fox Searchlight's romantic comedy about a Brazilian chef starring Penelope Cruz, had a huge marketing push but took in only $5 million (despite an $8 million budget). Miramax's disastrous "The Yards," starring Joaquin Phoenix, had some positive word of mouth, but is quickly bottoming out after only three weeks at the theater, taking in barely $1 million. The movie cost $20 million to make.

Publicists competing to promote their small films are getting so frustrated by the glut these days that one is, only half-jokingly, considering charging admission fees to screenings held for the media. "They're the only people who end up seeing these movies, we ought to just charge them," publicist Laura Kim says with a sigh.

The oversupply is only one reason for the apparent box office slump; it's also because the quality of specialty films is often poor. The rapid advance of filmmaking technology now allows directors to make films with video cameras and edit them using a home computer (like this season's "Chuck and Buck"). That opens up the field to just about anyone with a few thousand dollars. But content has not kept up with technology, most agree.

Meanwhile, as audience expectations have fallen, expectations for Hollywood executives--who keep hoping for another smash success like "The Full Monty," which cost $3.5 million to make and took in about $200 million--are still unreasonably high.

"I do think expectations have become unrealistic for a lot of independent films," says Dawn Hudson, who heads the Independent Film Project, a West Coast nonprofit group that promotes art house film. "They are by definition not mainstream, not for everyone, not all crowd-pleasers. We get in trouble if we're always trying to make those breakout films. That's a losing proposition if you're trying to score like that on a regular basis."

Ever since "The English Patient," an art house movie that won nine Oscars in 1996, and the massive profits of "The Blair Witch Project," which took in $140 million last year, mainstream Hollywood has been trying to get in on the business of art house films.

Indeed despite the current crunch, some studios are still opening boutique divisions. Warner Bros.--home of the "Lethal Weapon" series--has announced that it is opening a specialty arm called Warner Classics. And Universal, which swatted down rumors this week that it would close one art house division--USA Films, which declared a $5.7 million loss in its last financial statement--has been developing another called Universal Focus. (Its first release was "Billy Elliot.")

As Hollywood insiders see it, the once "independent" business has now splintered into two. One is for serious art films, such as the unrated "Requiem for a Dream," about drug addiction, or the critically lauded "Dancer in the Dark," by Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. The other is for broad crossover fare, such as "The Full Monty" and this season's "Saving Grace," about a British dowager starting a marijuana business.

Industry insiders expect low profit margins and crowded release schedules to continue for the foreseeable future--that is, until a shakeout comes. But then again, the experts have been predicting a shakeout for a few years.

"It's a cyclical business. A lot of companies have come and gone. And there are a lot of reasons they don't make it," Dinerstein says. "You have to be passionate about it, because the profit margins aren't unbelievably high. And you have to care, because these films take a lot of hard work; you put blood and sweat into every single one. It takes as much time to sell a $100 million film as a $1 million film."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company