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Anne Thompson sums up the summer specialty season.

This summer, indie counterprogramming worked like a charm: now more than ever, the studios are leaving smart audiences — and film critics — starving for proper nourishment. There’s plenty of room left for the specialty companies to target narrower market niches. And newspapers would rather lavish editorial space on Spellbound or Capturing the Friedmans than on yet another explosive sequel. The summer 2003 box-office champ, at $70 million and counting, was Fox Searchlight [see chart], which bravely sent out seven movies to duke it out with the big boys — and came out at $70 million and counting.

1. The early bird gets the worm.

There’s a clear incentive to get films into theaters as early as possible to beat the summer onslaught. Newmarket Films president Bob Berney opened the mythic Whale Rider June 6 and spent the rest of the summer building good word of mouth, long before the late summer/pre-fall movies stacked up like planes at LaGuardia. Berney handpicked theaters and slowly broadened the movie weekend by weekend. “We were pitching to young women and families,” he says, “against the big action male pictures.” Whale Rider should gross more than $19 million, an astonishing figure considering the movie was barely noticed by distributors at the Toronto festival last year. Bend It like Beckham and Man on the Train also reaped the benefits of early release.

2. Tell it like it is.

While the studios reach out to the widest possible audience with soft-edged, homogenized movies designed to please everyone from age eight to 80, “the indies are able to counter that with extreme specificity,” says Fox Searchlight marketing president Nancy Utley. Thus Bend It like Beckham, refreshingly, did not hide its Indian ethnicity, its unabashed enthusiasm for soccer or its “soft” teen-girl storyline; nor did Whale Rider whitewash its Maori roots. And 28 Days Later didn’t water itself down to a PG-13, so audiences could revel in all its R-rated gore.

3. Buzz travels.

Both Bend It like Beckhamand 28 Days Later got big boosts from their U.K. hit status; the word traveled across the pond to the U.S. well in advance of their openings. Focus Features had the temerity to open the sexy French thriller Swimming Pool over the July 4th weekend, encouraged by its status as the best-reviewed picture at Cannes. On the other hand, when Lucia, Lucia bombed in Mexico, there was little that Fox Searchlight could do to avert a repeat disaster at the U.S. box office.

4. Tap the Internet.

The horror genre can be a huge plus — when the movie works. After establishing 28 Days Later’s transportability to the U.S. via research screenings, Fox Searchlight tapped instantly into the same organized Internet horror community that made The Blair Witch Project such a word-of-mouth phenomenon. “They have worldwide, immediate access to one another 24/7,” Utley says. “It’s the same audience we sell our movies to.” Fox Searchlight bought banners on horror-fan Web sites (,,, clicking to trailers and advertised sneak previews in 28 cities 13 days before the opening, one show only. Amazing numbers of horror fans showed up. “They don’t like aggressive marketing,” says Utley, who targeted only limited cable TV buys, even for a movie that went out wide, through big Fox distribution. “They liked discovering it. That gave it a cool factor.”

And after director Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later DVD featured an alternate ending in the U.K., the Fox Searchlight team debated launching two versions of the film, but the MPAA scotched that idea. Then Searchlight finally sent out a second release with the new ending to goose the fourth weekend. It worked; audiences sampled and debated the revised finale. (Boyle will supply a storyboarded third ending for the U.S. DVD.) “To get a $40 million gross out of a $10 million buy on a movie with no stars is a huge success story,” says Landmark Theaters marketing chief Ray Price. “They weren’t sure if it was just a midnight movie.”

5. You gotta have a gimmick.

The difference between the summer haves and have-nots was all about grabbing smart audiences with a memorable hook. Frumpy

Charlotte Rampling ogles naughty bikini babe by the pool in the Pinter-esque suspenser Swimming Pool; Audrey Tautou runs into a mysteriously threatening organ-trading ring in London in Dirty Pretty Things; stray from the virginal path in Ireland and you may wind up in a Catholic prison camp in The Magdalene Sisters.

6. Don’t forget the D-word.

Maybe it was the rise of reality TV or Michael Moore’s breakout hit Bowling for Columbine, but something seemed to happen overnight: the documentary suddenly became cool again. “Newspapers are giving documentaries more coverage,” says Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard. This summer, everything seemed to fly, from the birds high in the sky in Winged Migration to the anxious spellers in Spellbound to the real home movies of a luridly dysfunctional family in Capturing the Friedmans. Some of that film’s success is attributable to control-freak filmmaker (and Moviefone founder) Andrew Jarecki, whose service deal with distributor Magnolia Pictures gave him an unusual amount of control over the marketing campaign, one-sheet materials and Web site. “These movies were funny, emotional and suspenseful,” says Price, who was also amazed by the record-breaking opening for the surf doc Step into Liquid at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. “You need dynamic storytelling, and then you can break all the rules all the time.”

(in millions)
28 Days Later (Fox Searchlight) $45
Bend It like Beckham (Fox Searchlight) $42
Whale Rider (Newmarket) $19
Winged Migration (Sony Classics) $10
Swimming Pool (Focus) $10
Dirty Pretty Things (Miramax) $6
Spellbound (ThinkFilm) $5.5
Capturing the Friedmans (Magnolia) $3
L’Auberge Espagnole (Fox Searchlight) $2.8
Man on the Train (Paramount Classics) $2.4
The Dancer Upstairs (Fox Searchlight) $2.4
Raising Victor Vargas (IDP) $2.1
Le Divorce (Fox Searchlight) $8
Under the $1 million mark: Jet Lag, Blue Car, Madame Satã, Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, Gloomy Sunday, The Eye, The Heart of Me, The Legend of Suriyothai, Mondays in the Sun, The Cuckoo, Confusion of Genders, The Housekeeper, Garage Days, Lucia, Lucia, Passionada, And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Buffalo Soldiers, Masked and Anonymous.
The above chart only includes films that reached their widest point-of-release by mid-August, thus omitting late summer hits Thirteen, American Splendor, Secret Lives of Dentists, and others. Box-office figures estimates as of Labor Day weekend.


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