Friday, September 10, 2004

Hollywood Reporter : Summer boxoffice wrap: The indies

Non-studio distribs debate whether the success of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" helped or hurt the indie film sector.

NEW YORK -- The furious debate that surrounded Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" fueled its record-shattering $118 million ride at the domestic boxoffice this summer. Even within the generally left-leaning indie film world, the movie triggered divided passions. The issue wasn't the movie's politics, though. Instead, indie execs found themselves in an argument over whether the high-profile movie ultimately helped or hurt the indie business.

The success of one indie film over the course of a summer has been known to pull others along in its wake -- last year, for example, the popularity of "Winged Migration," "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Spellbound" created a growing excitement about the resurgence of the documentary. But once "Fahrenheit" exploded on the scene in late June, it quickly moved to claim more than 2,000 theaters. And that, in turn, put the pressure on other indie distributors as they scrambled to secure screens for their own summer offerings.

"I think we were really affected negatively by 'Fahrenheit 9/11' coming in without notice," said Fox Searchlight president of distribution Steve Gilula, who had "The Clearing" -- an abduction drama starring Robert Redford and directed by Pieter Jan Brugge -- open in limited release July 2, just a week after "Fahrenheit" went wide. "It really created a crunch (at a time) that we thought we had clear."

"Fahrenheit" almost immediately broke records set by even the most successful documentaries and performed just like a wide, mainstream release.

"Among the 2,000 screens it had, it was at a lot of very important theaters," Gilula said. "When you have (a film in) a five-, six- or seven-plex, it negatively affects the rest of us. The lowest grossers got pushed out when 'Fahrenheit' came in."

Concurred Sony Pictures Classics co-head Tom Bernard in a moment of understatement, " 'Fahrenheit 9/11' was something that we did not anticipate."

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