LITTLE films fare well amid Hollywood's blockbuster summer

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In the shadow of ogres, mummies, dinosaurs and apes, less showy screen creations have toiled profitably at movie theaters this summer.

As blockbusters such as ``Shrek,'' ``The Mummy Returns,'' ``Jurassic Park III'' and ``Planet of the Apes'' push Hollywood above its 1999 summer-revenue record of $3 billion, a healthy crop of more adult art-house flicks have broken out in a smaller way.

Among the summer's lower-budget winners are films about cynical teens (``Ghost World''); mobsters of the ruthless (``Sexy Beast'') and hapless (``Made'') variety; Hollywood insiders at an ill-fated gathering (``The Anniversary Party''); and a glam-rocking East German transsexual (``Hedwig and the Angry Inch'').

The year's big indie hit is ``Memento,'' which opened in the spring and played well into the summer, cracking the top 10 of highest-grossing movies while playing in only about 500 theaters. (Big-studio movies often debut in 3,000 or more theaters.) ``Memento,'' a convoluted tale of a memory-challenged man avenging his wife's death, has grossed about $24 million.

Other than ``Moulin Rouge,'' the summer's studio films have been largely aimed at young audiences, said Steven Friedlander, head of distribution for Fine Line, which released ``Hedwig'' and ``The Anniversary Party.''

``You didn't have `The Thomas Crown Affairs' or `The Sixth Senses,' the ones that would get an adult crowd. You've been loaded with `Dr. Dolittles' and `Cats & Dogs,''' Friedlander said. ``That's left the door wide open for this kind of specialized stuff.''

Because their production and marketing budgets are small, specialty films can turn a profit drawing only a niche crowd. The movies also satisfy audiences tired of Hollywood effects extravaganzas.

``There's so much potential out there for sophisticated moviegoers who don't like seeing the same thing over and over again,'' said Robert Bucksbaum, a box-office analyst for Reel Source Inc.

In the indie world, $3 million to $4 million at U.S. theaters can signify a hit because that puts a movie on the path to profitability once overseas box office, TV and home video rentals are taken into account.

Films such as ``Sexy Beast'' or ``The Anniversary Party'' already have hit that mark, while the Appalachian music tale ``Songcatcher'' and the Merchant-Ivory drama ``The Golden Bowl'' have topped $2 million. Newer releases such as ``Hedwig,'' ``Ghost World,'' ``Made'' and the French farce ``The Closet'' have a good shot at those levels.

``If you're sick of everything else out there, it's a summer that's very rich with counter-programming efforts,'' said Jon Favreau, writer-director-star of the mob comedy ``Made.''

Specialty films generally start in New York and Los Angeles then roll out slowly to other cities on the strength of reviews, media coverage and good buzz from people who have seen them.

``These are little engines that could. Word-of-mouth keeps circling out into broader and broader circles,'' said Robert Levin, head of distribution for MGM-United Artists, which released ``Ghost World.'' ``You're really relying on the film to sell the film.''

Helping small films this summer has been a stream of studio movies that have done well commercially but failed to satisfy audiences artistically.

``This year's summer studio films are particularly bad,'' said Beth Pinsker, editor of indie-film magazine the Independent. ``It's giving the smaller, more interesting films a chance.''

Other potential independent hits still to come this summer include the noirish thriller ``The Deep End,'' the asylum chiller ``Session 9'' and the Soviet Bloc memoir ``An American Rhapsody.''

``Summer is an absolutely terrific play time for specialized pictures,'' said Amorette Jones, executive vice president for worldwide marketing at Artisan Entertainment, which released ``Made'' and the documentary hit ``'' ``You have the ability to cross over to bigger audiences because there's the excitement of everyone wanting to go to the movies in summer.''