Bleecker Street Looks to Succeed Where Other Indie Distributors Failed

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As we march inexorably toward both the end of the Summer Movie Season and, with it, the Studio Series, we come to one of the most interesting entries of the entire enterprise. Bleecker Street is a new and exciting operation in the indie world that has designs on much bigger and more impressive prey, and ultimately succeeding where Broad Green recently failed.

Former Focus Features co-CEO Andrew Karpen formed the company two years ago, just in time for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and immediately leaped into the deep end. While the movies Pawn Sacrifice, Danny Collins, I’ll See You In My Dreams, and Trumbo all achieved low grosses, they put the company on the map as a legitimate indie outfit ready to spend money and put itself in play with the big boys. Karpen’s considerable experience and savvy were enough to get his new company plenty of backing and a fair amount of time to build a solid base.

Now, pretty much exactly two years after opening its doors, the company has not had a single movie clear $20 million (domestic or worldwide) but is still as reliable and respectable a buyer as just about anyone else in the indie space. Part of that is because of what Karpen brings to the table, the other part is because of the chances the company is willing to take and moves it’s willing to make.

Aside from Trumbo, up to now, the company has only been a distributor. That’s important because it means that Bleecker Street’s risk is relatively low. Rather than outlying larger production sums, it’s focusing purely on the buying and marketing of those finished movies, thus removing the stress of having to earn back that larger budget. In the current marketplace, just because you’re spending seven or eight figures to make a movie doesn’t mean that you’re going to sell it for that much, and anything that comes in from box office is then going to be split between the filmmakers and distributor. Therein lies the appeal to a company like Bleecker Street. There’s also the fact that, at the moment, Bleecker Street only handles a particular film’s domestic release which gives each individual movie its chance to make more of a return with sales to foreign territories.

trumboBleecker Street

Karpen and his team certainly know what they’re doing, and have established the company as one interested in putting prestige and upscale independent cinema into theaters. The above-mentioned foursome of films produced one Oscar nomination (Bryan Cranston’s Best Actor nod for Trumbo), but each of the other three had their appeal in that area. Pawn Sacrifice was a Bobby Fischer biopic from Ed Zwick. Danny Collins was the directorial debut of Dan Fogelman, featuring something of a comeback performance by Al Pacino, and which didn’t result in an Oscar nomination of its own, but did lead to some talk of one. I’ll See You In My Dreams was a tour de force for Blythe Danner, reminding us where Gwyneth Paltrow got her acting skills, and also putting her in the conversation for awards talk, though nothing came of it aside from a Gotham Award nomination for Best Actress.

Take those on their face and you’ll see an obvious common thread, that Karpen and his team want to put movies into theaters that actually make people think and leave them with something. The company’s first release in 2016 is no different. Eye in the Sky was an interesting look at the modern war machine, through the eyes of generals, drone pilots, terrorists, and the people on the ground who often become collateral damage. At just over $18.7 million domestically, it is the company’s current record holder for highest grossing release. For now, at least, but we’ll get to that shortly.

The rest of Bleecker Street’s 2016 movies were a mixed bag, but, again, each had its particular prestige selling point. Elvis & Nixon was a fairly nutty experiment that allowed us to see two brilliant actors (Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, in the respective title roles) give us their impressions of American icons. The movie doesn’t quite work (it barely cleared a million dollars), but it’s fascinating to look at, which is what makes it perfect for its distributor. Captain Fantastic came in with just shy of $6 million at the box office, but it also led to the company’s second consecutive year with a Best Actor nod, this time for Viggo Mortensen. Anthropoid gave us the true tale of the World War II mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect of Hitler’s Final Solution. It also did minimal business, with just $3 million, about a million less than Denial, another true story of an American author sued for slandering a Holocaust denier in England. Starring Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, and Rachel Weisz, with a script by David Hare, it had prestige slathered all over it. Same for the year end release Paterson, starring Adam Driver and directed by indie god Jim Jarmusch.

So, it’s not like there isn’t a pretty clear pattern here. Karpen’s tastes are evident and continue into this year’s releases. The March movie The Last Word gave us a Mark Pellington-directed dramedy with Shirley MacLaine in all her prime, scenery-chewing greatness. Again, a small gross, with just $1.7 million, but the pattern continued with James Gray’s The Lost City of Z in April. The movie got terrific reviews and grossed about $8.5 million, not terrible for a film that was never on more than about 850 screens. The year’s best showing so far, though, was the biopic Megan Leavey, which did over $13 million and is now the company’s second-highest grossing film ever. It’s also worth noting that, along with Eye in the Sky, it’s the only movie the company has deigned to put on at least 1,000 screens. Eye in the Sky, at its peak, was on 1,089 screens while Leavey reached a max of 1,956.

breatheBleecker Street

There are three more movies set for release this year, and we’re going to cover this week’s entry last because it’s the most intriguing, so bear with me for a moment. On October 13th, we’re going to get Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe, a period true life tale starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. They play Robin and Diana Cavendish, who “refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease.” That disease is polio which hits Robin at the age of 28 and leads the pair to a life of struggle and triumph. If the previous sentence doesn’t scream “awards talk,” to you, then you might have mistakenly ventured to the wrong website.

The first weekend of November, we get The Man Who Invented Christmas, another biopic that follows Charles Dickens as he decides to write and self-publish A Christmas Carol. Dan Stevens plays the famous author, Christopher Plummer shows up as Ebenezer Scrooge. Need we say more? It would be cynical to suggest that these projects are solely Oscar-bait because that’s not a great business model. No, it’s more than that. Each of the movies listed here has some form of pedigree, and that’s not something you’re going to find a lot of places, regardless of whether you’re talking about a studio or an indie.

Which leads us to the other movie not yet mentioned, but about which there has been a lot of hinting: this weekend’s Logan Lucky, which is an exciting project on multiple fronts. Aside from being director Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to circumvent the studio system and point out its obvious flaws by financing, marketing, and releasing the movie his own way, it gives Bleecker Street its first real opportunity to put a star-studded audience pleaser into theaters with its logo at the front. That’s a big deal in this world, and even though the company is just using its infrastructure to be a part of Soderbergh’s master plan, it still has a great deal riding on the project’s success. If it does well, it will make the company money as Bleecker Street is getting a distribution fee and will participate in profits if the grosses reach high enough. It will also give the operation its first star-driven film. Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum alone make this an eyebrow-raiser. If this works, it opens the door for similar projects to find their way to Bleecker Street’s front stoop and provides it with a brand new entree into a completely different level of projects.

Right now, Bleecker Street’s main competitors are the Roadside Attractions, Open Roads, A24s, and Weinstein Companys of the world. A big winner like Logan Lucky, and a couple more like it, potentially bring it into play with a Focus, and that would be a pretty major victory for someone with Karpen’s resume.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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