The Baby Fox Rocks

On Wednesday, Nov. 10, Peter Rice, the head of production at Fox Searchlight, was making the rounds at the elegant Pratt House on the Upper East Side after the New York premiere of Kinsey-Searchlight’s best hope for an Academy Award in the five years since he took over the studio. In a dark gray suit and matching turtleneck, Mr. Rice looked positively winsome with a flop of hair and the boyish features of a slightly taller John Edwards as he delivered wine to friends, chatted up old ladies and made nice with Dr. Ruth. In short, the 38-year-old movie mogul didn’t look like a mogul at all; to New Yorkers accustomed to having their movie personalities large and their figures even larger, he looked, well, unremarkable. And that’s the whole point.

The unassuming demeanor will serve Mr. Rice especially well this year, amid all the pressure for the studio to bringÊhome a few Oscars. In addition to Kinsey, Bill Condon’s biopic, there’s the studio’s highly praised buddy film Sideways, from director Alexander Payne, which has also created plenty of buzz, and so the hopes are high for Mr. Rice to complete the transformation of Fox Searchlight into a cachet name. It’s not about money-the studio has reaped huge profits with such success stories as Napoleon Dynamite (made for $400,000, it’s earned over $42.5 million)-but about prestige. And that hinges upon the Oscars, where Fox Searchlight hasn’t delivered since Hilary Swank went butch in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. “I think someone like Peter Rice feels pressure all the time,” said Terry Press, the head of marketing for Dreamworks, who is veteran Oscars campaign strategist. “In a weird way, [an Oscar] validates your position in the Hollywood establishment.” But for Mr. Rice, the bottom line for him has always been: “We want to make good movies.” He’s referring to himself and his two partners in crime, president of marketing Nancy Utley and head of distribution Steve Gilula-two film industry veterans who have adapted quickly to the changing times.

The question, however, now becomes: Are the films good enough? In charge of Searchlight’s Academy Awards campaign is Megan Colligan, the L.A.-based vice president of national publicity. She is the protégé of Miramax’s own Oscar guru, Cynthia Schwartz. This season, it is a well-established fact within the industry that the Academy Awards race is still wide open-giving Ms. Colligan plenty of room to work. And Fox Searchlight is in possession of some of the season’s most-talked-about films. Mr. Condon, who won an Academy Award for his Gods and Monsters screenplay (he also directed the film) and who was nominated for his Chicago adaptation, has delivered Kinsey, a movie about the infamous sexologist Alfred Kinsey. The movie features three Oscar-caliber performances by Liam Neeson (as Kinsey), Laura Linney (as his wife, Clara McMillen) and Peter Sarsgaard (as his first clinician, Clyde Martin). Mr. Payne, no stranger to the Academy Awards himself-he was nominated, along with his writing partner Jim Taylor, for their Election screenplay-has delivered Sideways, a poignant and humorous tale of friendship starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen. At the very least, it could mean another screenplay nod for Mr. Payne and Mr. Taylor. And David O. Russell’s humorous philosophical treatise I § Huckabees, which stars such Oscar-season heavy-hitters as the ubiquitous Jude Law, Naomi Watts (who is almost equally ubiquitous), Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, has unpredictably garnered the most attention for Mark Wahlberg, who plays spiritually conflicted firefighter Tommy Corn.

Surprisingly, Fox Searchlight almost didn’t land Kinsey. In 2002, Kinsey was still languishing in turnaround at Fox 2000, the adult-oriented arm of Fox Filmed Entertainment formerly run by Laura Ziskin. A day before they were going to sell the rights off to foreign investors, Mr. Rice stepped in and struck a deal that assured Fox Searchlight the U.S. rights.

Momentum is working in the company’s favor this year as the calendar approaches Jan. 25, the date the Oscar nominations are announced. Except for a couple of flubs ( The Dreamers made some people hope it was Bernardo Bertolucci’s last tango), everything in 2004 has gone the studio’s way: from the acquisition of Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite-two of the three highest-grossing festival pick-ups this year-in January at Sundance (on the same day, no less), to the post-election release of Kinsey, which, because of the newly inflamed culture war between the red and blue states, is more timely now than when it was announced. Although the Robert Redford–Willem Dafoe vehicle The Clearing flopped, Fox Searchlight also scored well with the comedy Johnson Family Vacation, which grossed $31 million in the U.S. and cost only $12 million to make. And recently, the company announced a multiyear joint TV venture with the Independent Film Channel-the first-ever deal of its kind for either company. And so, with little fanfare, Fox Searchlight has already surpassed last year’s total domestic box office by more than $20 million.

“I’m still blown away by what they did with Napoleon Dynamite,” said Jack Foley, head of distribution for Focus Features, one of the company’s competitors. Dynamite has grossed millions thanks to Internet-based word of mouth and a partnership orchestrated by Fox Searchlight with Paramount and MTV Films. “In a dangerous [summer] market, where pictures were dying left and right-getting blown out of the water because there was just so much product in the marketplace-they went after word of mouth very patiently, very judiciously and in a targeted fashion. That is a standard,” Mr. Foley concluded somewhat surprisingly. “And [ Dynamite] is the kind of film that people should point back to in years to come and say, ‘That was completely out of the box and broke new ground.'”

To get Napoleon Dynamite, the entire Fox Searchlight executive team cornered the film’s director, Jared Hess-a 24-year-old first-time filmmaker at Sundance-and wouldn’t let him leave the room until they’d hashed out a deal. According to Mr. Hess, they told him they loved the film and proceeded to lay out how they would market it and when it would be released. Then they played hardball: “We’re not leaving until we have this film-and by the way, we have a screening at 5, and if we have to leave and go to that and we haven’t closed the deal, we’re not coming back for it.”

It is the same tempered passion that brought Miguel Arteta, the director of Star Maps and The Good Girl, into the fold. “I liked how straightforward and passionate [Peter Rice] was,” said Mr. Arteta, who got the same treatment when he sold both of his films to Searchlight. “He was very collaborative with his group.”

Validation for the studio has also come from some unexpected places. When the chairman of Paramount Films, Sherry Lansing, announced on Election Day that she wouldn’t be renewing her contract at the end of 2005, Mr. Rice’s name was immediately rumored as a possible replacement. In September, Viacom co-president Tom Freston admitted in a media conference that he wanted to transform Paramount Classics into an art-house subsidiary like Fox Searchlight. And the rumor at Fox is that Mr. Rice is being groomed as a successor for Tom Rothman, the current president of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

Even their competitors are happy to chime in. “I’m not at all surprised by the success that Searchlight has had,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of production at Lions Gate. “They’ve had their share of misses, like all of us, but they’re certainly doing a terrific job.”

Even on a microeconomic level, the defection of publicists from other film companies suggests that Searchlight’s packing heat. In the last year alone, the studio’s East Coast publicity arm, hunkered down in their cramped offices in the belly of the Murdoch beast’s Sixth Avenue headquarters, has benefited from the addition of new employees who formerly toiled at Warner Brothers, Miramax and even the mothership, Fox Filmed Entertainment. Not to mention that publicity work for smaller, edgier fare is far more time-consuming and challenging than pushing the studio product.

A couple of years ago, it would’ve been easy to imagine quite a different scenario. In the four years that Lindsay Law ran Fox Searchlight (taking over the reins from Tom Rothman in 1995), the company fielded only a couple of breakout hits, including 1997’s The Full Monty. When Mr. Rice took over from Mr. Law, he was an unknown in the insular specialized-film world; at the time of his hiring, in January 2000, he was the executive vice president of production at Fox, having gotten his start at the age of 23 as an intern for veteran Fox executive Tom Sherak. He had worked on such big-tent fare as Independence Day and Alien, but he was best known for the relationships he’d forged with Alex Proyas, who directed Fox’s second-most-lucrative film of 2004, I, Robot, and Baz Luhrmann, who made both Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! at Fox.

Both Ms. Utley and Mr. Gilula, who are as responsible for Searchlight’s current success as Mr. Rice, were equally odd choices to run an art-house unit. They have proven quick studies, however. Ms. Utley had been toiling within the Fox studio system for 12 years before joining Searchlight, yet she has proven incredibly adept at orchestrating grass-roots campaigns and designing quirky ads-both exclusive tools of specialized-film marketing. “I thought the creative ads were some of the freshest things I’ve seen in years-on a studio level or an independent level,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

Mr. Gilula’s background is a bit more unusual. He co-founded Landmark Theaters in 1974, transforming it, during his 24-year tenure, into the largest art-house theater chain in the U.S. Although his hiring came as a surprise, since one rarely makes the jump from exhibition to distribution, his understanding of the inner workings of art-house exhibition-that peculiar combination of aesthetic sensibility and fiscal responsibility that comes with the territory-turned out to be one of his greatest strengths.

Fox Searchlight’s rise has indeed been so low-key that it’s been easy to overlook. But not anymore. The studio is currently enjoying the limelight-and come March, when Hollywood congratulates itself on a job well done, expect Fox Searchlight to be sharing in the glory. Whether that bodes well in the end for the studio (as opposed to merely its executives), we will soon find out.

“They’re in the spot that many people have been before-companies like Miramax, MGM/UA, TriStar, Hollywood Pictures, Island Alive-where they’ve hit a certain level where they have to make some choices, and the stakes have become a lot higher,” said Mr. Bernard, a longtime veteran of the independent-movie world. “The tendency of specialized companies that achieve great success is that it is usually attributed to the individuals that have grown the companies. And success leaves in a suitcase.”