Monday, May 27, 2024

How Bleecker Street Survived a Decade in the Tumultous Indie Film Business

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When Andrew Karpen wants to convince a filmmaker to let him release their movie, he doesn’t blow them away by offering more and more money. For one thing, Bleecker Street, the indie studio he founded in 2014, doesn’t have the financial firepower of an Apple or a Netflix.

“Our pitch is always centered around the kind of experience that they will have with us, knowing that we will be collaborative and transparent,” Karpen says. “I always say, ‘This is not a campaign where you will just be emailed the final poster and trailer and given two tickets to the premiere.’”

And over nearly 70 films, that openness has kept Karpen and his small but mighty staff in the game. While Bleecker is celebrating its 10th anniversary, many of its competitors haven’t managed to survive in a business that’s only become more treacherous to navigate. Several of Bleecker’s contemporaries, including Broad Green, Open Road Films and Solstice Studios, debuted with deep-pocketed backers, made splashy acquisitions and announced star-studded projects, only to close shop, go bankrupt or be sold for parts. So how has Bleecker endured?

“Andrew is an extremely regimented and disciplined person,” says Kent Sanderson, president of Bleecker. “He gives us all the ability to take risks, but in realistic ways. He knows we can’t put all your chips on one project and risk the future. Since we’re not going to go out and buy films at Sundance for $20 million, sometimes that means missing out on things.”

James Schamus, co-founder of Focus Features and the director of Bleecker’s upcoming remake of “The Wedding Banquet,” says that, despite his fondness for number crunching, Karpen isn’t “a suit.”

“Andrew represents the type of executive that Hollywood once had in spades — one who understands that it takes an extraordinary commitment to dealmaking and knowledge of the business to sustain and support real artists, and connect them to their audiences,” says Schamus.

Bleecker has landed its fair share of art-house breakouts. It released “Trumbo” and “Captain Fantastic,” picking up Oscar nominations for their stars Bryan Cranston and Viggo Mortensen. It guided the military drama “Eye in the Sky” to more than $35 million at the box office, and turned “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Colette” into solid hits by targeting older audiences. Bleecker has also embraced edgy, avant-garde fare. Take its recent “Sasquatch Sunset,” which combines Jesse Eisenberg, Bigfoot sex and flatulence into one far-out package, or “The Art of Self-Defense,” another Eisenberg offering that’s basically “Fight Club” in a dojo.

“I remember premiering ‘Art of Self-Defense’ at South by Southwest, and Andrew was sitting in front of me. And as the lights went down, he turned to me and goes: ‘What the hell have we done?’” says Sanderson. The diversity of its slate — the combination of historical dramas, feel-good romances and left-of-center thrillers — has often left Bleecker without as clear an identity as some higher-profile peers.

“We have always felt that our movies dictate our brand, and not the other way around,” Karpen says. “But we believe in quality films that can have a real and meaningful life in theaters.”

Not every gamble has paid off. There have been commercial underperformers and misses, such as “Mass,” an acclaimed but little-seen school shooting drama, or the Elle Fanning musical “Teen Spirit.” But releasing those and other films in theaters, Bleecker says, helps them perform better on home entertainment platforms.

“A theatrical release just creates more of a cultural footprint,” Sanderson says. “Even if a movie only grosses $1 million, that sets up to have a much healthier run on VOD and other platforms. We see that every time.”

On the horizon, Bleecker will premiere “Rumours,” a dark comedy with Cate Blanchett and Alicia Vikander, at Cannes, and it is gearing up for this summer’s “The Fabulous Four,” which features Susan Sarandon, Bette Midler, Megan Mullally and Sheryl Lee Ralph. The company has had offers over the years to merge or sell, but so far Karpen’s not interested.

“The time or proposition has never been quite right,” he says. “And there is value in being truly independent.”

Before founding Bleecker Street, Karpen was co-CEO of Focus Features, the indie label behind Oscar winners “Brokeback Mountain” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” But when the specialty division re-organized itself to concentrate on genre fare and moved operations to Los Angeles, Karpen opted to stay in New York. He felt there was a hole in the marketplace that Bleecker could fill.

“At the time, there was an absence of theatrical-driven companies that were acquiring smart films for educated audiences,” he notes.

As he struck out on his own, he brought along many colleagues from Focus, including Sanderson, who began as Karpen’s assistant, and his old distribution guru Jack Foley. Because these relationships span decades, Bleecker has a familial atmosphere, one that’s helped the company withstand existential challenges. That leads Karpen to one of his fondest memories — the first time the staff gathered after being separated for so long during COVID.

“Bleecker has always felt like a family, and that was a reunion,” he says.

Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.

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