No longer on the sidelines, the indie division tries to medal
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SONY PICTURES CLASSICS It may not have boasted a recent blockbuster like The Full Monty, but with films like David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner Character, Hal Hartley’s rapturously reviewed Cannes prizewinner, Henry Fool, and the current comedy The Opposite of Sex, SPC continues to give the indies a good name. Its big ’98 Oscar hope: Meryl Streep in Dancing at Lughnasa.

FOX SEARCHLIGHT The Full Monty was the kind of moneymaker all indies live for. Made for $3.5 million, the Brit flick grabbed $46 million and a Best Picture nomination, overshadowing the company’s too-numerous misses (among them, Shooting Fish, Star Maps, Oscar and Lucinda, and Two Girls and a Guy). Searchlight just picked up the Irish comedy Waking Ned at this year’s Cannes film festival, hoping that lightning will strike twice: It could use another hit, pronto.

GRAMERCY The bottom line was bright last year thanks to Bean ($45 million), and both the Coens’ Big Lebowski and Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco give Gramercy street cred. But the future of PolyGram’s indie division remains murky following the Universal deal, especially since Universal already has its own indie, October. On the horizon: the black-comedy thriller Clay Pigeons, starring Vince Vaughn and Janeane Garofalo, the costume drama Elizabeth, and the Woody Harrelson western The Hi-Lo Country.

TRIMARK After a decision to de-emphasize video-tailored crapola (like Carrot Top’s Chairman of the Board) in favor of art films (like the successful, $14.8 million-grossing Eve’s Bayou), Trimark found its footing at Sundance this year, grabbing festival winner Slam and the buzz-heavy Dead Man’s Curve and Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. How successfully it markets those enviable acquisitions in the next few months will make or break the company as an indie player.

LIONS GATE This upstart made waves by offering Leonardo DiCaprio an as-yet-unaccepted $21 million deal to star in American Psycho. The rest of its cool, classy slate includes Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser in Gods and Monsters, and Nick Nolte in Paul Schrader’s adaptation of the Russell Banks novel Affliction. A company to watch.

FINE LINE Last year, New Line’s little sister saw minor success with Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry ($10.7 million) and Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter ($3.2 million). But the big story has been backstage, where VP Mark Ordesky replaced Ruth Vitale as president. So far, he’s kept the cautious company’s slate slender, but it does include John Waters’ Pecker and Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter in Theory of Flight, as well as an updated version of James Ellroy’s White Jazz, a sort of unofficial sequel to L.A. Confidential.

OCTOBER Universal’s recently acquired indie division scored a home run this spring when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle earned $20 million. But rocky times may lie ahead: October has four films on tap that have a good chance of snagging NC-17 ratings. Will Universal back them up—and is their Miramax-in-the-making approach appropriately audacious, or just plain suicidal? We’ll see.

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