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Warner Bros. Pictures
Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are two stars of “Cloud Atlas,” an independent movie that was passed on by every major film studio. It opened two weeks ago and is the most expensive indie film ever.

Independent films on rise

Window open for nonstudio Oscar hopefuls

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“End of Watch” stars Michael Pena, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Los Angeles police officers.
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Channing Tatum, left, and Matthew McConaughey starred in this summer’s “Magic Mike.”

– “Cloud Atlas” director Tom Tykwer said every major film studio passed on financing his science-fiction epic.

Still, the “Run Lola Run” director and partners Lana and Andy Wachowski of “The Matrix” series managed to sign Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks and raise $100 million. Opening last month, “Cloud Atlas” ranks as one of the most expensive independent films ever.

Since opening Oct. 26, it has grossed $20.6 million worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Based on the book by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas,” marks a resurgence for independent films, movies not financed by major studios. Hedge funds and individuals who previously backed pictures vanished in the financial crisis, and studios such as Walt Disney Co. closed or sold art-house units to focus on sequels and action films. Their retreat has given independent filmmakers a chance to snag well-known actors and open in more theaters.

“What are you going to do, only make movies that are guaranteed to work?” Hanks said at an Oct. 14 screening in Los Angeles. “Well then we’re sitting here talking about ‘Forrest Gump 6,’ which is a lot better than ‘Forrest Gump 5.’ Who wants to do that for the rest of their lives?”

The six major studios released 141 movies last year, a 31 percent decline since 2006, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, a Washington-based trade association. Independent producers turned out 469 in 2011, up 20 percent over the same period. The “Cloud Atlas” team signed Time Warner’s Warner Bros. to distribute their film.

“If you can be small and sleek and move around the elephants, it’s created a huge opportunity for these sort of smaller films to see the light of day,” said David Ayer, writer and director of the recent police drama “End of Watch.”

Big studios are focusing on children’s films and action pictures that tend to be released in summer or around year-end holidays, according to Anthony Beaudoin, a Los Angeles-based senior vice president in film finance for Union Bank.

That creates a post-summer window for independent films and the studios’ own Oscar hopefuls.

“(October) is horror month,” Beaudoin said, citing the numerous low-budget, Halloween-timed productions.

Actor Channing Tatum and director Steven Soderbergh put up much of the cash to make the male stripper film “Magic Mike,” a June release estimated to cost $7 million by Box Office Mojo, an industry website. It grossed $159 million worldwide, revenue that was shared with cinema operators, and was released on home video Oct. 23. Tatum plans a sequel.

“They decided to bet on themselves,” said Glen Basner, founder of four-year-old independent distributor FilmNation Entertainment, which sold the foreign rights. “That should be a great working model for other creative talents.”

Major studios often step in to distribute independent films, handling the cost of prints and marketing for a share of revenue that can include DVDs and television, said Basner, who handled international distribution for “Lawless,” “House at the End of the Street” and “Looper,” which all opened on more than 2,000 U.S. screens.

Warner Bros. bought the domestic rights to “Magic Mike” after the film was done shooting last year, Basner said.

“Cloud Atlas,” a story that follows characters being born and reborn over 500 years, has made $19.4 million, according to Hollywood.com. RottenTomatoes.com has a 63 percent favorable rating, based on critics’ reviews. Funding came from a long list of backers.

“A big group of people and completely diverse,” Tykwer said at the screening.

Open Road Films, which distributed “End of Watch” in the United States, was created to address the major studio cutbacks. It’s owned by the two largest U.S. cinema chains, Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Holdings.

Ayer wrote the script in six days and raised enough money selling foreign rights to cover the $7.5 million cost. Jake Gyllenhaal, the film’s star, agreed to work for less than what a major studio would pay, Tom Ortenberg, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Open Road, said in an interview.

“Actors like Jake Gyllenhaal just love their craft,” Ortenberg said.

The film has grossed $38.9 million in U.S. theaters since its Sept. 21 release, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. Television and DVD sales will add to that pot. Gyllenhaal is mentioned as an Academy Award contender for his role as a cop making a documentary about being a cop.

“It’s absolutely been a success,” said Ayer, a writer and director whose credits include “Training Day” and “The Fast and the Furious.”

“End of Watch” was shot in South Los Angeles, largely with hand-held cameras that cost much less to operate than those at larger studios.

Ayer is presently shooting “Ten,” an independent film starring former California governor and action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger as the leader of a team of rogue Drug Enforcement Administration agents pulling off a heist.

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