THE LIONS' REIGN

The opening shot of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" isn't an image of a clueless President Bush. It's a logo: a stylized drawing of the constellation Leo the Lion, the emblem of the film's distributor, and it's getting deafening applause. "The audience [knows] what we went through to get the picture to the marketplace," says Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate Entertainment. By now we all know what the independent Canadian studio went through. Conservatives wanted to boycott the movie. Disney wouldn't let its Miramax subsidiary, which made it, distribute it--even after it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Into the maelstrom stepped Lions Gate. "Smart, edgy, sophisticated fare--it's our sweet spot," says vice chairman Michael Burns. Talk about a branding opportunity. In its opening weekend, "Fahrenheit" took in $23.9 million, a record for a documentary.

When Disney barred Miramax from distributing the politically sensitive film, it exposed an unseemly industry truth. The most prominent among the so-called indies, the breed of small, entrepreneurial studios specializing in art-house fare, are owned by media giants like Disney and Sony--and they're only as independent as their corporate parents allow. Lions Gate "is among the last guys standing that are truly independent with a capital letter I," says Peter Guber, who established the independent Sony Classics division when he ran Sony's Columbia and Tri-Star studios.

Seven-year-old Lions Gate is not only the most independent indie studio, it's also the largest, thanks to its $200 million acquisition last December of rival Artisan of "Blair Witch" fame. It had already captured Hollywood's top honors with "Monster's Ball," which earned Halle Barry an Oscar in 2002. Next month it is opening the highly anticipated "Open Water," a Sundance standout that the trade press has described as the scariest shark movie since "Jaws." Like the "Fahrenheit" audiences, Wall Street is applauding, too. The company's shares have more than tripled in the past year to over $7 in trading on the American Stock Exchange, hitting its year high last week of $7.42. Its largest shareholders include Gordon Crawford of the giant Capital Research and Fidelity. "We are carving out a piece of the business that the major studios don't focus on--interesting, provocative content," says CEO Jon Feltheimer.

Frank Giustra, a Canadian investment banker bitten by the Hollywood bug, started the company in 1997, naming it after a landmark Vancouver bridge. He quickly went on a buying spree, picking up a Canadian film producer and distributor and a six-stage studio complex (where "The X-Files" was filmed). In the first year, he took the fledgling business public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The company first attracted American attention in 1998. Owning the rights to the novel "American Psycho," it landed "Titanic" star Leonardo DiCaprio as the serial-killer lead. The triumph was short-lived. The star reneged after the Hollywood press predicted that the role would sully his pristine image. The stock price dropped. In 1999, though, Lions Gate rebounded, creatively at least, buying the rights to "Affliction" and "Gods and Monsters" for U.S. distribution. Critical acclaim followed; the two movies received a total of five Oscar nominations.

Although Giustra left the company last year, his era effectively ended in 2000. That's when Feltheimer, a Hollywood vet who once ran Sony Entertainment's television arm, and Burns, a Wall Street wunderkind, arrived with a bold plan backed by Capital Research's Crawford. The heart of the strategy was not, surprisingly, the annual slate of 16 or so films Lions Gate distributes. Instead, the men set out to assemble a library of 8,000 movies, television, DVD and video titles, Hollywood's second largest, envisioning a gusher of cash each year through rereleasing titles on video and DVD. They quickly purchased Trimark for $50 million, landing such movie titles as "Beautiful People" and "Rules of Attraction," and rights to television shows like "Saturday Night Live." Then in December, Lions Gate added Artisan, locking up a catalog that includes "Basic Instinct," "Total Recall" and "On Golden Pond."

Ironically, Miramax has played a major role in Lions Gate's success. Twice before, Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein turned to the studio when Disney balked at distributing Miramax films. In 1999, Lions Gate put out "Dogma," a controversial satire on the Roman Catholic Church that had generated massive protests, and, two years later, "O," a sex-charged teen drama inspired by "Othello." Weinstein and his brother showed "Fahrenheit 9/11" to several potential Hollywood distributors. They ultimately selected Lions Gate, Harvey Weinstein says, because the company agreed to follow the brothers' marketing plan. "We're very particular," says Harvey, a brilliant but demanding executive, "and those guys have a good, relaxed way of dealing with us."

"Fahrenheit" is likely to generate ticket sales of at least $100 million. Still, Feltheimer says the movie will be only "a solid double" on his bottom line. (A distributor typically gets 15 percent of the box office.) But the ultimate payoff is priceless. Lions Gate, for instance, is running trailers for "Open Water" and "Danny Deckchair," gaining huge exposure before "Fahrenheit" audiences for its own releases. Now it expects to surge to near the top of the list for Hollywood projects. "We are getting calls from filmmakers and talent applauding that we put out the film," says Feltheimer. "They're saying, 'You're the kind of company we want to do business with'." In other words, as long as the tepid majors curb their indie studios, the lion will be king of the jungle.

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