Film Distribution: Fox Searchlight Pictures



In the mid-1990’s, a new trend arrived in the film industry: creating or buying distribution rights for low-budget or independent films, quickly releasing them, and yielding huge profits despite less than blockbuster revenues. Noticing the success of Disney’s independent arm Miramax, run by the Weinsteins, 20th Century Fox decided to enter the market in 1994 and create Fox Searchlight Pictures (Nataf, 2011).

The current presidents of Fox Searchlight are Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula, who strive to run “a filmmaker-oriented company that focuses on distinctive films helmed by world-class abetters and exciting newcomers” (Cook, 2006). Under the ownership of Twenty-First Century Fox, it is located in Los Angeles and has 70 employees (Cipely, 2015).

Assets, Business Model, and Revenue Model

As the independent film branch of Twenty First Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures is an asset in itself for the larger company, though it acts on its own. Fox Searchlight’s greatest assets are actually the films it both produces and acquires. Its intellectual property does not compete with summer blockbusters, but instead, appeals to art-house crowds and shows that “there’s still room at the table for an operation that nails the elusive niches” (McNary, 2002).

Fox Searchlight’s business model has the company essentially placed as a middle-man between the filmmaker and the various windows of exhibition for the film. Fox Searchlight executives will attend film festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival with their eyes open for potential acquisitions. For example, in January 2006, the executives of Fox Searchlight were charmed by a quirky little dramedy that oozed potential. After an intense bidding war with other independent film distributors Miramax, Paramount Classics, and Focus Features, Fox Searchlight ended up spending $10.5 million with a promise of returning 10% of the film’s gross revenues in order to acquire the distribution rights for Little Miss Sunshine. This, at the time, was the largest deal ever at Sundance (Waxman, 2006).

When a deal is struck at the magnitude of the acquisition of Little Miss Sunshine, Fox Searchlight not only acquires the film, but also the power over the film. The deal is a passing of the torch in a way, as the filmmakers have completed their job, and it is now time for Fox Searchlight to work its magic. In a case like Little Miss Sunshine, Fox Searchlight is in a particularly advantageous situation as the more a company acquires the film for, the more control the distribution company essentially has. With such a large deal, Little Miss Sunshine is Fox Searchlight’s property, and thus it can do whatever it wants with the film, including reedits and title changes. The goal of Fox Searchlight is to make the film as profitable as possible, and it will do whatever it takes to make that possible (Grove, 2015).  Little Miss Sunshine eventually grossed over $100 million worldwide, won two Academy Awards and demonstrated Fox Searchlight’s business and revenue model when everything goes right: the film is acquired released, and brings in major profits and awards (Little Miss Sunshine Box Office Mojo, 2006). The process, of course, is far more complicated though.

During a typical year, Fox Searchlight will release approximately seven to ten films. Half of the films will be acquisitions such as Little Miss Sunshine, while the others are also produced by Fox Searchlight (Cipely, 2015). An advantage of being an arm of a larger company is that the company has the flexibility to release a small amount of films and focus on quality, while the overall parent company can release a high number of blockbusters. As a mantra, Fox Searchlight will not want to release more than a dozen films in a calendar year, as to keep the specialty platform a speciality (McNary, 2002). Additionally, because the company is so large, 20th Century Fox handles the international distribution of the films Fox Searchlight acquires and produces (Cook, 2006). This also gives the company a leg up on smaller independent distributors it competes with such as A24, IFC Films, Magnolia Pictures, and The Weinstein Company (Cipely, 2015).

Once Fox Searchlight has the films it wishes to distribute, a strategy must be developed to release and exhibit films for maximum effect. Fox Searchlight will work with both the large theater chains and the independent theaters to ensure the films are exhibited on both a national and smaller scale. The two parties will agree on what is called a percentage-above-the-nut approach, which has the theater and Fox Searchlight split revenues. Because these films are smaller, specialized releases, Fox Searchlight usually utilizes a platform release, where the film is placed in a small number of theaters in cities known for having sophisticated crowds, such as New York and Los Angeles. Then, the film generates good word of mouth, and Fox Searchlight can slowly add more and more theaters until the film is playing on a national scale (Turow, 2014, p. 353-356).

Another useful tool for Fox Searchlight is a strategic release date. Fox Searchlight is confident in the quality of its releases, so it often releases films in November or December hoping to garner awards consideration, which generates free publicity (Cipely, 2015). The most successful example of this strategy was Fox Searchlight’s release of Slumdog Millionaire. In November 2008, the film opened in 10 theaters and grossed $360,018. Great publicity and word of mouth helped the film gross $44 million in its first few months. Then, the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, eventually winning 8 including Best Picture. This propelled Slumdog Millionaire to another $97 million, for a final total of $141 million over the course of 28 weeks (Slumdog Millionaire Box Office Mojo, 2008).

To the Future

The prestige of awards not only help Fox Searchlight’s films achieve higher revenues, but the awards also help Sundance compete with internet disruptors. This year at Sundance, Fox Searchlight acquired the film The Birth of a Nation for $17.5 million, the largest Sundance deal ever. This was not the largest offer Nate Parker, the filmmaker behind The Birth of a Nation received though, as Netflix offered $20 million. Parker felt though that Fox Searchlight could help get the film maximum exposure and awards potential, as Fox Searchlight led Twelve Years a Slave to a Best Picture win in 2013 (Ford & Siegel, 2015).

As the future quickly becomes the present, Fox Searchlight will have to adapt to changes in film distribution. Though Fox Searchlight won Birth of a Nation over Netflix at Sundance, online distributors are quickly gaining steam in the distribution circuit, a major disruption to Fox Searchlight’s revenue model as customers would have already paid for the online content with a subscription rather than the $8 to $11 for an individual ticket. Video on Demand (VOD) could prove to be a viable option for Fox Searchlight, as there is now a precedent for success as The Weinstein Company’s film Snowpiercer grossed more on VOD than in theaters (Schager, 2014). Ultimately, as consumers change the way they engage with film, Fox Searchlight will have to alter its strategies to ensure that consumers will seek out Fox Searchlight when looking for artistic, independent films, regardless if one watches the film in a theater or on an iPhone.


Reference List

Cieply, M. (2015, February 18). Fox Searchlight Outshines Rivals in Oscar Hunt. The New York Times. Retrieved February 01, 2016, from

Cook, C. (2006, November 3). About Fox Searchlight Picture. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Retrieved February 01, 2016, from searchlight-pictures/

Ford, R., & Siegel, T. (2016, January 26). Sundance: Why Nate Parker Chose Fox Searchlight Over Netflix for ‘The Birth of a Nation’. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 02, 2016, from chose-859652

Grove, E. (2015, July 5). 10 Film Distribution Basics. Raindance. Retrieved January 28, 2016, from

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://

McNary, D. (2002, June 30). Searchlight: Low, steady beam. Variety. Retrieved January 31, 2016, from

Nataf, C. (2011, May 30). 20th Century Fox counts on its mighty clout: International distribution. Ina Global. Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

Shager, N. (2014, December 10). 6 Ways the Movie Distribution Model Is Changing. Vulture.  Retrieved February 04, 2016, from

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Retrieved February 01, 2016, from

Turrow, J. (2014). The Movie Industry. In E. Wetter (Ed. 5), Media Today: Mass Communication in a Converging World (pp. 353-356). New York, NY: Routledge.

Waxman, S. (2006, January 22). A Small Film Nearly Left for Dead Has Its Day in the Sundance Rays. The New York Times. Retrieved February 01, 2016, from

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