At the end of summer 2007, William Schopf, Ed Arentz and Brian Andreotti had a drink in the bar of a dazzling Chicago Loop skyscraper for a low-key launch of their new distribution concern.
In the film business, timing is everything - and their timing seemed fairly perverse, pouring start-up money into a fledging business during a period in which many other similar companies were abandoning arthouse distribution in the face of market fatigue, overcrowded release schedules and increasingly fragmented audiences.
Making their launch even more daunting, they said the bulk of their offerings were foreign-language acquisitions.
Some 13 months later, the future is very bright. After posting minor financial returns on its first two releases, Music Box Films scored a hit with Tell No One, the 2006 French thriller by actor/director Guillaume Canet.
Now entering its fourth month of release, the movie has grossed more than $5m, despite virtually no national advertising or television buys. It has turned into the summer's most audacious counter-programming move. Opening in New York on the July 4 holiday weekend, the movie utilised a perfect confluence of excellent reviews, a recognisable cast and a basically grassroots, word-of-mouth campaign to draw crowds.
'One of the things that has hurt foreign-language distribution is that whereas once, people knew who Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mastroianni, Brigitte Bardot or an Alain Delon were. Nowadays foreign stars tend to be known only in their own territories,' says Arentz. 'The difference between Hollywood and everywhere else is US stars are known worldwide.'
The movie's success is relative. On its own terms, it is a corrective to the pessimistic atmosphere roiling the industry. 'It is possible for a single film to elevate a company's profile,' he says.
Already, Music Box is seeing a changed perspective. At Toronto, Arentz's ambitious screening schedule was largely scrapped in order to meet with sales agents about new titles and hammer out a TV deal for Tell No One.
The company's next release is French director Emmanuel Mouret's Shall We Kiss', preliminarily set for the first quarter 2009.
Perspective is key. 'We know what our criteria are,' says Arentz. 'We're acquiring rights to mostly foreign-language films and not overpaying.' In the past some smaller independents flamed out due to overaggressive expansion.
In outlining the business model last year, Arentz said it was critical the company maintained a guerilla operations style: lean, direct and fluid. The company has offices in Chicago and New York, but it has only seven full-time employees. 'The thing that hurts so many small distributors is the overhead,' says Arentz.