co-presidents Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff are running their specialty label–co-owned by frequent distribution partner Lionsgate–with taste and smarts. They have a handle on what will work in the the specialty theatrical market, when to go day-and-date with VOD
, and when to chase an Oscar campaign that can cost more than it’s worth. (They did well with Oscar nominations for "Winter’s Bone" and Jennifer Lawrence, "Biutiful" and Javier Bardem, and "Albert Nobbs" and Glenn Close, among others.)
The Oscar question came up when their most recent release, Anton Corbijn’s Sundance entry "A Most Wanted Man," based on the John Le Carré novel and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role, opened strong last weekend. Cohen came by Sneak Previews to talk about how they released the film, Hoffman, and the indies’ future. He’s bullish.
Anne Thompson: "A Most Wanted Man" might have been a studio project not so long ago. Have the indies taken over this kind of lower-budget venture?
Howard Cohen: The studios, because of the nature of the big, multi-national companies that own them, have to make really big movies. Even a movie like this, which has big, commercial intentions and stars, is not really on the docket for studios. It’s too small.
How did this come into being? Do many different players and countries find a cast they can support?
It’s usually built around an international sales company. In the case of this movie, it’s FilmNation: Glen Basner, who was one of the major players from Focus, is still doing specialty films. They started with the script and the director, slowly built the cast, and then raised money by selling international territories one by one. I think this movie, being so “international,” was able to raise money relatively quickly.
They ended up going to Sundance.
Actually, we saw about five minutes of footage in Cannes about a year ago, and we bought it off of that.
That’s pretty unusual.
Well, we were excited by it, and we were born out by the final movie. It was what we hoped and expected; I think we knew it had “genre elements” as well as being upscale smart fare, and it didn’t have that “pure art film,” where you had a really small target. For a lot of our films, you feel like, if the movie isn’t absolutely perfect, you can’t make any money. This movie, we felt it can be good, it can be better, it can be great, and all of those would still work.
I think people love spy thrillers; I love them. I was asking my staff, this week: “If you didn’t have anything to do with this movie, would you go see it?” And they all said “yes.” So I would go and see this movie if it were opening.
It has an edge-of-your-seat quality, and it’s also truly paranoid, in a naturalistic kind of way.
We were talking about John Le Carré, that he’s managed to continue writing after the Cold War and still really engage with what’s going on in the world in a smart and unique way. The paranoid nature of it — the non-US-centric view –is in his books.
The Americans are the bad guys here.
I don’t feel like the Americans are the bad guys, but there’s moral ambiguity. Robin Wright’s character is no worse than anyone else, but she’s no better. That’s what’s great about it: she’s right there, because, by the way, she may be right. They may be right at the end of the day. It’s not clear; that’s what’s great about his writing. You’re not 100% sure, and in real life you’re not.
Has the market become competitive again, where you have to step up to get the good movie? If you’re at a festival and waiting for it to play to see if it’s good, you could lose it?
There are a number of trends happening once, because there’s such a plethora of movies, and the bar of entry to make a movie is very low now. There are more movies being made than ever, but I think audiences, maybe because of that, are more discerning, so that competition for the few things that have a chance at theatrical life is greater.
So there’s a narrow sweet spot: the movie is narratively compelling, you’ve got sexy movie stars and exciting genre elements?
There are certain kinds of movies that people bet on year after year — frankly, things that don’t look like studio movies but still have commercial elements. British movies, in general. I mean, the studios are not making British movies, generally. Certainly they used to, especially in the days of United Artists, but I think that British movies have been a reliable source of alternate programming, because they’re making great films and they’re in the English language, and they don’t look like studio movies. So the “Philomena”s of the world, “The Iron Lady,” “The King’s Speech” — those are reliable if they’re made at a certain level.
I say that often about documentaries, too: studios don’t make documentaries. Even if it’s a great documentary, it’s automatically unique. That’s something that smaller American independents don’t have, because if it just looks alike a cheap version of a studio movie, it’s not going to stand out.
So, when you went to Sundance, you already had the picture. Philip Seymour Hoffman was there. How was he?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him. I was at a dinner with him; I introduced myself. He did seem tired, but I didn’t know him, so I didn’t really have any context for it. By all reports, he worked very hard coming out for the movie, he was very professional — I didn’t have any clues, but I wasn’t looking for anything.
And I was interviewed by The New York Times about it a week or two later, and they said, “You saw him; you were one of the last people to see him publicly.” I was caught up short because I didn’t know him and I didn’t really know what to say. I said he performed his obligations and he was, again, very professional, but clearly he did look kind of under-the-weather when I saw him.
There’s a little bit of Oscar buzz around this movie, partly created by you.
No, it’s created by Variety. I was in New York for the premiere, a microphone shoved in my face: “So, is this going to be an Oscar movie?” You’re sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I said, “Well, we’re not releasing it in Oscar season. We certainly have hopes for it if it does well and it kind of makes it into the fray, but the Best Actor race is usually the most competitive.”
It is. Why are there so many best actors and so few best actresses?
I think we’ve had a candidate in the Best Actor race for the last three years running. Three years ago we had Javier Bardem — which we did get nominated for — two years ago we had Richard Gere ["Arbitrage"], who got a Golden Globe nomination and not an Oscar, and last year we had Robert Redford for “All Is Lost.”
What are major male movie stars being offered after the age of 40? Mostly serious dramatic roles in Oscar films or tentpole movies. George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon — they’re all in Oscar movies, because that’s the work. The work is Oscar movies, basically, or action movies, or not working.
That’s exactly right, because the studios save it up for the fall season, and that’s when they do it. That’s the only time they do it.
For them, there’s now a crop of big, male movie stars in so-called “Oscar movies.” There’s this huge competition every year, so rather than wade into that, I was excited to have this movie be counter-programming in the summer — and if it gets traction, great.
What are Anton Corbijn’s strengths as a filmmaker?
Well, he’s a great, world-class photographer. That’s where he comes out of. He’s only made three films somewhat later in his life, and he brings a beautiful, painterly eye to filmmaking
, and has a very specific movie he’s interested in, which has to have a strong visual component. He’s less interested in other kinds of movies. He’s done two or three international political intrigue movies, and his next movie is a departure — he did the story of James Dean. It’s called “Life,” with Robert Pattinson and Dane DeHaan.
The film festivals have been revealing their lineups. One movie missing from the first announcements is Tommy Lee Jones’ Cannes entry “The Homesman.”
Yes. We’re doing some other festivals. We didn’t play “All Is Lost” last year in Toronto
; it’s not right for every movie. Especially if a movie’s already played Cannes, what are the right festivals for it? Toronto’s great for a world premiere of a movie with big stars — there’s probably no place better, but it has 300 films. It’s sometimes harder to get attention, especially for a movie that’s already played Cannes.
Another movie not yet announced for the festivals is your Cannes pick-up, Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.”
It’s a French-language movie. We’re figuring that out… The web has changed the movie business, where everything is instantaneous. Telluride
used to be a sort of secret festival in
the mountains; it never announced its
program. In the pre-web era that meant the list of films playing there stayed under the radar, post-web it means the list becomes public and widely circulated the first day of the fest. So a movie would play in Telluride and send shockwaves around the world. By the time it got to Toronto, it was old news. They figured that out. I’m sympathetic, because that’s a change. You can’t call a movie a “world premiere” after it’s played in Telluride and people have written 400 articles about it.
To me, it seems to be about bragging rights. TIFF want us to know that “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture after it premiered at Toronto, not Telluride. Shouldn’t it be more about what’s good for the films? It builds momentum when it goes to Toronto and has bigger press; it builds from Telluride.
Right. I agree. Certainly, from our point, that’s important and we get that, but we have the same sort of issue, where a movie that’s played in one place, suddenly, it’s old news. It’s harder to get people to write about it, it’s not the new new thing. I think the web is always hungry for the new and the different. It’s something that has to be dealt with, anyway. They have to continue to emphasize what they each have to offer.
One story we wrote this week was about “Snowpiercer,” VOD vs. theatrical. It did $2 million on its opening week on VOD. But it could have done even more theatrically, it seems. The distributors and exhibitors are locked into this battle of what is the right economic model. Is it terrible to have them in theaters and at home at the same time? You went day-and-date with both “Margin Call" and “Arbitrage.”
The truth is that we came to both of those releases out of fear that people wouldn’t necessarily go to see them in theaters enough to justify this expense of a theatrical release. It was definitely a hedge-your-bets philosophy, but we thought: "They’re both good movies; let’s try to get people to see them in both places."
The original impulse behind doing movies at the same time is, you’re spending to promote a movie, and if you’re not releasing it in home entertainment for three months, all that marketing has basically been dissipated — so you’re hoping people remember it three months later, and that they’ll buy it on VOD or rent it. Whatever initial marketing spin you did will carry through those three months later.
The world moves very quickly, so the idea was, if you could market both at the same time, that would help it. The question really is, are people watching it at home instead of going to the movie theater, and I think that hasn’t really been answered — but there’s certainly a fear, with big movies, that they would cannibalize. So that’s why the theaters are terrified: because if “Pirates of the Caribbean” were at home on the same day as it was in 3,000 theaters, in my opinion it would definitely cannibalize it.
Is there a stretch of time that would be perfect? Because the theaters’ insistence on a three-month 90-day window is too long.
The perfect amount of time would probably be six weeks [42 days], but I think the question is still consumer behavior. If you knew that a movie was going to be available in six weeks, would that still keep you from going to see it in a movie theater, or keep you from seeing certain movies in a movie theater? Maybe some movies you’d go big.
Why did you decide to go theatrically with this movie, as opposed to VOD?
The simple answer is we’re hoping it has a pretty decent-sized theatrical audience.
You make more money that way.
Yes, and then more people will see it that way, and it has a bigger upside. Today, there are huge theater chains that won’t play a film that is available on VOD. A very small part of the theater universe is available to you with movies that you’re going out multi-platform.
Is that changing? Is it getting better? Are theaters getting more forgiving?
It’s stayed pretty much the same, actually, but the one chain, AMC, has gotten more flexible about it, so that’s how “Snowpiercer” was able to go on 250 screens — because AMC has become more flexible about it. But the other chains have not changed.
I loved “Dear White People” at Sundance. Is it a marketing challenge, or is it good to be a unique film that no one’s ever seen before?
Yeah, we’re taking a flyer on that, but we’re really excited about how it’s playing. That’s what independent movies are all about. Not to be too grandiose, but a movie like “Dear White People”… I don’t know if people know what this movie is, but it’s a satire of race relations on an Ivy League-type campus, and it follows four African American students, all who kind of have a different path: one being more “militant,” one being someone who’s always hung out with white friends, and then one, bound for glory, who’s a best-and-the-brightest type.
The central incident in the movie is based on a number of real incidents across campuses, where a predominantly white fraternity held a blackface party. In fact, in the rolling credits, it shows a bunch of those parties. You think that’s unbelievable in this day and age, but it’s frighteningly common, and so that is the central incident that happens in the movie, and all the concentric circles of plot around that. It’s both provocative and really, really funny; we’ve released a teaser and a trailer online, and the reactions are both positive and, like, crazy. It had a million and a half hits on YouTube in, like, a day. Half of them were, “I can’t wait to see this,” and half of them were, “How dare they call a movie ‘Dear White People?’” I kid you not.
Bu controversy is a marketer’s dream, in a weird way.
It took me aback, the level of vitriol from the white audience. YouTube is lowest-common-denominator, anyway, so that’s to be expected. Yes, it’s going to be a real test of our ingenuity. I mean, how to release that and where. We’re going to open, I think, L.A., Chicago, New York, and Atlanta; we’re going to play the Landmark Theater and then a theater in Baldwin Hills. I think we’re going to experiment and see who goes, where, and how. It’ll be very interesting.
If you were to say what worries you most about the movie business, what would it be?
What worries the most — why “Dear White People” is really exciting — is the next generation. Are we training a group of young people who don’t have the habit of going to the movies? Not if there are good movies being made, because there are good movies being made. I don’t think that’s the bottom line. There’s great work being done, still. Through the golden age of television, still, there’s great work being done in movies. Is the next generation not that interested in the format? So I’m hoping that they can become interested.
Well, the studios have allowed this migration to television to take place. It’s something that they have permitted and encouraged, on some level, and that’s their competition now.
Right. That’s the big challenge facing us: are we still encouraging people — however we do it: by the quality of the films, by how we release them — and in what configurations are we encouraging people? I grew up going to the movies. Are people now growing up going to the movies?
Audience question: This movie reminded me of other John le Carré films, such as the recent remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," where the thrills were more of a cerebral experience than a traditional thriller. Is that a concern for you? How well did a movie like “Tinker Tailor” do in the marketplace, and are you concerned that this might not have enough action for some people?
We’re well aware of that, but it’s par for the course. We were expecting that, even when we read the script. We’re opening it in 350 theaters, which is about 20% of a wide release, so we’re certainly aiming it at a certain higher-brow audience, and a similar audience that went to “Tinker Tailor.” That did over $20 million in the U.S., which, for a film like this, is perfectly good, so I think we would be happy with that same result. That’s what I was talking about earlier: that’s not a really interesting result to a studio because of their economic structure, but for this movie that would be a great result.
Audience: You mentioned that you’re opening on 350 screens. Would you consider a wide release if it does well?
We’re booked to widen to 600 the following week, on August 1st. I did a careful analysis of "Tinkor Tailor" precisely because it’s somewhere in the middle between a “traditional” thriller and an art film: it made 90% of its box office on about 700 screens. Those are the theaters it
was playing in, and if we go any wider, that’s gravy, but we know where the sweet spot for this movie is.
Audience: A lot of the financing was from foreign pre-sales. With this type of film taking place in Germany and everybody playing Germans, for the most part, but it being in English, does that help with foreign pre-sales?
A movie in English, it’s night and day for raising money. We saw enough footage to be able to know it wasn’t going to be the so-called “Euro pudding,” where everybody has accents that don’t match or are off-putting, and I think they pulled it off in this movie. There are some famous examples where I think they pull it off. Which one of the “Jack Ryan” movies do they go in for a close-up, and it goes from Russian to English? “The Hunt for Red October.” They did that very well, but, often, it’s really crummy. I think that foreign films — meaning, not in English and subtitled — are much, much harder to get financed.