As soon as Ortenberg read the script, he wanted in. He had admired actor-writer-director McCarthy’s films, “The Station Agent” (which he chased at Sundance, outbid by Harvey Weinstein), “The Visitor,” and “Win Win,” and knew that McCarthy had joined the Pixar brain trust on “Up,” for which he shared an original screenplay Oscar nomination. While McCarthy’s actors admit that he’s demanding, he aways pulls superb performances. (Ortenberg jumped into “Spotlight” well before critics and audiences had rejected “The Cobbler,” starring Adam Sandler.)
The tightrope with a small drama like “Spotlight” is to keep it in the right number of theaters and mount an Academy campaign while still coming out ahead financially. “We have conversations with filmmakers all the time,” said Ortenberg during our L.A. interview. “What will you be happy with, whether platform or wide release? We wish it was a simple answer.”
When Open Road launched in 2011 (backed by Apollo Investments and theater chains AMC and Regal), the indie distributor relied on acquisitions, but soon evolved to making more pre-buys and investing in productions as the film economy shifted to a sellers’ market. Under CEO Ortenberg, Open Road is flourishing as other start-ups have either folded or been absorbed, including Relativity, Film District (now Focus Features), and Overture. “We realized we’d better join the pre-buying club quickly or we wouldn’t have the output slate we wanted to have,” said Ortenberg. “Then our pre-buying was getting some of these movies greenlit, so we decided we might as well get more involved in an ownership position.”
Now Open Road has an international division, and has completed its first fully financed production, crime thriller “Sleepless Night,” starring Jamie Foxx and Michele Monaghan, set for release in late summer/early fall 2016.
On “Spotlight,” which Participant developed with McCarthy and Singer, Ortenberg stepped in to fill the financing gap against the domestic distribution. They produced the movie for just under $20 million, with all the actors working for low salaries. Ortenberg remembers having dinner with McCarthy in New York last January before he had seen anything; the director was “giddy with excitement, so happy with how things were going, that I thought, ‘If Tom, who is not easy to please, is this happy this early, we have a winner.'”
When Ortenberg finally screened the pre-director’s cut assemblage with his staff he saw “a smart but accessible movie that never gets too far ahead of its audience; there are times when it gets a little ahead, but not where either side needs to play catchup,” he said. And Open Road committed to a fall festival run and an Oscar campaign, backing the cast’s wish to compete for supporting actor awards, even though that cost Keaton (“Birdman”) and Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”) nominations at SAG and the Golden Globes. “Everybody has a one for all, all for one mentality,” Ortenberg said. “That’s it.”
Raised in Westchester, New York, Ortenberg lives in Santa Monica with his family; he has three boys from two marriages, 21, 18 and 4. He started out running the Penn State film society, and after college packed up and took his 16 mm projector with him to San Francisco. He has always relished the times he has been able to work on movies he really cared about, from Lionsgate’s “Crash” and Amy Berg’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the abuses of the Catholic Church, “Deliver Us from Evil,” to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” at Miramax, which “we deluded ourselves might have turned an election, if it weren’t for a few errant voting machines.”
After Ortenberg worked in distribution at Columbia Pictures, he moved to European indie Hemdale, which went bankrupt, throwing him out of work. He joined the team that founded Lionsgate—which opened its first office in Santa Monica close to Ortenberg’s house—and later worked with the Weinsteins, where he learned the importance of fighting for the best-edited version of a movie. “The mentality is to get it as good as it possibly can be and don’t be satisfied until you do,” he said. “I learned about the process of testing movies, research, and working with filmmakers.” Open Road’s first office is also close to Ortenberg’s home.
That’s the movie that might bring Open Road back into the awards spotlight.