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How Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg Shepherded ‘Spotlight’ to Oscar Frontrunner

How Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg Shepherded 'Spotlight' to Oscar Frontrunner

Spotlight” is rare for several reasons: it’s an original script about real people devoted to their jobs who remind us of what great journalism is supposed to be. Like Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (depicted in the 1976 Alan Pakula classic “All the President’s Men”), the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative staff of four (an editor and three reporters) brought to light an ongoing crime that had been hidden for decades. It’s hard to remember where we were before this Pulitzer Prize-winning team exposed the Catholic Church’s protection of its Boston-area pedophile priests. After “Spotlight”‘s rousing reception on the fall festival circuit, the movie racked up kudos before hitting theaters this November (box office to date is $23 million domestic) and is currently regarded as the Best Picture frontrunner. 
With support from Participant Media, writer-director Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) and co-writer Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”) dug deep into the research, reporting and crafting a smart emotional drama that is free of the usual formulas of Hollywood studio filmmaking. Of course that means they had to raise independent backing. Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg (“The Grey,” “Nightcrawler”) decided to co-finance the movie with Participant, and McCarthy assembled a choice ensemble: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber all shine in this intense and emotional investigative drama. 

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. 

At Open Road, Ortenberg has scored well with actioner “The Grey” ($51 million), Jake Gyllenhaal thriller “Nightcrawler” ($32 million domestic), comedy “The Nut Job” ($64 million domestic), and Jon Favreau sleeper “Chef” ($32 million domestic), which he pre-bought off the script even though “it was an example of a movie we don’t normally pre-buy. I didn’t know whether it was art house or commercial. I remember reading it on the plane: ‘This is great, it’s the kind of movie we don’t make anymore.’ But it could be too syrupy if Jon went in one direction, and could be dismissed; would it be audience pleasing, or would it be hard to get the audience in to get word of mouth? If it was too gritty, then we might get reviews but not please the audience. Luckily, it was good!” 
While Open Road and its theater circuit owners keep church and state separate, there are conversations when Ortenberg wants to build a film like “Chef” on the indie side at, say, Landmark, before it goes wider. “Our mandate remains to come up with films to help fill their screens,” he said. “Any advantage is to get an extra look and communication.” On “Spotlight,” too, “there was compromise,” he said. “We went mostly to art houses initially and asked our partners to back off, and then mix and matched.” 
After “Spotlight” scored well at research previews in Pasadena with 93% in the top two boxes and 89% “definitely recommend,” Ortenberg platformed the well-reviewed movie in six cities in a handful of theaters on November 6 (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C.) and then expanded on the 13th and went widest on the 25th over Thanksgiving. As he took the cast around the country to promote the movie—as well as mounting a relentless LA/NY awards blitz—Open Road added the Boston editors and reporters to the group. While Ortenberg’s happy that the movie is being compared to Oscar-winning “Argo,” he admitted, “it’s weird being perceived as the frontrunner.” While he pushed “Crash,” “Gods and Monsters,” and “Monster’s Ball” into the Oscar race, “it’s a lot less stressful when nobody is expecting big things.” 

“Spotlight” will hit home entertainment close to the Oscars. Who makes all these decisions? “Most of it’s on me,” said Ortenberg. “I have the courage of my convictions. If I stay within my financial parameters I have green light authority and autonomy.”Open Road likes to partner with companies like Endgame, has learned not to make deals for the sake of making money because it tends not to work, and has pacted not with Netflix, but with Showtime for pay TV and Amazon for subscription video-on-demand (SVOD). “We’re a theatrical company,” he said. “In terms of windows when we look at movie, we judge its theatrical success, looking at a film that stars someone who does well at the moment. Certain people are question marks theatrically, but may do well in ancillary markets like home entertainment.” He sees room for compromise with windows, on a film by film basis. “I don’t think anything about our business should be considered one size fits all.”
Open Road’s 2016 schedule includes spoof “50 Shades of Black” in January, John Hillcoat’s gritty R-rated good cops/bad cops Russian mafia actioner “Triple 9” in late February, starring Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Gal Gadot, and Norman Reedus; Garry Marshall comedy “Mother’s Day” starring Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis in April; Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” which was pushed out of 2015 to late spring; Carl Franklin’s Tupac Shakur biopic in late summer/early fall; and “Sleepless Night” in the fourth quarter, along with Cannes market pick-up “Bleed for This,” starring Miles Teller as real-life boxer Vinny Pazienza, which was pushed back so as not to compete with fight pictures “Southpaw” and “Creed.” 

That’s the movie that might bring Open Road back into the awards spotlight. 

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