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How ‘The Witch’ Got Backing from Chris and Eleanor Columbus’s Maiden Voyage

How 'The Witch' Got Backing from Chris and Eleanor Columbus's Maiden Voyage

Sometimes people discover something that feels good and it changes their lives.

Take Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”). For five years at NYU he worked closely with Richard Vague on their Columbus Vague Awards. “We’d fly into New York once a year and read scripts from the grad and undergrad film department,” he told me in a phone interview, “meet students who pitched ideas, and award money from the school to help them make their first feature.”

Columbus didn’t have much contact with the filmmakers after that but he’d track their progress and see such films as Dee Rees’s “Pariah” get into Sundance with Spike Lee as executive producer. “I said, ‘wait a second. I should be doing this in line with my company 1492, and create a company to help first time filmmakers find financing.'”

So with his NYU Film & TV grad daughter Eleanor, who had worked for two years in New York indie production, he launched Maiden Voyage, which is based in San Francisco, on February 24, 2013. The ground floor of his 1492 production offices was already open to young filmmakers working on scripts or editing their films, so it didn’t seem a huge stretch.

Columbus has always trusted his daughter’s taste. After all, when she was 10 years old, she made him read the “Harry Potter” books, in which he had no interest at the time. “I read them and when 30 other directors were chasing the movie, I said, ‘I have to make this movie!'” She was also instrumental in getting him involved in the musical “Rent.”

And so WME agent Craig Kestel started showering them with indie scripts. Eleanor reads them first, right away; Columbus hates the delays in the studio script-reading process, so they try to get answers back fast. Within the first two weeks they were pushing up the hill their first project, Sara Colangelo’s “Little Accidents,” which played Sundance 2014 and was picked up by Amplify, followed by Jonas Carpignano’s 2015 political immigrant drama “Mediterranea” (Sundance Selects)—which took a while to reach its full potential— and Robert Eggers’ must-see Sundance 2015 director-prize-winning horror sensation “The Witch,” which should be another hit for A24 when it opens February 19.

“Every project has producers, directors and writers with strong vision,” said Eleanor Columbus. “We know what they want. The process, while time-consuming, is never unpleasant or emotionally difficult.”

“Our goal is an easy one,” said Columbus. “It’s not not only helping first time filmmakers realize their unique vision. These don’t have commercial prospects, but are emotionally complex and strong artistic statements. We help them find their voice and reach their potential. It’s not me as an 800 pound gorilla looking over their shoulder.”

Maiden Voyage and its staff of two check out filmmaker shorts, help find financing, and get involved as much as the directors need them. On Sundance 2016 project “Tallulah,” for one example, Columbus was intensely involved in post-production. This is their most expensive project to date, which they followed through from start to finish, starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney.

Eleanor fell in love with the script for “The Witch.” When her father read it, while he was scared he didn’t think audiences would connect with its archaic period language. “I didn’t know how commercially viable it was,” he said. “So we passed.”

The next time Maiden Voyage saw the film was a rough cut after a financier fell out and the filmmaker couldn’t finish. They watched a screener on their flat screen TV in daylight and were terrified. “Suddenly it was the most commercial movie,” said Columbus. “How was it possible? We got involved that day, and we found financing to get it finished.”

The dialogue remained problematic as they moved from subtitles to re-dubbing the dense sound so that moviegoers could understand the language. “It adds another layer of uneasiness,” said Columbus.

“And authenticity,” added Eleanor. “Robert was meticulous about detail.”

Maiden Voyage never takes any fees. “We bet on the success of the movie,” said Columbus. Sometimes they invest, sometimes they get points, often working with Route One, which financed all of Sian Heder’s $2.3 million “Tallulah.” Netflix picked up the rights.

Clearly, both father and daughter are enjoying their role on these productions. “There’s way too much money being spent on movies,” said Columbus. “There was an annoyance factor for the last five or six years that I couldn’t define, I was getting so frustrated. Suddenly to be able to see what these filmmakers can create with so little, it’s all about making the best movie possible. That reinvigorated me in terms of what I want to do in the next 20 years as a writer and director. There’s nothing greater than being able to share this experience with your daughter or someone who loves film. I want to stay hungry.”

Next up for Maiden Voyage is Black List film “The Shave” which they are trying to put together with Route One. Written by Thomas White and Miles Hubley, the film is about an LAPD officer who after he’s exonerated in the murder of a high school honor student, visits the boy’s father at his barbershop to tell him his side of the story —while accepting a straight razor shave.

Chris and Eleanor are thinking about opening up the rules beyond first-time filmmakers so they can collaborate with discoveries like Eggers, Carpignano and Heder again. “I don’t want to say goodbye,” said Columbus.

What’s next? Among various animation projects like “Pixels” —1492 has an animation company in Glendale—Columbus produced Easter movie “The Young Messiah.” And he is writing his first original script since 1990. “I’ve rewritten stuff, but I want to beat myself up, go back to where I started, stare at a blank piece of paper and see what I come up with.”

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