Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures’ Byron Allen will take center stage at CinemaCon April 25. He’s scheduled to welcome the National Association of Theatre Owners to the 28,000-square-foot Palace Ballroom for an early breakfast and keynote address.
Unless, you know, he doesn’t.
“I think I’m going to go,” said Allen April 17 from the Culver City set of “Funny You Should Ask.” He produces the gameshow that’s carried in broadcast syndication, and also on Comedy.TV, one of eight 24-hour cable networks he owns. That afternoon, he served as audience cheerleader and unofficial director, not only anchoring its quintet of comedian-panelists but also instructing “Baskets” Emmy-winner Louie Anderson and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jon Lovitz to deliver their set-ups and punchlines again, from the top.
Presuming he does find himself in Vegas, he should find a rapt audience. People want to hear from Allen, if only to figure out what the hell he’s driving at. While ESMP’s founder, owner, chairman, and CEO still does audience warmup for the shows he owns, his company released the No. 2 indie last year, shark caper “47 Meters Down,” which grossed $44.3 million domestic. Then it released two would-be Oscar plays, “Hostiles” and “Chappaquiddick,” and last month paid $300 million cash for The Weather Channel.
Recognizing Allen’s throughline in all of this would be nice, but ESMP theatrical distribution president Mark Borde suggests that may be too much to hope for.
“Listen, he runs a television empire, he runs a movie empire, he runs a number of other things,” Borde told IndieWire by phone the morning after the gameshow shoot. “Com[ing] out at 7:30 on a Wednesday morning to meet and greet exhibitors [at CinemaCon] is not necessarily something that he has to do. It would be nice to have him say a few words, but if he can’t make it, that’s no harm, no foul.”
While Allen appears to be a jack-of-all-trades, self-made media millionaire, Borde is a second-generation film distributor with 44 years in the business. Allen acquired his Freestyle releasing in October 2015, and Borde will have a team of 15 at CinemaCon. His mandate, he said, is to make ESMP competitive with the major studios, releasing 12 to 17 films per year in a minimum of 1,500 theaters.
“I think what he relied on me and my team mostly for is our knowledge of dealing with the intricacies of the exhibition-distributor relationship,” said Borde. “I’ve grown up in the movie business. Now he’s getting into the movie business, and he is bringing that energy, that enthusiasm, that excitement, and to a degree that innocence into a brand-new field.”
Borde has been teaching Allen a lot about time — everything from how long it takes to ready a movie for audiences to how much wining, dining, and glad-handing theater-circuit heads require. To Allen, who came of age in the daily television grind, Borde guesses that a release date six months in the future sounded like a “lifetime” until not too long ago.
“I’m learning to take the time to really go deeper, understand the details,” said Allen. “I have more of an optimistic mind, so I really focus on how to make it work, versus all the reasons why it won’t work … I’m learning to better understand where’s the psychology of the audience today, what is it they’re feeling, that they’re needing, what’s missing, how do we connect with them?”
ESMP has released three films this year. “Hostiles” and “Chappaquiddick” outperformed tracking estimates, with “Hostiles” taking home $30 million in domestic receipts and “Chappaquiddick” earning $14 million since it opened on April 6. However, “The Hurricane Heist” from “Fast and the Furious” and “xXx” director Rob Cohen fared worse. Budgeted at $35 million, it made $6.1 million on 2,400 North American screens.
“No! I was not happy with how that did,” said Allen, who now questions its April release date instead of “just mak[ing] it a summer fun movie” with a longer promotional lead-up. “We don’t expect all of our movies to knock it out of the park,” he said, calling the process “a science that no one’s perfected.”
He’s got at least three shots at improvement this year. August will bring Keanu Reeves in “Replicas,” in which a biologist loses his family in a car accident and experiments with bringing them back to life. Then there’s “Animal Crackers,” an animated film hoping to capitalize on the massive box-office success of “A Quiet Place,” despite a very different target audience. It also stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as married parents — only this time, eating animal crackers turns them into, well, animals, and they help save a circus.