In September, ESMP will also release “God Bless the Broken Road,” another film from “God’s Not Dead” director Harold Cronk. The original 2014 release made more than $60 million at the domestic box office for Freestyle, inspiring a three-film franchise. However, last month’s “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” grossed $5.5 million on 1,693 screens.
“Our movies are very commercial, and we like to go very broad with them,” said Allen, who last year told IndieWire that he was “chasing Walt Disney.”
“He’s a master salesman,” said “Chappaquiddick” producer Chris Cowles. “He’s incredibly bright about the business and just about the marketplace, so I would say that that’s where he was really hands-on and very focused … I’ve made a bunch of movies [and] everyone promises you the world and everyone puts their best foot forward when you first get into business with them. And it’s very rare that someone actually does follow through in a real way, and I feel like Byron absolutely did, had total confidence and faith in the movie.”
Meanwhile, “47 Meters Down” director Johannes Roberts is drafting a sequel, “48 Meters Down,” that’s already set for a summer 2019 slot. ESMP recently announced another 2019 title, Joe Carnahan’s “Boss Level,” which turns “Groundhog Day” into a thriller: An Army veteran (Frank Grillo) experiences a new death every day. With a $45 million budget and a supporting cast that includes Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, and Ken Jeong, Borde said ESMP will also co-produce.
“When I owned Freestyle, I didn’t do this many films, this wide, this often,” Borde said; Freestyle was a service operation that largely serviced the films and the handled booking for distributors, who took all the risk. “I was not in the P&A business; Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures is in the P&A business.”
However, Freestyle was in business with Netflix, which means that ESMP is now in business with Netflix. Borde said Freestyle signed its Netflix output deal five or six years ago, and it lasts through 2018. “We’re negotiating an extension,” said Borde. Disney’s output deal with the streaming service also expires December 31, and Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has criticized output deals in the past. If Netflix doesn’t come through, Borde said it will find another partner.
After two years with Allen, Borde remains impressed with his energy and enthusiasm. “I don’t think he ever sleeps,” he said. “I’ve gotten calls from him in the middle of the night, I get calls from him early in the morning, he runs around the office dealing with everything from what time is the TV spot going to run … to how many theaters did we holdover this week.” Borde also praised Allen’s encyclopedic recall of the release schedule.
And then there’s The Weather Channel. “He’s handing me some beautiful movies to distribute, and then all the sudden he waltzes in here and goes, ‘We’re going to buy The Weather Channel.’ “I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ I was blown out of the water.”
The Weather Channel became Allen’s eighth 24-hour network last month, after Entertainment Studios was the top bidder in what Allen described as a heated competition; Blackstone, Bain Capital, and Comcast/NBC Universal paid $3.5 billion for the network in 2008. (IBM bought the channel’s website and digital operations in 2016; only the TV division is part of Entertainment Studios.)
“It gave us a network that broke the barrier to be distributing in 80-plus million homes,” said Allen. “It gave us a starting point of sitting with advertisers for our other properties — because we own seven other networks, right? — that basically didn’t know our name or know what we do. It’s helping us to grow in the way of distribution, ads, and just infrastructure.”
Only after making the purchase did Allen visit The Weather Channel’s six-acre Atlanta campus that serves as a workplace for 350 employees. With 90,000 square feet in office space, “We could produce easily half a dozen 24-hour news networks out of that campus,” he said. “They happen to do one, and it happens to focus on weather. We can — will — do multiple networks [out of] that campus.”
Courtesy of Entertainment Studios
Allen, who contends that he will spend billions acquiring content over the next five years, said Entertainment Studios remains “very acquisitive.” As always, Disney remains his true north: “When you look at the media companies that have gotten big, it has been through some organic growth, and quite a bit of acquisition,” he said, citing the “transformative transactions” of Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar.
Allen’s buying mindset extends to his personal life: in February, he plunked down $22.8 million for a Hawaiian estate. There’s a small chance he’s in for a massive payout from Charter and Comcast; he filed a $10 billion racial discrimination lawsuit for their failure to license his channels. (AT&T settled a similar suit in 2015 and now carries seven Entertainment Studios channels.) “We’re optimistic that the ninth circuit will see our way,” he said.
While his CinemaCon status remains in flux, Allen’s commitment to making entertainment is not. “It’s not a job,” he said. “Someone asked me what are my hobbies. I love what I do. I don’t need a hobby.”