It’s one thing to take an existing company and examine its ups and downs based on a concrete history. Movies that hit theaters and either made money or didn’t, trends the company in question followed, thematic through lines of its slates, and so on. That part is, relatively speaking, fairly straightforward. It’s a whole other kettle of fish to utilize the same set of standards and apply them to a pair of companies that have no real track record at all, but which have declared themselves as major players in the arena moving forward. It is for this reason that we combine Annapurna and Studio 8 this week because they have so much in common.
As of this past weekend, both Annapurna and Studio 8 have been involved in distributing exactly one movie (admittedly with more on the way), but in the grand scheme of things, each is essentially untested. Each has the vision of one key person, numerous questions attached, and plenty of people around town skeptical as to how successful they might actually be and what each has in store for both its principals and its audience. Which is what this week’s installment of the Studio Series is all about, attempting to examine those very questions and taking a look at what the future might hold for everyone involved.
Studio 8 has been around longer, but since Annapurna’s Detroit just hit theaters this weekend and opened to $7.2 million, a decidedly disappointing showing for Megan Ellison’s company, let’s start there. After years of creating an image that she is one of the most filmmaker-friendly producers in Hollywood, she has taken matters into her own hands and is now going to put many of her own films into theaters with her own infrastructure and resources, rather than relying on other distributors to do so. While that has worked for her up to now, she has decided that the best way to handle her material is to do it herself.
I wrote a column about this some months ago, when it was first announced that she would be doing this, and I said at the time that it seemed silly to bet against her. Her winning percentage when it comes to making money on the films she makes isn’t perfect — far from it — but she absolutely has good taste about the filmmakers with whom she works. She gets it, and so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that some of the best filmmakers out there are lined up to work with her.
Now, she is taking her billions of dollars and, essentially, putting that money where her mouth is, and she’s not really wasting any time to do it. Now that the $34 million Detroit has hit screens, we only need to wait for a few weeks before the company’s next release does. On September 15th comes Mike White’s latest film, Brad’s Status, starring Ben Stiller, and it looks like exactly the kind of thoughtful, interesting type of movie that has become Annapurna’s trademark. The same can be said of Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, a real life tale of the man who created the iconic superhero, due in theaters October 22nd.
Interestingly, the company’s fourth release of the year is the one that seems not to fit. Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, with Bruce Willis stepping into Charles Bronson’s shoes, is a straight up genre thriller and not the kind of thing one would normally associate with Ellison or Annapurna. This is actually a good thing, because it shows how Ellison is thinking of this endeavor. It’s not just going to be an outlet to showcase the offbeat, esoteric, and indie fare she normally produces. No, this is a serious operation that will embrace the mainstream. In fact, it’s that film that makes one think of vintage Miramax, back in the 1990s when Harvey Weinstein was operating at peak efficiency. Even someone as skilled as he is could not sustain this forever because it’s sort of impossible to do so, but Ellison has a lot of money to make the attempt.
The odds are stacked against Ellison because they’re stacked against any new player in the game. If you doubt it, look no further than the poor folks at Broad Green, who closed up shop last week after a pretty rough three-year stretch. What Ellison has going for her, though, is something few others do: it’s those aforementioned relationships with quality filmmakers who jostle to work with her. True, most of them are not exactly rainmakers — Paul Thomas Anderson, for instance, has had exactly one movie clear $40 million at the domestic box office — but a combination of prestige and genre films, all made at a reasonable price, is a solid pathway to success.
Again, doubt it? It perfectly describes how Miramax (and its Dimension wing) rose to the top of the indie world 25 years ago, and the Weinsteins didn’t have Ellison’s bankroll nor her established relationships. Those came later after some level of success, an issue that Ellison clearly doesn’t have.
Obviously, it’s tough to make a sound judgment on Annapurna’s outlook after one movie has been out for just a single weekend, but even though Detroit didn’t do so well, it’s never a good bet to go against Ellison. The fact that her company has projects coming from Adam McKay and Barry Jenkins, among others, in 2018 means even more reason to think that there are some good things in store. While she does have a reputation for occasional flightiness, she has also hired an experienced team to guide the company down the road to being a full-fledged distributor. If she has it in her head to become her own studio, there’s not much that will stop her.
On the other hand, Studio 8 is something of a conundrum, because we’ve now been waiting for literally years for Jeffrey Robinov’s new (ish) venture to take hold and start giving us the kinds of movies he did when he was running Warner Bros.’ film division and it was having some of the best years in its entire history.
As previously mentioned in this space, Robinov lost the three-way bake off four years ago for the top position at WB, and because he had no interest in working underneath Kevin Tsujihara, he went off on his own. That led to the formation of Studio 8, with Chinese money that may or may not continue to be there, now that things have changed in the Middle Kingdom and the government has turned off the cash spigot.
Let’s assume that, financially, the company is in good shape for at least a little while. It’s been almost a year since Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a movie that Studio 8 co-produced, but its first solo effort won’t be hitting screens until 2018 when both the based-on-a-true-story White Boy Rick and the ice age drama Alpha hit theaters. The former, from Yann Demange, is scheduled for a January 26th release, while the latter, from director Albert Hughes, arrives on March 2nd. There is another Albert Hughes movie in pre-production, a remake of the Spanish language drama The Fury of a Patient Man, as well as another Ang Lee flick, Thrilla in Manilla, about the famed 1973 heavyweight title fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. Both movies are on the 2018 calendar, but in a nebulous, non-dated way, which means that nothing there is really certain beyond the first two movies on the schedule.
There is no denying that Robinov is a brilliant executive, known for his solid working relationships with filmmakers. It was because of him that directors like Chris Nolan and Ben Affleck kept returning to Warner Bros. It’s also no coincidence that, in the four-plus years since he’s been gone, the company’s big screen fortunes have suffered. But here’s the rub: the fact that Robinov’s company has been in business for three years now and has only been a part of a single movie to find its way to screens is cause for concern. Those loyal to him will say that this is just because he is taking his time to develop projects so that they will make the best films possible, but that only goes so far. It doesn’t help that Alpha (formerly known as The Solutrean) was originally scheduled for release next month before being pushed to the first quarter next year. There is also scuttlebutt about a difficult working relationship between him and Sony top man, Tom Rothman, but that’s going to follow him wherever he goes no matter the truth, so it’s unclear how much that really matters.
Studio 8 has more than a dozen projects in some form of development, including an historical drama from Francis Lawrence, a reboot of the famed Sinbad the Sailor property from Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik, a Nosferatu horror project from The Witch helmer Robert Eggers, and an adaptation of the popular Mark Millar comic book Huck. While none of those are actually past the script stage, they are interesting properties and provide some insight into the kinds of movies that Robinov wants to make.
It’s easy to question Robinov’s progress — enough people are doing it — but some of us actually do have a fair amount of faith in his abilities to think that, at some point, he’s going to get the company firing on all cylinders. It still has about a year-and-a-half left on its distribution deal with Sony. It could very well end up working with another studio when that ends, or in another reality, Robinov could end up on the short list to replace Rothman, should new Sony CEO Tony Vinciquerra decide to pull the trigger on his top film exec.
Figuring that this move against Rothman isn’t going to happen anytime soon, or if it does, Robinov is not the man selected to replace him — it forces us to focus on when (if?) Studio 8 will finally take its place among the town’s major players. At the very least, we won’t know until those first two movies get reactions and either do well at the box office or don’t. Regardless, something needs to happen there and soon. As much respect as Robinov has in this town, people aren’t going to wait around forever.