It’s one thing to break into the film distribution business on the lower budget side. That’s difficult enough, as evidenced by the numerous failed operations littering the side of the road over the years. (Gone and all but forgotten: Artisan, Newmarket, Fine Line, and Rogue just to name a few.) But to get involved on the higher end? To actually challenge the studios at their own game and, in fact, make an effort to produce the exact kinds of mid-budget movies they have forsaken? Hell, that’d be akin to a fool’s errand, wouldn’t it?
Well, if you’re Robert Simonds and Adam Fogelson at STX Entertainment, and Jeff Robinov at Studio 8, then you’re not thinking in exactly those terms. On the contrary, you’re thinking you can take on the system and win.
While Studio 8 has been in the works for some time, it’s really just getting started and will make its initial foray into the marketplace this fall. We’ll get to that shortly, though, because I think it’s appropriate to start with STX, which has made some bold moves over the last year or so, starting with Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut, the 2015 sleeper hit The Gift. The first film from the fledgling company cost $5 million to make, did almost $44 million domestically and close to $59 million worldwide, which is a big win no matter how you slice it.
The follow-up, the Americanized version of the Oscar-winning Argentinian flick The Secret In Their Eyes, was not nearly so successful, bringing back just $32 million worldwide off a $19.5 million budget, but considering these were the first two films out of the gate, a .500 winning percentage isn’t bad.
The up and down trend has continued through 2016, first a big win with the $10 million horror flick The Boy, which cleared $64 million worldwide. Then came the first person action flick Hardcore Henry, a movie that STX picked up for $10 million at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but which only did $9.2 million here and just $14 million overall. This summer’s highly touted Civil War pic, the $50 million Free State of Jones from director Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey, crashed and burned with just $20.8 million, with a negligible foreign return, by far the biggest set back the company has faced in its short term of existence.
Things would be all doom and gloom, for sure, if not for the brilliant piece of counter-programming that was Bad Moms, a $20 million comedy aimed at that long ignored moviegoing demographic, women, which should clear the $100 million mark domestically in the next few days, making it the first STX film to do so. Add in the $29 million it has taken in foreign grosses, and that makes it, by leaps and bounds, the most successful film the company has released.
So, if you’re keeping score, that’s six total movies, three big wins (one of them downright enormous), three losses (one of those equally large), and some questions. To wit, what is the company’s overall plan? It has clearly had both success and failure with genre films, and has more on the way, but how will it rise above such fare and get taken seriously as a major player? It’s evident that this is exactly what the company is trying to do, which is why it’s spending money and making the mid-budget films that the studios seem to have eschewed for their tentpole philosophy.
The fact is, there are four more STX movies slated for release this year, which would give it eight overall, on the way to an eventual plan of 12 to 15 each year. That would put it at the same level as one of the smaller studios, with a commensurate overall gross and market share. As it is, STX is at 2.0 percent so far in 2016. That’s a lot more impressive than it sounds, considering it’s only released four movies, which have combined to make over $160 million domestically. The four films still scheduled for release run the gamut, as well. In October, there’s the Spanish language thriller Desierto, from Jonas Cuarón, then the teen dramedy The Edge of Seventeen in November, and both the horror movie The Bye Bye Man and the interstellar romance The Space Between Us in December. The first three movies combined cost $16 million to make, with the fourth costing quite a bit more after it was purchased from Relativity during that company’s bankruptcy proceedings.
There is a fair amount riding on each of the films, of course, but expectations for any foreign film have to be somewhat limited, and while there is a definite audience for a teen film like Seventeen, it might have a hard time finding an audience during such a crowded fall. The Bye Bye Man seems a surer thing, but that still leaves us with Space, a movie with clearly large aspirations — it was moved from summer to the Wednesday before Christmas — but with a trailer that, with apologies, has not been terribly impressive. On at least three different occasions, I’ve heard it elicit laughter from a theatrical audience, and that’s not what this particular trailer is going for. There’s also the fact that the film is directed by Peter Chelsom, whose track record this century (Town and Country, Serendipity, Shall We Dance, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Hector and the Search for Happiness) is not awesome.
But regardless of whether or not that film is a success, the year would have to be considered one for the budding operation. It will be in the top 10 for sure, and will have set the groundwork for bigger years in 2017 and ’18. It has five films that have either wrapped or are in prep (including Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game), and no less than 16 projects in some form of development, including the Will Ferrell-Josh Gad led Russ and Roger Go Beyond and the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro-Joe Pesci-Al Pacino project, The Irishman. There is some prestige there to go along with the genre stuff, and that is probably what’s going to make or break the company, if the former can succeed as well as the latter. Thus far, it’s been middling, and it has to be better than that.
There’s also the fact that the company has just added equity partners — Chinese company Tencent and Hong Kong telecom giant PCCW — expanded its international division with a couple of important hires, and has entered into the world of virtual reality by acquiring producer and distributor of immersive content, Surreal Inc., so it’s at least being proactive. It will have to keep being so if it wants to fulfill its ultimate goal of playing with the big boys.
Studio 8 is a different story, simply because it won’t have released its first film until Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and even that is only a co-financing deal, along with TriStar and Film4. The company is set to work with Sony for the next five years, with the distributor handling the worldwide release of Studio 8’s fare everywhere but China.
Robinov had a pretty amazing run at Warner Bros., leading the studio to the best years in its history, before leaving in 2013 after Kevin Tsujihara won the CEO job in a competition that also included Bruce Rosenblum. The speculation abounded about where he would land until it was announced he was starting Studio 8, and we’ve been waiting for the company’s first film ever since. Warner, meanwhile, has not done nearly as well in his absence, though it is having a solid year in 2016.
But we’ve already covered Warner here, so let’s come back to the task at hand, which is to do more speculation about what Robinov’s new operation has in store. After Billy Lynn, the next film up is The Solutrean, Albert Hughes’ epic story of survival 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age. It might seem an odd choice to be the first film that is wholly a Studio 8 production but, based on his track record, it’s probably safe to give Robinov the benefit of the doubt.
What’s most interesting is that he clearly remains the same filmmaker-friendly executive he was when he ran Warner’s film division. Lee is one of the finest directors on the planet and he has already committed to making his next movie, Thrilla in Manilla, for Studio 8. Also among the 16 films on its development roles are a combination of prestige projects and more epic fare, like a pair of projects with The Witch director Robert Eggers on board to helm, as well as White Boy Rick, which is one of the hottest projects going and has ‘71 director Yann Demange on board to make it.
On the whole, you have to believe that the cred Robinov established for himself during his time at Warner Bros. will follow him to his new venture, but there is every reason to think that he won’t necessarily come flying out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. The thing is, starting a new operation of any size, much less one of this size, is inherently complicated and fraught with peril. Just look at what’s happened with STX. Those ups and downs are part of the game, and it’s not unreasonable to think that a similar start is in store for Studio 8.
The best thing we can do is to come back in a year and check on their progress, but it’s still okay to be bullish on both. At least cautiously bullish, anyway.
Next week, we’ll take a new tack, and start looking at the major broadcast and cable networks, as we move from the Studio Series to the Network Series. See you then.
For more entries in our studio series, click here.