Well, this was a surprise. Don’t say it wasn’t, either, because if you try, you will be called out for the fibber that you clearly are. There’s just no other way to describe what Byron Allen has been doing at the Toronto Film Festival over the past few days, though “surprise” might not even be a strong enough word for it. “Shocker” or “stunner” might be better. Either way, I’m not sure anyone could have seen this coming, so now we have to take a step back and respect what the variety show host-turned-titan of the industry has accomplished.
First things first, let’s talk about the major deals he swung in just a few hours on Friday. Initially, he acquired the sci-fi flick Replicas starring Keanu Reeves for $4 million, then a couple hours later, he dropped $20 million on Chappaquiddick, the movie version of Ted Kennedy’s fatal car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and basically ended any chance he had of being president. Allen spent $20 million on that one in total. $4 million for the movie and an astonishing $16 million P&A commitment for the film, which his Entertainment Studios plans to put into theaters this fall and push hard for awards consideration.
This, by the way, from a distributor which has put out only one major movie so far, this summer’s 47 Meters Down. The thing is, that had been something of an accident. A project targeted for a VOD release and eternal life as a hard-to-find cult flick, but which instead became one of the summer’s sleeper hits, costing $5.5 million and bringing in over $44 million. It did well enough, in fact, that earlier in the week, ES announced a sequel, 48 Meters Down, which might not have the most original title, but does have the benefit of playing with the house’s money, since the first one was such a profitable outing.
Which means that life is pretty good right now for Mr. Allen, a guy who I first came across as a kid, when he was one of the hosts of the show, Real People, alongside the great Fred Willard and such lesser lights as Skip Stephenson, Sarah Purcell, and John Barbour. He worked throughout the ‘80s as a stand up comic and game show panelist, eventually getting his own talk show for a brief period in 1989, which started his career as a producer. After some sporadic success in the ‘90s, things kicked into gear in 2000 with the first of a series of documentaries, which led to more shows, like the stand up roundtable program Comics Unleashed — a show he hosted himself — as well as syndicated courtroom outings like Supreme Justice with Judge Karen, America’s Court with Judge Ross, Justice with Judge Mablean, and Justice for All with Judge Cristina Perez. Each of these produced hundreds of episodes, which didn’t just solidify the bonafides of his Entertainment Studios production shingle, it also funneled millions into his pockets, so that now his personal fortune is in the neighborhood of a half billion dollars.
On top of that, ES not only has several of its own cable channels, it also has an ongoing lawsuit against Charter Communications for racial discrimination, claiming that the company refused to pick up seven of those channels due to racial bias, and that Charter essentially doesn’t do business with 100 percent African American-owned companies. The suit, for $10 billion (yes, with a B), got the go ahead from a Federal District Court judge in April, after Charter filed a motion to dismiss, and it was denied. That means big trouble for Charter and a potentially enormous victory for the constantly growing Entertainment Studios empire.
Even with all that, said empire had been missing something, so, looking to make the move from the small screen to the big one, Allen saw an opportunity when the cash strapped Weinstein Brothers realized they had to sell some of their content to raise funds. One of the projects on their books was the shark movie 47 Meters Down, which they were basically going to dump before Allen came along, saw the potential, and took it off their hands for a few million bucks. Having also just picked up the failing distribution company Freestyle Releasing, he now had both the infrastructure to put a movie into theaters and a low budget, high concept horror movie to test the waters. With its amazing success, it has established Entertainment Studios as a viable option on the distribution side, something on which the company has now doubled down, thanks to these two pickups and that sequel announcement. Suddenly, stand up comic/talk show host/cheesy syndicated programming producer Byron Allen is a lot more than that, as he plays with the big boys, and has, in fact, essentially stolen Harvey Weinstein’s lunch. Basically, he has arrived, and he’s not going anywhere.
There’s a lot to digest about what this all means, moving forward. For one thing, the acquisition of Replicas puts him in business with a real, genuine movie star in Keanu Reeves. That kind of thing goes a long way, and if he handles Reeves and the film’s release right, it’s only going to burnish both his reputation and his company’s. If someone like Keanu is happy — and while people may enjoy giving him a hard time, Keanu Reeves is still unquestionably one of the biggest stars in the world — then others of his ilk will not hesitate in signing on to work with ES, because once you’re in The Club, people know it.
The other side of this, of course, is the major step taken with Chappaquiddick. That commitment to spend $16 million on publicity and advertising is a message to the rest of the industry that might as well be spelled out in fireworks: that Entertainment Studios is making its presence known as the purveyor of quality cinematic entertainment, and thus an entity with which to be reckoned. That movie gets any awards love at all, and it will do for the prestige factor what Keanu’s happiness does for the star factor. Combine the two, and, just like that, you’re the owner of a key indie distributor that jumps over some of the smaller ones and becomes an instant competitor to the Focus Features of the world.
Honestly, before all this, and even as a kid, I always thought Allen was something of a schmuck. But just take a look at what he’s done, and how he’s done it, and if there’s a schmuck in this equation, it’s clearly me.
From seemingly nowhere comes a company that could become a major disruptor moving forward, and now everyone has to sit up and take notice. Allen is forcing them to do so.