New Player in Town: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures looks for broad-appeal releases

Features
Movies Features

Amid so many career-wrecking scandals and horrifying fires, the new theatrical distribution entity Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures (ESMP), an offspring of comedian/entrepreneur Byron Allen’s L.A.-based global media operation Entertainment Studios (ES), is bringing some good news from Hollywood to theatres and film fans.

As the abundance of quality entertainment soars, dazzles and confuses, it could be said that—consumers and creators aside—the creation of ESMP, the new kid on the distribution block, might be seen as risky. But its odds rose this summer with its first release, the shark thriller hit 47 Meters Down, which may become the second-highest grossing indie film of 2017. ESMP’S next release, Hostiles, a classy western-drama starring Christian Bale that hit theatres on Dec. 22, suggests that that 47 was no stroke of beginner’s luck.

Releases to follow (see below) will be further proof that, as high-quality genre films for large audiences go, ESMP will continue to deliver the goods. (No knocking genre, especially with films like Get Out, The Shape of Water and Wonder Woman impressing this awards season.)

As with all “kids,” good parenting counts. ES founder and CEO Allen birthed his new theatrical distribution business from his 2015 purchase of Freestyle Releasing, the well-established independent service distribution company founded by industry veteran Mark Borde, now ESMP president of theatrical distribution, and the late Susan Jackson. When the highly regarded Jackson unexpectedly passed away, Allen, who had been a friend of Jackson’s, bought Freestyle, thus adding film distribution to the 25-year-old ES’ growing family of first-run television syndication, game shows, OTT sports and seven cable-network businesses.

Allen’s Freestyle purchase brought into the ESMP fold two significant Allen hires: Borde and Freestyle’s young gun Chris Charalambous, now the division’s head of acquisitions.

Californian Borde, an industry veteran brought up in the biz, has roots in exhibition. “I owned two theatres, one in L.A. and the other in Monterey and I know how theatres work from the inside out,” he says. Charalambous, who went Hollywood following a New York hospital administration job, was raised in Queens (“only a block and a half from where the Weinsteins grew up”). Arriving West with a bit of “star is born” backstory (“without a cent or financial safety net”), he became a serial temp, landing jobs at the E! Network, MGM and, most importantly, a full-time one with Pierce Brosnan’s production company Irish DreamTime where he remained eight years and met his first mentor, the late Beau St. Clair, Brosnan’s friend and production partner. Next on his C.V. was the job at Freestyle and a new mentor in Susan Jackson. As he explains it, St. Clair taught him “show business, what production was all about” and Jackson was “business show,” a way into the nuts and bolts of distribution and exhibition.

However different in age and background, Borde and Charalambous share a strong faith and focus—faith in the continuing strength of the theatrical platform (Says Borde, “People will always want to get out of the house and kids want to go out on dates”) and focus on bringing to large audiences on as many as 3,000 to 4,000 screens high-quality mainstream entertainment (“with lots of popcorn thrown in,” quips Borde).

But the mission is clear—ESMP, whether initially appealing to action fans, millennials or families, means to hit that often coveted, sometimes elusive mid-budget, MOR box-office sweet spot. Their slate (this reporter was afforded a look) offers a broad range of genres and subject matter and supports the ESMP mission.

Charalambous, after dealing with TWC’s Bob Weinstein, rescued Dimension Films’ 47 Meters Down from a direct-to-DVD fate. A pure genre exercise of thrills and damsels in distress, it’s a fun thriller about two sisters on vacation in Mexico on a pleasure boat outing for underwater shark-watching. Their cage takes them to the ocean bottom and a lurking shark, but, alas, needed better maintenance.

As contrast, the current Hostiles, which goes wide in January, has Christian Bale in one of his best roles, here as an embittered late-19th-century Army captain stationed at a fort in the remote West. He’s ordered to return a dying Cheyenne prisoner and his family through dangerous territory to his Montana homeland. With gorgeous vistas and an unobtrusive undercurrent of seriousness, Hostiles recalls the artistry and western adventures of Hawk and Ford or Zinnemann with High Noon.

Also for 2018, ESMP has the smart Chappaquiddick, a gripping political drama based on the 1969 scandal when Senator Ted Kennedy, then a Presidential hopeful, left the scene of a Martha’s Vineyard car accident that took the life of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kate Mara as Mary Jo, Jason Clarke as an uncannily credible Teddy and Bruce Dern as the harsh Kennedy patriarch add luster to a dark tale of crafty political maneuverings.

The sci-fi thriller Replicas, starring Keanu Reeves, has a scientist driven to bring back to life his deceased family from a tragedy he was involved in. It’s awash in suspense and the snazzy visuals that its tech-world setting demands.

Also moving “fast and furious” along ESMP’s genre lane is Rob Cohen’s (The Fast and The Furious) The Hurricane Heist, about a massive heist attempt at an Alabama U.S. Treasury mint facility during a category-five hurricane.

Next year also puts ESMP in the animation ring with Animal Crackers, about a family’s struggle (using a magical box of Animal Crackers!) to save a rundown circus from an evil uncle. The impressive voice cast (Emily Blunt, Danny DeVito, John Krasinski) should please the whole family.

Borde is deservedly excited about this lineup. He calls Hostiles “the best movie of the year!” He labels Hurricane Heist “deep in genre. It’s action, cars, a blast, popcorn film and what I like about going to the movies. No Academy Awards—just sit back and enjoy.” He calls his bias toward genre “a mainstream take with an indie bent.”

As Hostiles gets some buzz, so does the upcoming Chappaquiddick. (Yes, subject matter matters.) Says Borde, “It's controversial and a true story that reminds that some things never change. When you’re in a position of power you can make things happen, make things go away. It’s mind-boggling how some get away with that.”

ESMP’s overall m.o., says Borde, is “to license mostly for the U.S. and Canada, but on new titles we’re moving toward acquiring all rights worldwide when available.” ESMP isn’t (yet) in the tentpole business, but, says Borde, “we target wide releases and go after movies that can play 2,500 to 4,000 screens, which sets us apart from the smaller companies. I like them [smaller companies like Roadside Attractions, etc.], we’re friends but not competitive, because ESMP is in the studio space. We love thrillers, horror, comedy, African-American, animated. We try to find movies we can target without using a shotgun.”

ESMP also has the indie SVOD/VOD/DVD group Freestyle Digital Media and its vast library, which Charalambous oversees. “This programming feeds ES’ different cable, digital and broadcast business lines,” Borde notes.

Regarding what Borde sees as his biggest challenge, his quick answer is: “Finding what is called in the distribution business ‘shelf space’; there’s certainly no shortage of movies. Look at what we get each week: maybe four or five studio films and countless smaller films, and all the amenity choices to deal with. The 3D waves, IMAX, D-BOX. So many releases, often ten to twenty new ones each week, whether wide, limited, exclusive, but especially at the end of the year.

“So my challenge is to deal with shelf space, and as a distributor who’s been in the business a while, it’s a need to know how and when to hold or fold, or find that clear runway for your comedy, thriller, whatever. I’m very conscious of competition for the week and even before, because trailer-playing is critical to beginning traction. And there are always surprises and shifts, so you have to be nimble.”

Borde believes audiences today are different. “They’re younger, as proven by Pixar and Marvel [product]. Thematically, the audiences are there for tentpoles and older filmgoers are coming out for the right movie.”

As for exhibition’s seasonal attendance bumps and slumps, Borde acknowledges, “There are better times of the year for films, such as summer for mainstream and blockbusters, but it’s definitely a twelve-months-a-year business.” And there’s no bad playing time. “Good films can play anytime and cream rises to the top.”

Borde, who will be sticking to the 90-day window, praises exhibitors for “trying everything, even trying new ticket sales programs like what Regal and Arclight are doing. This is part of the evolution of a huge cultural industry and things are happening at lightning speed and we all have to cope and stay relevant.”

On the acquisitions side of ESMP, Charalambous says, “I’m looking for something specific—the wide releases that can go out to thousands of theatres and not the indie darlings. I’m going after commercial content, a movie-movie, an event of the action, horror, thriller, family kind.” For Freestyle Digital Media, he’s on the lookout for limited-release product or smaller discovery titles.

The company, he says, aims for a broader audience than do most other indie distributors, “Our mission,” he explains, “is to feed the audience, not chase an audience. We believed that our shark movie [47 Meters Down] would appeal to teens, and older audiences would follow. We are in the business of finding things that make the most sense and being able to say confidently, ‘This is a good movie and you will like it.’”

With so much content to sift through, how does Charalambous find what ESMP needs? He immediately responds with a claim of “good memory! And good networking and knowing a lot of people. We do great tracking, always talking to producers and hitting the big festivals like Cannes, AFM, Toronto, Sundance. As a company, we have our eyes and ears on all the festivals, even smaller, niche-ier ones.”

How ESMP landed 47 Meters Down is testament to staying in touch and being vigilant. “I knew the finance people and they tipped me to the fact that it was going to DVD. We felt it deserved better.”

ESMP’s western powerhouse Hostiles too is quite a get. Says Charalambous, “We knew the movie was out there and premiering at Telluride. We heard there was good response there, so we followed it to Toronto, where we acquired it.”

The coup that enabled ESMP to land Toronto-bound Chappaquiddick, says Charalambous, came by way of "a strong relationship between Apex Entertainment and our company and producer Mark Ciardi. They were intrigued by our new company, so we were able to buy the movie before Toronto.”

The acquisition of Replicas was also the result of pre-Toronto spotting. “ESMP had a relationship with Lotus Entertainment [on the film’s sales/production side], so we got an early look and came in.” It was part of Toronto’s “ghost” market, which takes place privately beyond the Festival’s regular sectors but leverages all the buyers in town.

As an acquirer, ESMP, he indicates, also shows the money and generous P&A commitments ($30-40 million potentially) for release to thousands of theatres. Further proof of deep pockets comes from reports of lost bids. “We made the biggest bid for The Birth of a Nation [a lucky loss, as the film’s release was ultimately undone by scandal],” he says, “and went big for Mudbound,” which Netflix grabbed. (ESMP has an output deal with Netflix.) ESMP caught both at Sundance and envisioned them for wide release.

And now a shark alert: Distribution soon won’t be ESMP’s only game, as it has just begun the dive into production with its undersea sequel 48 Meters Down. Says Borde, “As with producing any film, it’s a long and winding road. But we are so excited to be following up our huge success 47 Meters Down. We have secured the same creative team, although the film has not been cast as of yet.”