EXCLUSIVE: After yet another Hollywood sequel/remake opened to a collective yawn from reviewers and restless audiences, is there room for a little risk taking in this summer sequel season? The 10-year-old financing/producing concern Media Rights Capital is heavily invested in the affirmative. Twice this summer, it will test a formula that has become the core of the company: meaningful creative risk vs manageable financial risk.
MRC just saw the release of Season 5 of the groundbreaking Netflix series House Of Cards and follows with the July 21 premiere of Ozark with Jason Bateman directing every episode and starring with Laura Linney. Its movie bets start Wednesday with the $40 million-budget Edgar Wright-directed Baby Driver, followed by the August 4 release of the $60 million-budget The Dark Tower, the first in what is hoped to be a continuing story line that can be exploited in movies and/or TV series, based on the eight-novel series by Stephen King. Unlike most of the studio fare this summer, neither film has to gross even close to $600 million to break even; either would be wildly profitable at that figure.
In a normal summer, these films might get crushed by studio behemoths teeming with VFX and costing five times as much as MRC/Sony’s offerings. But summer has barely begun and already the words “franchise fatigue” have become a common catch phrase, this after sequels/reboots like Pirates Of The Caribbean, Alien: Covenant, Transformers and The Mummy flamed out quickly at the domestic box office. Time for something a little different? Modi Wiczyk, who co-founded and runs MRC with Asif Satchu, is banking on it.
“MRC is interested in the original film or TV shows that have some element of creative risk that can only be delivered by an excellent artist,” Wiczyk said in distilling the formula. “We try to be financially judicious so that if we miss the narrow bull’s-eye creatively, we’re still commercially and financially viable. We’re a boutique. We don’t have to fill a slate; there’s no volume requirement and it’s resolutely because these are the only kinds of things we want to make. We’ve been below the radar but have been doing this a long time and fortunately, a lot of directors and writers we respect have come to know us for this. We have investors, but we don’t have to answer to them; it is just the partners of MRC that control the company. So there’s no green light committee. We’re not a fund.”
Wiczyk and Satchu were Harvard Business School classmates. Wiczyk went off to learn the movie business with stints running production for Summit Entertainment and then at Endeavor where he became a partner and raised money for production companies. Satchu cut his teeth in hedge funds before building the Canadian self-storage company StorageNow and the supply chain SMKT. They came back together and incubated MRC at Endeavor, making an early splash by staking and then selling at a premium films like Bruno, the Sacha Baron Cohen Borat follow-up that made tons of money for that artist before a frame of footage was shot.
MRC has taken big creative swings since them, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Wiczyk said MRC covers half the budget risk, with a studio partner. Its projects somehow veered from the pack creatively and Wiczyk said he and his team learned many hard lessons as they avoided formulaic fare, hoping to find seams in the marketplace with commercial films that are inherently risky. Baby Driver is exactly the kind of film MRC would make every year.
Ansel Elgort, best known for The Fault In Our Stars, plays the title character. An unflappable getaway driver, Baby’s equilibrium was damaged by a childhood car crash that left him with a ringing in his ear that is eased by ear buds full of pulsing pop tunes. Baby’s soundtrack has been cleverly choreographed by Wright into a heist film in such a way that it seems itself to be a character as much as the bad guys played by Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez.
Said Wiczyk: “Baby Driver was a question of, can you actually syncopate an entire movie to music, as opposed to having music serve the pace of the movie? MRC’s answer was, yes, that was an acceptable creative risk. To be in that business, you need to do it a lot, and sustain mistakes and be willing to creatively miss the mark sometimes in order to learn lessons. At some point, you increase the likelihood that the artist and movie will succeed, and decrease the likelihood it will fail catastrophically. We’ve done this ten years and still make mistakes for the first time, in creative and marketing.”
Industry estimates place the five-day domestic box office of Baby Driver at a high of $25 million, but a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes on a relatively small sample of reviews leaves open the chance for a better performance, fueled by word of mouth.
Baby Driver came MRC’s way when Wright developed Ant-Man for years at Marvel, and then dropped out after clashing creatively with the superhero factory. He was immediately courted by Wiczyk and MRC’s films co-presidents Brye Adler and Jonathan Golfman, even before he could retreat back to the UK to lick his wounds.
“We’d been pursuing Edgar for a very long time, and knew [his Big Talk Productions partner] Nira Park and Eric Fellner, and when Ant-Man fell apart, we said some version of, ‘Don’t go home, don’t go to the airport, drive right over here, we’re going to make an original movie with you,'” Wiczyk said. “Edgar always made cool movies, but it was so obvious he could accomplish even more. Our attitude was, the minute you want to do a big commercial film, do us the honor of letting us be your partner. It was just the right moment in time. Edgar says, I’ve always wanted to make Baby Driver. He sent us the script, and also sent us a reel he constructed with like 25 different car movies that informed what he wanted Baby Driver to look like. We tried to guess all the movies, but some were very obscure. It was clear, though, that this was something in his blood and that he was obsessed by what he wanted to do with this character.”
Tom Rothman, running TriStar at the time for Amy Pascal, loved the script and asked MRC to be its studio partner, sharing in the production, budget and marketing costs. Rothman then took over Sony, with Hannah Minghella becoming point person on the film for TriStar. Rothman is now poised to potentially deliver a much needed sleeper, before the Marvel-steered Spider-Man Homecoming arrives for Sony next month.
“We always partner with studios so that was an easy yes,” Wiczyk said. “Tom loves original movies and has brass balls about taking bets on them if they are priced right. He stood in the pocket with us, in a big way, here and on The Dark Tower. ”
The Dark Tower constitutes a risk for reasons that go beyond casting Idris Elba as the gunslinger Roland Deschain, on whose shoulders his mythical world, and our world, rest. Author King wrote the character as a white protagonist. And like Baby Driver, The Dark Tower isn’t easily characterized in a logline, or an attempt to confine it to a single genre. But to Wiczyk, King, Sony and filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel (who legend has it helped himself learn English by reading King’s books), Elba personified the essence of the cool but world-weary gunslinger.
“Stephen King was inspired by watching the coolest cat of that era, Clint Eastwood, in A Fistful Of Dollars,” Wiczyk said. “We all asked reflexively: Who is the biggest bad ass actor out there, the coolest person alive? We challenge anyone to find someone cooler than Idris. This was all an echo of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, on some level. And Matthew McConaughey can convey menace in a very unusual, interesting way and the idea of him and Idris just felt right.”
Wiczyk said both films packed a lot of production value into budgets that seem low compared to other studio-released summer fare. Baby Driver features several hair-raising car chase sequences in the $40 million budget film. They feel very different from those in this year’s preeminent car chase epic Fate Of The Furious, which cost a reputed $250M and grossed north of $1B globally.
“There are real stunts, real car chases in this film, and Edgar Wright has told tales of hanging off the car hood,” Wiczyk said. “It’s not CGI, it’s real.”
On The Dark Tower, the gamble was to streamline a gargantuan story and focus it into a single satisfying film, whether or not it generates a sequel. The picture first berthed at a major studio in 2010 when Universal set Ron Howard to direct Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation, with two sequels mapped out along with two contained limited series. The project bounced to Warner Bros, and despite actors like Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe being courted to play Deschain, no studio would take the plunge. Wiczyk said that King’s unusual option deals (he takes $1 upfront in ticking clock deals with strong reversion clauses) left the project largely unencumbered when it came MRC’s way around 2012.
“We always appreciated the challenges of adapting it, knowing that it was multi-genre, but like Baby Driver, it triangulated well as an MRC film in that it was commercially minded, creatively risky and could be financially judicious,” Wiczyk said. “They had been trying to do a certain version and I emailed Akiva, Ron and Brian Grazer and said, if you want to do a more low-to-the-ground version, we are keen.” The project was reconstituted with a streamlined plot that crosses multiple worlds. Setting part of the film in New York helped bring down costs of setting the whole film in a fantasy world.
Wiczyk said managing financial risk is crucial for something MRC tries to convey in all of its films: crucial moments when the audience is presented with a twist it will either spark to, or else cut and run.
Said Wiczyk: “In House Of Cards, the moment Kevin Spacey looked at the camera and started talking to the audience? If the audience rejects that, the show’s over, it’s done. That’s the huge creative leap you’re asking the audience to take. Same with Baby Driver. The minute Ansel Elgort starts dancing in that car in the first scene, the audience is either in or out. Lots of our movies have had that embedded risk. When they work, it’s special. With Ted, people were asking why are you spending so much on the visual effects, why don’t you bring down the costs by making him animatronic? Seth MacFarlane said at the beginning, you have to believe that bear is real, and think of him as a character. These are the all-or-nothing moments MRC seeks out. You’ve got to have Seth, or David Fincher and Kevin Spacey, or Edgar Wright. And when they are right, you’re going to get something you haven’t seen before.”
Since Wiczyk stressed the trial and error inherent in creative risk, I ask about several of those films that didn’t seem to do that well, from Ted 2 to Elysium, latter of which was Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up (MRC also co-financed Blomkamp’s Chappie, which also wasn’t a hit. Wiczyk said that while expectations might have been high, each of those films validated themselves in MRC internal post-mortems.
“Ted 2 did over $200 million worldwide and is still one of the top R-rated comedy performers of all time, after the first was the single highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time,” he said. “If there was a lesson: Ted 2 was preceded the week before by Inside Out and the week before that with Jurassic World. That two-week stretch is the first time in 35 years that two movies opened that ended up doing over a billion dollars in domestic box office, combined. We opened in the thick of the absolute worst possible competitive environment. The movie business is unpredictable; you fight for a date not knowing what’s going to happen. Ted 2‘s $30 million was a very good opening for an R-rated film. If you go against four-quadrant heavyweights like Jurassic and Inside Out, you’re a middleweight. It was bad placement and if we had it do again, we probably would have pulled it and moved it to the fall.”
On Elysium, Wiczyk said the film did well, considering the audacity of Blomkamp’s vision.
“The movie grossed $300 million worldwide, and it is basically an allegory for universal health care,” Wiczyk said. “It had an aggressively anti-capitalist social message, cloaked in robots and explosions. It had something to say. It cost around $90 million, and when you make an R-rated movie where the hero – who by the way steals money from a girl with cancer – dies at the end, and where the entire message of the film is universal health care…well, where is the financial history chart for that kind of risk? Matt Damon’s character doesn’t live happily ever after, and is unlike-able. It was not an easy movie to land, commercially or creatively, but we took the risk and didn’t play it safe. I’d call that one a double. If you don’t nail these creatively risky projects just right, they might not land with audiences the way easier, more familiar choices might. But when they do land, you have something special. That’s the question we ask at MRC, all the time. We just don’t want to know if something can be good; we want to know that, if the artist really nails it, it can be special. That comes with opening ourselves up to the risks of failure associated with that.”
Wiczyk said MRC’s appetite for risk continues co-financing with Universal the $100 million-budget Mortal Engines, the film produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. It is a futuristic action film in which Earth’s cities now roam the globe on huge wheels, running over and gobbling up other moving worlds to consume diminishing resources. While Jackson and Walsh are overseeing it, the film’s directed by Christian Rivers, a first timer who is their VFX protégé and second unit directing protégé from The Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit and King Kong, with newcomers heading the cast. Beyond Bateman’s Ozark, the TV projects include Counterpart (Jungle Book writer Justin Marks wrote the espionage/sci-fi mashup and Morton Tyldum exec produces and directed the pilot with JK Simmons starring), and The One Percent, a series created by Oscar-winning The Revenant helmer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu with his Birdman cohorts Alexander Dinelaris Jr. Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo, with Chivo Lubezki directing the first episode and setting the visual style for the series.
While that is a substantial outlay on projects that sound great on paper, Wiczyk said that MRC has balanced its risk accordingly. He said this when I asked if he was putting all MRC’s chips on the table, beginning this summer.
“We don’t think putting all our chips on the table is ever an appropriate gamble,” Wiczyk said. “MRC will never knowingly play a hand that will put us out of the game because then we will never get to take another risk.”