EXCLUSIVE: Brett Ratner reveals he has found his next directing project. It’s called The Libertine, and Johnny Depp is attached to a Ben Kopit script, with Lloyd Braun and Andrew Mittman producing. The focus is a powerful French politician who endures house arrest in a luxury NYC apartment while awaiting trial for sexual assault against a hotel maid. It is loosely based on the 2011 incident involving French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Warner Bros is involved and it is being talked up at Cannes, as foreign will be sold here on the picture.
Many film directors might like to think of themselves as disruptors, but it’s easy to see why Brett Ratner fits the mold better than most. How many helmers not named Spielberg moonlight as co-financier of a slate as large as the one Warner Bros. generates each year, and supplement that with minority investments in New Regency films like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant and Birdman, Warren Beatty’s upcoming Howard Hughes film and Assassin’s Creed with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard? Add to that one-offs like the Robert Redford Cate Blanchett drama Truth, that Ratner sold to Sony Pictures Classics last Cannes, and a slate of documentaries like Bright Lights, about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, that premieres this Cannes, and the one on director Sidney Lumet that played the festival last year.
All this happened after James Packer—son of the late Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer—asked Ratner to be his partner and guide in Hollywood when they formed RatPac and made a multi-year arrangement to finance around 25% of all Warner Bros. films. That hasn’t left Ratner a lot of time to direct his own movies, but he found his next film through the studio. That’s where he got The Libertine, a small film that he said was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets The Wolf Of Wall Street. Since Depp made a film with that title, it will probably change, but Ratner said it’s different from anything the director has done before.
“I read all the scripts, usually when the movies are ready to be green-lit, and this was the one where I said, ‘My god, I wish I was directing this,’” Ratner says. “The whole movie takes place in one location and I’ve never done that before. It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. People are surprised, because I’ve always been a commercial filmmaker, and this is a much smaller movie. I waited for something to come along where I could say to Kevin Tsujihara, ‘Kevin, this is the one I want to direct.’ I don’t see us financing movies I direct, that gets a little complicated, but it is wonderful to have a studio that releases and markets films so well, when we put together our own films that need distribution.”
Ratner and Packer joined Warner Bros. around the time the studio went into a cold streak. It has led some to question RatPac’s fortitude, but Ratner says the history of slate financing shows that you hang in there, and they started the arrangement with such outsized successes—Gravity and The Lego Movie—that they are in the win column.
“Even with a studio that isn’t on a hot streak, there is the occasional big hit that brings you back to profitability. You might have five that don’t work, but then you get American Sniper. You have to look at it long term. We believe in Warner Bros. as a studio, we believe in their distribution and marketing, and their business.”
It’s about perception too, he says, as in the case of Batman v Superman. “How can a movie that costs $250 million and grosses $900 million be called a disappointment? I’ll go to the bank every day on a movie with those numbers. We don’t get caught up in the hype of a hit, or a failure. What’s important is we’re going to have over 100 major movies in our library. When DreamWorks sold its movie library to Paramount, they weren’t going, ‘Well this one or that one was a stinker.’ They said, ‘What is the value of the whole library?’ And there was big value in that library.”
RatPac owns 25% of every Warner Bros. film, and Ratner says that on some films, they make additional investments, particularly on films they produce which included Black Mass, which Ratner said made money. He lost money on the sequel to Horrible Bosses, but doesn’t regret the investment. “That movie tested high, but it was released on a family weekend, a hard thing for an R-rated sex comedy. You win some and lose some, and we’re in this for the long play. That included hanging in when Inarritu’s The Revenant went far over its budget, and RatPac and especially New Regency were faced with those overages.
“I was proud to be able to support Alejandro, but that movie was green lit at a much smaller budget and then I got the call from Alejandro, saying ‘Cabron, I need your support. Can you come up to Canada and look at what we’re doing, and see if it is worth you increasing your investment, with Arnon. I went, I looked at it and realized it was worth the risk. It was always going to be risky because of the subject matter, but Leonardo DiCaprio took away at least a big part of that risk as does Alejandro being a great filmmaker. I wouldn’t call it scary, but no one likes to lose money. We felt that in the worst scenario, it wasn’t going to break the bank for us. Arnon was under pressure because he had a much bigger stake in the film and we only took 25% of the movie. That was still huge money.”
Ratner thinks his new role is helped by him being a filmmaker. “I am happy to stay at a distance, and back a great filmmaker like Alejandro when he needs me,” he explains. The movie turned a profit, and while that profit was smaller than it might have been because of the additional investment, its production wasn’t possible on the original number. “Arnon was all in, and we were right there by his side. I’m happy being the guy that Alejandro or Scott Cooper can call and say, ‘I need you on this one,’ if they are fighting with a studio, or trying to influence the marketing. I’m happy to serve as the middle man and help get them what they need.”
Ratner wasn’t planning to become this involved in investment until Packer came to him. “I was happy selling myself as a director,” he says. But it changed his perception in Hollywood.”If a major book comes to the marketplace, RatPac is going to be one of the major players bidding for it. We paid $3 million for The Goldfinch, and split that with Warners. We’re probably the most prolific major company in the documentary space today, doing 10 to 15 of them a year.”
Output deals with Netflix and strong relationships with Amazon and iTunes has taken much of the hardship out of getting those films made, Ratner says. Other growing initiatives are producing homegrown films, both in Hollywood and China.
“I’ve got scripts I want to do, including the Milli Vanilli story, and I’m developing the Hugh Hefner Playboy movie again. Now that I have a finance company, I can pay for development and get things going. And we can buy books and scripts. We went after that David Grann book Killers of the Flower Moon that got stupid and sold for $5 million. I think the script for The Goldfinch, and the one for The Libertine, are two of the best I’ve read in years. There’s another based on the Ben Mezrich book Once Upon A Time In Russia, about the rise of the oligarchs, where I actually had the idea, pitched it to Ben and he wrote the book. That is a bit of reverse engineering; to hire a writer to do a book, and then sell his book into a movie.”
And then there’s the other major RatPac initiative, which is investment in China. “Most of my partner’s wealth is out of China; the casinos in Macau through Melco Crown and now Studio City. These casinos are hybrids, these Disneyesque entertainment resorts. The Chinese just don’t gamble at casinos; they want a place for entertainment. James has plugged Warner Bros. into that.”
Ratner says RatPac and Warner Bros have a content fund with China Media Capital’s Li Ruigang and that is the company Warners partnered with on Flagship, where those parties have teamed on a slate of local language Chinese movies. That includes My Beautiful Coma, a script that RatPac had been developing as a Hollywood film, that instead will first be done as a Chinese film. Ratner will also do a Chinese version of his film Family Man.
Last year, Ratner held court at Cannes on Packer’s boat, a foreboding-looking refashioned Arctic icebreaker that was refashioned as a luxury yacht. He has a long history at Cannes, including a time when he got so frustrated by the way Hotel du Cap management stuck him and his then girlfriend, tennis star Serena Williams, in a tiny room. Ratner got even by asking exiting guests to give him their rooms, which meant that the hotel couldn’t double dip by renting them again during the festival. The hotel in turn banned Ratner, a dispute that eventually blew over. It won’t matter, as Ratner this year will be ensconced on some yacht or other. This is all heady stuff for a Miami kid who grew up loving movies.
“I don’t think I’ve changed, but my role has, and the perception of me,” Ratner says. “People will say, ‘Brett’s a mogul.’ I don’t like it, but our logo is now on so many movies that I understand it. My passion is for movies, and for supporting filmmakers. Financing movies is now my job, and this is a big company making a lot of bets. Then there is directing—my first love—followed by making documentaries, which is my hobby, and maybe the thing that gives me the most joy.”