EXCLUSIVE: Amid the shifting landscape of the international business comes a big change at Lionsgate. Veteran international exec and Motion Picture Group Co-Chairman Patrick Wachsberger is exiting the company as he sets his sights on building a new business. Wachsberger is pleased to be moving on to another adventure. “I am an entrepreneur by nature,” he told me as we chatted in the Lionsgate office this week at the Cannes Film Festival.
Wachsberger’s departure comes six-and-a-half years after Lionsgate merged with Summit Entertainment, which he helped launch in 1993. The France native is not by any means looking to slow down. He told a group of industry revelers here, “There is a lot I intend to do between Lionsgate and the Pearly Gates.”
His exit comes at a time of transition not only for Lionsgate, but also for the industry. Potential buyers have in the past year circled Lionsgate, which acquired Starz in late 2016. And there have been major changes in the executive suite. Motion Picture Group Co-President Erik Feig is leaving and Joe Drake returned last fall as Motion Picture Group Co-Chairman after previously exiting to build Good Universe, which Lionsgate acquired in 2017. The company is in Cannes with its next big franchise hopeful The Kingkiller Chronicle from director Sam Raimi, which Wachsberger says is introducing “a great, amazing universe.”
The industry, meanwhile, is facing a sea of disruption and questions about business models, including the international sales model Wachsberger has been at the heart of. He discusses that below as well as reflecting on the past and looking to the future.
DEADLINE: Twenty-five years of Summit/Lionsgate is a long time — but nobody thinks you’re retiring.
PATRICK WACHSBERGER: I’m not retiring at all. I like to build things. There’s nothing more for me to build at Lionsgate.
DEADLINE: Do you know exactly what you’re going to do?
WACHSBERGER: I know what I don’t want to do. The good news for me is that I don’t need to… I’m fine. It’s very important for me to do the right move. I don’t want to open the wrong door, so I’m going to take my time, but not too much time.
DEADLINE: Leaving Lionsgate is an end of an era for you at a time of big overall change.
WACHSBERGER: This is the exciting time. During this sea change this is really the right time to build something new and be nimble.
DEADLINE: Is this the most exciting time because of the disruption?
WACHSBERGER: Well, I’ve never seen a disruption at this level before. But, you know, it’s a sexy business. There is a lot of money in the world available for this business. It can come from different sources… The goal for me now is to create a vehicle that I can monetize for my partners and myself in the next three-to-five years.
DEADLINE: That’s pretty fast.
WACHSBERGER: I think I know the international business pretty well and I think that’s where the growth is, more than domestic. I don’t think that many people in our field — I mean there’s a bunch of great people in this business who know the international business, I’m not saying I’m the only one — but there aren’t that many, and I think it’s exciting to put the pieces together.
DEADLINE: As you leave Lionsgate, and with Joe Drake back and Good Universe having been acquired, what’s the shape of the company?
WACHSBERGER: I think great. First of all, when I came in I worked a little with Helen Lee-Kim and Michael Meyer. Actually, I wanted them to stay but they decided to go with Joe (to Good Universe) which I understand because they are very loyal. I know them and they’re doing a great job. Lionsgate has done a lot of output deals or extensions of output deals over the last few months. It’s all good, they have really good relationships.
I came in with Rob Friedman and the team that was at the beginning. Remember that we had to blend. We had two marketing teams. There was the Summit team, the Lionsgate team. There were the Summit movies that I still had to release. There was nothing really in the drawer at Lionsgate. They had done one film, Hunger Games, and there was not a line written on the sequel, there was really nothing else and the stock was at $9.28 when I came in in 2012. So I think we achieved quite a lot and now I want to build something.
In terms of the creative side with all the projects Erik (Feig), all the production team and I put together there are movies that Joe is going to want to do and some that he’s not going to want to do. There’s some that if he doesn’t want to do it, I’d be very happy to take them over, right?
DEADLINE: Is there going to be a formal arrangement?
WACHSBERGER: I think there are projects that I know Joe doesn’t necessarily want to do and I would like to do and I’m sure it’s going to be the same with Erik. The only thing is, I’m not going to compete with Erik. If there is one project that is not going to stay on with Lionsgate, that Joe is not sure that he wants to do and Erik wants to do, I’m not going to step in his way. But it’s totally fine. If it wasn’t I don’t think they would throw a party for me. It’s all good.
The thing I’m going to miss is a lot of the people, people that I worked with only at Lionsgate and the people that I brought from Summit. And I really like Jon Feltheimer. I have tremendous respect for him. He’s doing a great job at something I would be totally incapable to do.
DEADLINE: Why incapable?
WACHSBERGER: Because I couldn’t run a public company of this size. I wouldn’t be good at it. (Feltheimer) and Michael Burns put all those pieces together over the years and figuring out how to integrate a culture within that is quite amazing.
DEADLINE: Did you have an exit all mapped out from 2012 when you merged? Was this part of a five-year-plus plan?
WACHSBERGER: Actually, I did not believe that I would survive there, truly. I was like “Wow, public company, corporate world, I’m not really the boss.” So at Summit I was, although we had shareholders. But, you know, I was making decisions. Sometimes really bad, sometimes good.
DEADLINE: What were some of the bad ones?
WACHSBERGER: The bad ones were when I was screaming louder. When they were saying we shouldn’t do this movie, (I was saying) “Yeah we should do it!” So it’s kind of different when I arrived at Lionsgate. They had done a very good job of selling movies, my predecessors, but there was no international structure of selling movies. It created an interesting international structure which I kind of duplicated things I have done over the years like output deals which I really started doing at Summit at the beginning… So with the help of the rest of the team I basically created something strategically that protects the downside and keeps an upside and helps facilitate the greenlight process.
DEADLINE: Do you still believe in that model of selling off international, even on the bigger movies?
WACHSBERGER: I don’t call it selling, I call it licensing and I have to say to you when we did the valuation of Summit in 2007 when I was basically selling the company for the first time to Merrill Lynch, we were doing the re-fi and we basically looked at the amount of money we had generated in terms of overages on movies. It was big, so it’s not like we’re giving the store away.
DEADLINE: But some speculate that you’re leaving too much money on the table under this model.
WACHSBERGER: I hear you and I promised myself that I would re-do the exercise now (with) other movies we’ve had at Lionsgate since the beginning in 2012 and running our income versus if we had done a studio deal. I bet you that even with successes like The Hunger Games and a Twilight, we are probably better off having done it the way we did.
DEADLINE: In the current climate, do offshore distributors prefer output deals?
WACHSBERGER: It depends on the time. But if there is a company that can provide them a potential locomotive that they need to move some other movies that they have in their library, the answer is yes. Some of them have been burnt. I’m not talking about by us, but some of them have been burnt. Look, I think the way I have behaved in my relationship with distributors when it hurts, I’m trying to help them. I’ve always been a long-term player and I think there is a trust factor: “You know what? You’ve been hurt on this movie — and it happens — so I’m going to figure out a way to make good.”
DEADLINE: You talk about the growth being in international. A next venture would be very international facing, right?
WACHSBERGER: I have not made a business plan because now I am still totally Lionsgate. We start shooting John Wick 3 (soon) and Kingkiller Chronicle and there are some other movies I really want to put on the runway before I go. So what I think I want to do is I would like to myself put together and produce probably three movies a year. If I don’t find three, I’ll do two. I also want to do some television. I was never really involved in TV, but it happened that at Lionsgate I brought to Kevin Beggs, for whom I have tremendous respect, six properties which on five on them he said “Let’s do it.” So I thought, “Maybe that’s important to do as well.”
Starting with that, there is a lot of possible true co-production properties, remakes, and there are a lot of companies around the world who are willing to get involved at the early stage on more international stuff. I’m talking about very national companies who are, let’s say, in France, and are the best at doing French movies. They would not mind getting involved in international movies but they don’t have the right people. That’s an opportunity.
DEADLINE: And you’re leaving Lionsgate as The Kingkiller Chronicle is gearing up with the hope of a new franchise.
WACHSBERGER: The book is great. It’s massive and such a rich universe. This is the goal for every single studio: How to get a franchise. I remember for us at Summit the first one was Step Up and then Twilight and Now You See Me and Divergent. On this one, there is no question it could be a minimum of three movies and could be as many as six. Patrick Rothfuss is writing another book now and it’s going to be a big book in terms of size. I have no idea when he’s going to come out with it, but it’s such a great, amazing universe and that’s I think probably one of the reasons Sam Raimi took it, and he was not the only one who wanted it. And Lin-Manuel Miranda, that was an incoming call. Usually on movies you try to go after a director and other people. On this one it was coming our way. It took a long time. We had to go to Comic-con to basically track Patrick to convince him to do a movie and to do it with us.
DEADLINE: During this time with Lionsgate, what’s been the biggest victory in your eyes?
WACHSBERGER: There’s a moment of lows, there’s a moment of highs. I mean look, small stuff like Wonder and La La Land. The thing is of course it was great to do The Hunger Games but it was like already expected, which was great. But it’s stuff like when Erik and I met Damien (Chazelle) — and we kind of totally blew it, by the way in not getting Whiplash which afterwards I kind of intellectualized and realized if we had had Whiplash we might or might not have done as good or better job than Sony Classics. But if the movie was not a success, maybe he would not have done La La Land with us. You know what I mean? And that was really great because we got it, he got us. And on Wonder, (producer) Todd Lieberman used to work with me at Summit a long time ago… He left, but we remained very close friends and so Todd sent Erik and I the book of Wonder.
I remember I was with my family on holiday in Bora Bora and I read the book and my daughter said, “Dad, why are you reading this kids book?”… I loved it and Erik loved it. Then you go to the board and explain the book, so those are the great moments.
DEADLINE: And what about when something got away and you misjudged?
WACHSBERGER: The oops? You basically do a post-mortem. Sometimes you figure out why like on Gods Of Egypt. Some of it I never thought about. I would never do a movie where it’s all visual effects. For me, never again.
DEADLINE: How do you get past that?
WACHSBERGER: You go to the next one. You have to deal with the consequence vis à vis your partners. There’s two schools. “Sorry, we’re not in the insurance business, we’re not Lloyd’s of London.” This is not me, this is not the way we have been educated, nor me, nor Erik Feig with whom I worked 17 years. And so you basically try not to do the same mistake again. I don’t know what to tell you.
(With distribution partners) you’re going to have to make good. The terrible thing of the sales business is you have a movie from a third party and you license the movie to a third party and they lose money and then you have to make good with your own movie. That’s what hurts.
DEADLINE: What is the greatest challenge you currently face? And what’s the greatest opportunity?
WACHSBERGER: I don’t know what the challenge is because it’s every day. There’s a challenge absolutely every day so the challenge is to find the solution to every hurdle, right? And the great opportunity for me is to build things with people I like and admire, and I feel totally ready for the challenge.