Today, Entertainment Studios has broadened its awards season release of Hostiles, the Scott Cooper-directed Western that stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi. It is the biggest prestige film play so far for Entertainment Studios, the company owned by Byron Allen, who is moving aggressively into the movie business space after establishing himself in a way similar to Merv Griffin, for whom television syndication was the fulcrum for his other ambitions. Allen said his company’s goal is to release as many as 17 feature films in 2018, including Hostiles and two others he bought at the Toronto Film Festival, Chappaquiddick and the Keanu Reeves-starrer genre film Replicas. Allen, the only African American owner of a movie studio releasing theatrical films and backing them with healthy P&A spends, explains why he’s bullish on the indie film game.
DEADLINE: You came out of Toronto with the shocking Ted Kennedy expose Chappaquiddick under your arm, and that was going to be your big awards season film to follow your summer breakout hit 47 Meters Down. You moved that picture into spring, 2018 and today you broaden the release of Hostiles. There was an understanding during Toronto that whoever acquired to release Hostiles would have to be quick, since Christian Bale has that Dick Cheney movie with Adam McKay coming next season. What happened?
BYRON ALLEN: Chappaquiddick is an amazing movie. The world changed, shortly after Toronto and the [Harvey] Weinstein blow up happened in a big way. The press started tying the two together.
ALLEN: We had a major publication reach out, wanting to talk about the Weinstein today vs Chappaquiddick, 40 years ago. There were certain members of the press looking for that narrative and wanting to tie and connect and talk about the Weinstein issue and the Kennedy in summer of ’69. We wanted to put some distance between that ground zero on Weinstein. It was less to do with Christian Bale. We didn’t want the movie to be treated as a news event, and after Weinstein changed the perspective, it became 24/7 when it first hit.
DEADLINE: Your biggest hit, the shark movie 47 Meters Down, was one you rescued from The Weinstein Company when it was going straight to video. So, I guess the Weinsteins giveth, and the Weinsteins taketh?
ALLEN: Well, that’s one way of looking at it. We just wanted a bit of room and distance so Chappaquiddick wasn’t part of the current news narrative. And then we found Hostiles.
DEADLINE: An epic Western that is set in 1892 but has a protagonist with PTSD, a man dealing with racism and feeling like a dinosaur as his way of life gives way to the Industrial Revolution. Themes strangely relevant to now. What grabbed you?
ALLEN: I felt Hostiles really captured where we are today. This past summer and the one before, I hiked in my family in the mountains and was thinking, what a beautiful country. I can’t believe how this was stolen from the Native Americans and I felt strongly we needed to look at what happened there, and how we needed to start looking in a fair honest way the genocide committed against Native Americans in stealing their land. Only then would we heal as a nation. Because we act like it didn’t happen and we perpetuate the myth they were the bad guys and the ones who should be eliminated and that they weren’t human beings with families. Hollywood has fed everybody this very bad lie, that they were the bad ones. How do you discover this land when they were sitting there when we got there. When this movie became available, I said, we have to have it. Just tolerating one another doesn’t get us there, loving and appreciating and engaging one another, does. That makes a stronger America. This movie speaks to racism today, segregation we experienced then and today, and the idea that war isn’t the answer but love is. Then, and today.
It was amazing journey that Scott Cooper took us on, to see this Army captain Joseph Blocker do a 180 degree turn, to see his wrongs and the ways he pursued were wrong, and see our strength is in empathy, and diversity and opening ourselves to love other people. When you look at America and its diversity, it’s not a coincidence it’s the best country on earth. Subtract that diversity, and it wouldn’t be the greatest nation. This is our great strength and this movie spoke to the mood of part of the country that believes in segregation, racism and separatism, and this movie says, this doesn’t work and love does.
DEADLINE: That is idealistic, but you are a businessman and Westerns aren’t a popular genre right now. What made you feel you could make a dent in the marketplace with a hard R-rated Western.
ALLEN: One or two come out each year, and I’m a firm believer in the idea that you don’t chase the audience, you feed the audience. I think there is a big audience out there that loves Westerns. I don’t really see it as a Western as much as an epic love story. Love of country, family, and of your fellow human being. It’s an epic love story that happens to be set in 1892. People who see the movie are blown away. The movie stays with them for days. I’ve heard from a lot of people I respect in the industry. The R isn’t gratuitous, it merely reflects how hard it was back in 1892, traveling through these hostile territories. The movie in my opinion is a masterpiece, a work of art. If you could take a movie and hang it up in LACMA or MOMA, it’s art on that level that captures our history in a real and honest way as it relates to racism, segregation and PTSD, war and what hate does to a person and a country. It’s the perfect movie at the perfect time. If people watch it, they get a great deal out of it.
Christian Bale gives a performance like I’ve never seen before. Rosamund Pike is unbelievable. When you see those opening scene, it never lets go. Look at Wes Studi, an actor who is Native American, who had to learn Cheyenne for the movie, because he’s Apache. That’s not his native tongue and Christian had to learn it too. Those two men on the screen are amazing. What an opportunity the industry has to recognize Wes Studi, Christian and Rosamund. I hope the Academy members watch it, they will be surprised. I’ve heard from enough industry people I trust who’ve called me to say…wow. It was important that it was independently made.
ALLEN: We’re at a very dangerous time right now for this industry. A time where the conglomerates are getting bigger, and the product is getting homogenized. If movies don’t do giant opening weekends, we don’t care. The independents are getting obliterated. You’re looking at 5,000 to 10,000 people going to be laid off. Armageddon is happening in Hollywood, right now, before our eyes.
DEADLINE: You mean the Disney acquisition of Fox?
ALLEN: I mean all the mergers and acquisitions. All the shutdowns. Some of the most talented and passionate people are at risk of losing their livelihoods and never working in this industry again.
DEADLINE: And yet you are moving into this movie business at this difficult time, and I can’t think of another African American owned studio that is buying movies, spending P&A and coming into this space the way you have…
ALLEN: With this consolidation, independent voices are at the greatest risk ever. Supporting movies like Hostiles is crucial to the industry’s survival. Hostiles is about the independent voice. We need movies like Hostiles to succeed. It’s a big budget epic movie and films like this have to succeed. Studios have declared, if we don’t see the potential for $400 million, we’re not interested in you. There has to be a place carved out for independents, films where the heroes don’t fly around in capes, but there are journeys and struggles we need to learn from and be inspired by. No pun intended, but we’ve got to circle the wagons by supporting movies like Hostiles, or I, Tonya, independently distributed and made. I am rooting for that movie as much as ours, so we can leave the lane open for the next Sylvester Stallone to make the next Rocky. It is imperative that Hostiles get watched and considered. The studios can always spend a gazillion dollars and wash everyone to the side. Go deeper, pop in the tape and give an independent a chance.
In terms of myself, we have made history with the first studio that is African American owned and is putting out a slate of wide release movies, and buy rights globally. We did that with the sequel 48 Meters Down, which will be out summer of 2019, global rights to our first animated movie, Animal Crackers. And the Rob Cohen-directed The Hurricane Heist. It’s odd to say we had our first African American president before our first African American owned movie studio, but we’re making progress. Our studio is focused on entertaining audiences around the world, but bringing a different perspective on how to see the world. Like we’re doing with Hostiles. No one has seen a Western like this one.
DEADLINE: You bought three movies at Toronto, if you include Replicas which sold in the market. How active do you intend to be at Sundance?
ALLEN: We respond to the movies and if we see something, we’ll be on it. Sundance has delivered some phenomenal films. Our goal is to put out 17 movies in 2018. That is our goal. They won’t all carry $30 million P&A budgets, but we’re focused. We’re chasing the studio crumbs. They don’t want movies that do $40 million to $60 million. We totally will be good with those numbers, and that is what we’re pursuing. Our thing is we are really big on slow roll-outs and small releases. Our philosophy … we believe in wide releases. We like to have movies that are 1,500-4,000 screens and we are chasing what the studios don’t want. They’re chasing much bigger. And we’re going to take their crumbs and make a gourmet meal. And then eventually we’ll move on to chasing more than their crumbs. But today we’re chasing the crumbs. We believe that these movies need to get the proper advertising, the proper support. That is how we found success with 47 Meters Down.
DEADLINE: I joked at the top that the Weinsteins giveth and taketh. How close was that movie to being released on DVD by TWC’s Dimension Films division?
ALLEN: DVDs were literally was on a truck. Our head of acquisitions Chris Charalambous was having a tough time closing the deal with Bob Weinstein. Bob was my neighbor in Malibu, about eight houses down, and I just walked up on his deck and said, let’s just get this deal done. He said, do you have any money? I said yeah, and he pulled out a chair and goes, have a seat. I said, Bob, it’s the weekend and I’ve got 20 minutes before my wife and kids are looking for me. We’ve got to close this quickly. We went back and forth and arrived at a number. That Friday he called me and said, well, listen, the movie is on trucks, heading to video stores right now. Boxes of DVDs, on American highways. To Walmart, Best Buy and Target, to start arriving Saturday for sale Tuesday. If you don’t wire me the money in 30 minutes, we won’t be able to turn the trucks around and this is a DVD release only.
DEADLINE: That is a close call.
ALLEN: I went to my controller and I said you need to send a wire to Bob Weinstein, and check it three times to be sure all the information was right because there was no margin for error. We wired the money and then spent the rest of the afternoon turning around trucks and in some cases, grabbing boxes out of back rooms that got there a day early. So it got within 30 minutes of being a DVD release. Instead, we put $30 million in P&A behind that movie and it grossed $44 million and made us a lot of money. It should never have been a direct to DVD, there are certain movies that deserve the P&A spend and can cut through the clutter and 47 Meters Down was the perfect example.
DEADLINE: How did you know?
ALLEN: Because we did the research and could not find a killer shark movie that didn’t work. If it is a good movie and you choose the right release date and spend enough to tell the world you have a movie worth their time? It’s not brain surgery. What I find is, a lot of people in Hollywood listen to themselves. I grew up a stand up comedian, and my discipline remains, always listen to the audience. That’s how I paid my rent for years. We’re the largest producer of courtroom TV shows, we have six of the mon the air, and a 24-hour courtroom network. I’ve never watched a courtroom show, but I knew it was good business. I’m listening to the audience. Too many people in Hollywood make what they want to see and not what we want to see. I’m about us. Not about me.
DEADLINE: But you are the one taking the financial risk.
ALLEN: I gotta speak to that. I’m an owner. I own my company, 100%. So the way I look at it is, 9 out of 10 times, I’m competing with temporary, hired help. I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way. I mean, they have reason to be nervous, they are accountable to someone. These are my chips. They’re sweating, they could make a mistake and lose half a million and get fired.
I remember, once, standing with Eddie Murphy in his kitchen, and I say, Eddie, I started a DVD label, have you got anything you own and we could put out? He says, ‘Delirious, that stand up special I did in a red leather outfit.’ He wore that because he’d lost his luggage and rushed to the mall and that was the only thing he could find. But man, did he look great, like a young Elvis. He said, call my lawyer, who says, I have to put it out for bids. I tell him, just come back and tell me the best number and give me a chance to work with it. The number was $750,000, from Lionsgate. He knew this was my first DVD and I said, what’ll it take? He said $1.1 million. In advance. I wired the money and it ended up being the biggest-selling non-theatrical DVD in the history of Walmart. We did over $20 million with that movie. I knew some executive over at that other place was going to worry about an extra $350,000 and look like they overpaid, but I saw the business there and took the risk. The way I feel is, I own the company, and if I walk into the room and I really want it, nobody’s going to beat me. That’s the bottom line.