After nearly five years at the helm of Open Road Films, Tom Ortenberg finds himself in an enviable position this awards season thanks to “Spotlight,” a gripping drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal that has earned acclaim from critics and clergy alike.
Directed by Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” has been the toast of the town since it screened at the holy trinity of fall film festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto. The ensemble cast has received praise from all corners, and the public has responded in kind. “Spotlight” debuted in limited release last weekend to the tune of nearly $60,000 per screen.
Ortenberg is no stranger to awards buzz as an independent distributor. He released Best Picture winner “Crash” during his time at Lionsgate, and he was involved with Best Picture winner “The Last Emperor” and five-time nominee “Hope and Glory” while at Columbia Pictures.
With “Spotlight” about to begin its nationwide expansion, Ortenberg spoke to TheWrap about the film’s awards prospects, shrinking exhibition windows and Open Road’s plans to expand into television, among other hot Hollywood topics such as the Steve Jobs and Tupac Shakur biopics.
“Spotlight” was originally set up at DreamWorks. How did Open Road become involved in the project?
We first read a draft of the script about two years ago. I can recall reading it for the first time, sitting in a chair in my family room at home, and when I finished the script and put it down, I was kind of shaking emotionally. I remember thinking, “This script is why we are all in this business. We at Open Road have to be involved in this movie.”
So the next day, we called our friends at Participant Media and said, “We’re in.” So we were involved at the script stage with Tom at the helm. We tried to be as helpful as we could from that point forward in terms of casting, and that terrific cast came together. Everyone is pitch-perfect, and it’s a testament to Tom as a director, who understood what each of these roles would take and to the actors, for doing the research to get these characters just right, and to Tom and Josh Singer for writing brilliant roles.
You were an executive at Lionsgate when “Crash” won Best Picture. Do you think being an independent distributor helps or hurts your Best Picture chances?
Being an independent doesn’t really help or hurt. What matters most is the movie, and with “Spotlight,” we have an extraordinary motion picture on our hands. We’re hopeful that critics groups and awards committees recognize the film, but that’s not why we’re here.
This is a story that needed to be told and we were in exceptional hands. Tom made an amazing, pitch-perfect film in every regard. It’s a once-in-a-career kind of movie, and we recognize how fortunate we are to be a part of it. But the most important thing for us is to just get the movie seen by as many people as possible.
In terms of awards, how are you positioning the cast when you have an embarrassment of riches like this? Will anyone be pushed as a lead, or is everyone running in supporting categories?
We are pushing the entire cast as supporting. When I first read the script, my sense was that it was obviously a very strong ensemble piece, but perhaps Mike Rezendes [Mark Ruffalo‘s reporter character] might’ve been the slight lead. Having seen the film from its very first cut, it was clear it was an ensemble piece. All the actors wanted to band together and go supporting. Nobody wanted to cling to lead.
And how do you know who your best bet is? Is it a gut feeling, or do you decide based on audience reactions or what an awards strategist recommends?
We actually asked a focus group to pick the lead between Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, and they were evenly split, 12 and 12. We’d already made the decision, but that validated the decision. So it’s been “All for one, one for all,” and the cast has been supportive of that idea. When you’re talking about awards, the most important thing is to get the movie seen by the people who need to see it. From there, the truth generally wins out. When you love a movie, you love a movie and you support it. We think it can get multiple acting nominations, but we’re willing to let those chips fall where they may.
What did you learn from last awards season, when Open Road was running campaigns for “Nightcrawler,” “Rosewater” and “Chef”?
The main lesson was one we already knew — you have to get the movie seen. “Nightcrawler” in particular was on a lot of 10-best lists and got all kinds of awards recognition, including a screenplay nomination, but we learned after the fact that, partially because of the title and partially because the movie is kind of creepy, we had difficulty getting certain awards voters to see it.
It’s easier to get critics and certain guilds to see it than the broader Academy, and the perceived “tougher nature” of the film and its creepy title may be why we ended up missing on a couple of Academy categories, but probably not by much. Every movie is different. It wasn’t a matter of sending out the screeners too late, it was about making the movie palatable. But we’ve been encouraging people to see “Spotlight” in a theater where it belongs.
How has Open Road stayed ahead of rivals in such a competitive indie market? What are you doing that other distributors aren’t?
We know we’re going to have some winners and know we’re going to have some losers. Our job is to guess right more often than we guess wrong, and we’re confident we can do that. “Killer Elite” and “The Grey” were our first two pictures and they were successful. We’ve been off and running ever since. We’ve built what we think to be a strong model, and we believe we know what each picture is capable of. Whether we get involved at the script stage or buy a completed film at a festival, we try not to take undue risk. That’s the name of the game.
Does Open Road have a brand at this point? What is the company looking for, in terms of homegrown productions as well as acquisitions?
What I want our brand to be is quality motion pictures that we feel we can effectively and efficiently market and distribute theatrically. We haven’t always guessed right. It’s okay if they’re not awards contenders. They can be any genre, as long as people want to see them.
Open Road is backed by AMC and Regal at a time when attendance has dropped and movie theaters are fighting against day-and-date home release. What’s your take on that digital distribution strategy, and what are the long-term prospects for Open Road?
The theatrical exhibition business is still very strong. The distribution model is product-driven, so for all the higher-profile failures in October, if there are movies people want to see, magically, people go to the movies again.
I’m still bullish on the theatrical distribution model. Beyond that, I don’t think Open Road will be experimenting with smaller windows or day-and-date releases, but some smaller films would probably benefit from shorter windows or going day-and-date. Films that don’t have aspirations beyond a couple million dollars at the box office can benefit from going that route, but for films that have potential to do tens of millions at the box office, the traditional theatrical window is still the best plan.
Does Open Road have any plans to expand into television or the digital space?
Last year, we launched Open Road International, which gave us the capacity to finance and produce movies in-house and take worldwide rights. We did that with “Sleepless Night” and that was really priority one in terms of expanding our footprint. Next will be television, and we’ll launch a TV division with a TV version of one of our theatrical films. We’re in conversations with a few parties regarding a couple of different movies.
Why do you think the Sundance hit “Dope” underperformed this summer? If you could do it all over again, would you go wide with the film?
“Dope” still did almost $18 million at the domestic box office. We were all hoping for and expecting more, but it’s doing well on home entertainment. The fact it didn’t do more is one of the more frustrating things we’ve had to deal with at Open Road.
It certainly deserved a better fate. Some people talk about a Sundance curse when it comes to commercially viable movies — there are lots of awards-caliber titles but not a lot of broader commercial pictures. Maybe the picture was a little too indie for broader commercial audiences, or maybe it was too commercial for indie arthouse audiences.
If we had to do it all over again, I probably would’ve held it for the fall instead of releasing it in the middle of the competitive summer season. “Jurassic World” came out a week before us and “Inside Out” came out the same week, so it was very competitive and difficult to get the message out. We’ll never know what would’ve happened if we had platformed it during a less competitive time period, but it’s a good thing we don’t have do-overs.
You released the first Steve Jobs film starring Ashton Kutcher, which got a bum rap yet grossed nearly as much as Universal’s “Steve Jobs” did during its first weekend in wide release. Why do you think Steve Jobs movies haven’t resonated with the public as much as Hollywood thought they might?
It’s difficult to be critical of someone else’s film, but our Steve Jobs movie was under-appreciated by critics. It was a better film than some people gave it credit for, and Ashton did a terrific job, quite frankly.
It did middling business theatrically, as has the newer film, but ours was very successful on home entertainment, both physical and digital. That’s a testament to the film and Ashton’s performance. He doesn’t get a fair shake, but he’s a talented professional. I don’t know why Universal’s movie didn’t do well, but I’m glad ours has held up well in comparison.
Open Road has had success with urban crime movies like “End of Watch,” and next year you’re releasing John Hillcoat‘s crime thriller “Triple 9.” Why did you decide to introduce that film to audiences with a red-band trailer, and what should we expect from the movie?
We went with the red-band because it’s really fucking cool. We have a green-band trailer that’s in front of “Spotlight” and we’re very proud of it, but obviously there’s things we can’t do in a green-band that we can do in a red-band.
Hillcoat lets you know there’s going to be violence in the film, and he doesn’t shy away from bloodshed. The film has terrific visual images and we wanted to put our best foot forward. It’s a great fucking piece. We just looked at it, nodded and said, “We’ve gotta go with this and we’ve gotta go hard.”
Why is the Tupac Shakur movie taking so long to come together?
“Tupac” is a difficult one. We have the distribution rights but we’re not party to the life rights or the production, so it’s been very frustrating. It certainly didn’t take the performance of “Straight Outta Compton” to show us the demand for the Tupac movie, but we’re not in charge. It does look like it’s going to get up and running shortly, and we should be able to announce a date for the film soon — maybe the second half of 2016. Certainly no later than first quarter of 2017.
Finally, why did you decide to get into this crazy business as a young man?
I’ve always loved movies. I remember my parents took me to see “Deliverance” at 11 years old, and it was a life-changing experience. When I was in eighth grade, I’d go to the movies with my best friend and we’d race home to write our reviews. In college, I’d rent out lecture halls and set up 16 mm projectors to screen “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Bachelor Party.”
That helped me make friends on the nontheatrical side of the business, and they introduced me to people in theatrical distribution, which led to a job at Columbia Pictures in a branch distribution office in San Francisco. I was on the phone with a friend back East who asked me if I liked my job and I said, “It’s amazing, because even on the worst days, we sit around and talk about movies all day. What could be better?” Thirty years later, here we are.