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Peter Chernin: A Solo Success in Hollywood, Where Many Fizzle
« on: October 31, 2014, 06:20:59 am »
Peter Chernin: A Solo Success in Hollywood, Where Many Fizzle

“It ain’t a lot of fun to make failed movies, and to be successful you have to be in the attention-getting business,” Peter Chernin said.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — When Peter Chernin stepped down as Rupert Murdoch’s second in command in 2009 and became an independent movie and television producer, the likeliest outcome was a long, painful fizzle.

Sure, Mr. Chernin had a sweetheart deal at 20th Century Fox, a contractual parting gift from his former boss. But celebrated Hollywood executives, over and over, have failed to make the same altitude adjustment after leaving a major studio to strike out on their own. “It’s usually a little sad, like they lose a superpower,” said Paul Feig, the director of “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat.”

Mr. Chernin’s movie track record so far has been impressive: seven releases, seven successes, starting with the science fiction adventure “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” continuing with Mr. Feig’s female buddy comedy “The Heat” and stretching to the quirky critical hit “St. Vincent.” His boldest movie yet, the expensive “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” arrives in December.

Christian Bale as Moses leads troops into battle in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” an extravagant new movie produced by Mr. Chernin. Credit Kerry Brown/20th Century Fox
“It ain’t a lot of fun to make failed movies, and to be successful you have to be in the attention-getting business,” Mr. Chernin said. “Actually, attention-getting is the dominant thing that has taken over the media business over all.”

“How do you find that?” he added. “A lot of it is gut.”

Mr. Chernin, 63, may now wear jeans to work, but that doesn’t reflect a casual approach to his business: He remains a guy who gets what he wants. He agreed to an interview on the condition that the conversation be confined to his movie operations, and he held his ground. A question about TV, an area where his media company, the Chernin Group, has struggled, drew a clipped response.

He was similarly unwilling to discuss his digital endeavors, which are many. The Chernin Group has been quietly assembling a roster of digital start-ups, some in partnership with AT&T. In some ways, the portfolio is starting to resemble a Viacom for the web video age: Mr. Chernin has invested in Fullscreen, a YouTube-focused video supplier; Crunchyroll, an animé streaming service; and Creativebug, an arts and crafts channel.

“I’m focused on areas of the media business that are going to grow the most rapidly over the next 10 years,” said Mr. Chernin, who has barely spoken to the news media since leaving Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation, where he was president. “One of those is premium content, and that is exactly how the movie business fits in.”

Mr. Chernin’s film production deal with Fox — now very close to renewal — is a lavish one. He can force the studio, if he so chooses, to finance and release at least two films a year. Fox also pays certain overhead costs, and Mr. Chernin receives a cut of the gross revenue generated by his films. His separate television deal is also extravagant.

It took Mr. Chernin a few beats to find his movie footing. The first executive he hired to run his film operation, Dylan Clark, was replaced after it became clear that running a diverse slate of films was not a strength. (Mr. Clark continues to work with Mr. Chernin as a producer.) Mr. Chernin also labored to find the perfect first film, ultimately relying on Fox to funnel a pre-existing producing project his way: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” It sold $481.8 million in tickets.

“All sorts of executives have come out of studios with big deals, and I was very mindful of the fact that you really brand the company by your first movie,” Mr. Chernin said. He added, “I could give you negative examples, but I won’t.”

Perhaps the most notorious one involves Joe Roth, the former chairman of both Walt Disney Studios and Fox. Mr. Roth attempted to create a production company in 2000 with $1 billion in financing from backers like Sony Pictures Entertainment. His first release was “Tomcats,” a raunchy comedy that became an embarrassing flop.

His first seven releases as an independent producer have been hits, including “St. Vincent,” starring Bill Murray. Credit Andrew Hreha/Weinstein Company
A failed producing attempt by the former Universal Studios kingpin Sidney J. Sheinberg also stands out. Mr. Sheinberg’s post-mogul producing career got underway in 1997 with bombs like “McHale’s Navy” and never recovered.

“We had big debates early on about branding ourselves,” Mr. Chernin said. “It’s always easier to get started if you define your movie goals very specifically. It helps the creative community funnel material to you. I decided against that. I wanted a broad, eclectic brand. I felt that was the way to build a more meaningful company.”

Producing on two extreme ends of the movie spectrum — big blockbusters and tiny art house films — is difficult because it requires vastly different skills, but Mr. Chernin has so far pulled it off. His movies range from the sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which took in $707.3 million over the summer, to “The Drop,” an inexpensive crime drama and critical darling that has taken in $12.2 million.

Notably, Mr. Chernin has never used the part of his contract that forces Fox to release a film. “Our relationship has been excellent, in part because there is an obvious shorthand,” said Jim Gianopulos, chairman of 20th Century Fox. He used to work under Mr. Chernin and noted that the two sides understood each other well.

In addition to “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott and headed toward a Dec. 12 release, the Chernin Group has at least 10 movies in various stages of completion; three to four releases a year are planned for the next few years. They include Mr. Feig’s “Spy,” a comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, and a PG-13 movie directed by Tim Burton, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”

“Exodus” is a remarkable risk. Starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses, the movie is loaded with sophisticated special effects — like the computerized parting of the Red Sea and the 10 plagues of Egypt — and was shot on a tight 74-day schedule. It faces inevitable skepticism from religious groups and formidable competition at the Christmas box office. The homogeneity of the cast has generated negative chatter.

Jenno Topping, who now runs Mr. Chernin’s film operation, called the movie “an interesting, bold, scary, expensive choice.” She noted in particular the complexity of scenes that required horses, camels and swarms of frogs. Epic magnitude is clearly part of the “Exodus” marketing strategy: It’s Moses as “Gladiator,” the action extravaganza that won Mr. Scott best picture at the 2001 Academy Awards.

Ms. Topping and Mr. Chernin declined to reveal the “Exodus” budget. A person with knowledge of the costs, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private information, put the film’s budget at $200 million, but said numerous government incentives brought the net production cost to roughly $140 million.

Speaking from his oceanfront office, Mr. Chernin said he had watched at least a dozen rough cuts of “Exodus,” working with Ms. Topping and Mr. Scott to shape the final film. He said he watches all the dailies. But his involvement in the actual moviemaking is limited.

“I don’t go to the set much at all,” Mr. Chernin said. “It’s not the best use of my time. I don’t have the patience for it.” He added, “I spend an inordinate amount of time on marketing.”

Mr. Feig, the director, described Mr. Chernin’s function this way: “He gives excellent notes, but he doesn’t note you to death. He’s more like a guru.”