FilmDistrict's Peter Schlessel, with Toronto's big opening-night film, on leaving Sony and why his distribution business works.
Known in the film world as a sharp and savvy consigliere, Peter Schlessel spent 21 years at Sony -- including a stint as president of Columbia Pictures -- before leaving in 2010 to launch FilmDistrict, the domestic distribution company backed by financier-producer Graham King and oil billionaire Tim Headington. Schlessel, who discovered and acquired rights to a string of hits including District 9 while at Sony, continued his winning streak with the low-budget horror pic Insidious, the inspirational Soul Surfer and the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive. But FilmDistrict hit a speed bump in fall 2011, when experienced execs Bob and Jeanne Berney exited. In an Aug. 27 interview in his Santa Monica office -- bursting with sports, movie and music memorabilia, along with pictures of daughters Stevie, 18, and Sammy, 16 -- the energetic executive discussed how the company has bounced back, growing from a staff of seven to more than 40, including newly installed marketing president Christine Birch. A key milestone for FilmDistrict comes Sept. 6 when Looper, a sci-fi thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, opens the Toronto International Film Festival.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: How did you acquire distribution rights to Looper, which you are releasing with TriStar/Sony?
Peter Schlessel: I'd started chasing the script during the early days of FilmDistrict. I love sci-fi movies, and this one had so many layers and the story had such great characters, but what really sold it was meeting with [director] Rian Johnson (Brick) and hearing his vision. I told Jim Stern, a friend who produced and financed the movie through his Endgame Entertainment, that he had to sell me this movie, and I slipped the script to Marc Weinstock [Sony's president of worldwide marketing].
THR: How important has Toronto become in terms of launching a fall film?
Schlessel: It's more important than both Telluride and Venice in terms of the North American market. That's not to take away from either, but more people pay attention to what happens in Toronto, both for awards movies and for films opening in September and October. Look at what happened last year with The Descendants. The drumbeat started at Toronto.
THR: Will you bid on any movies during the festival?
Schlessel: We have no space the rest of this year, but we have room next year. Toronto is my favorite acquisitions market for different reasons. It has bigger available movies -- our focus. We found Insidious there in 2010, when it played in the Midnight Madness section. We made our offer at 2 a.m. after the screening and closed the deal at 4:30 a.m.
THR: What does the near future look like for companies like yours as the major studios cut back on the number of films they make?
Schlessel: I don't know if studios have ceded any ground, but clearly they are concentrating on bigger tentpoles. It was clear to me watching what was happening in the marketplace that theater owners wanted more movies. And with all the new equity money coming into Hollywood, I realized you could run a smart business and figure out how to get these movies to the marketplace in a cost-effective way.
THR: Why did you decide to pick up MGM's Red Dawn remake after many of your competitors passed?
Schlessel: I wrote a memo to myself two years ago after I saw an early version saying the movie was good but the cast wasn't known. Then I saw the movie six or seven months later, and all of a sudden the cast was great, between Chris Hemsworth of Thor and Josh Hutcherson of The Hunger Games. It was like buying a good bottle of cabernet and letting it sit on the shelf.
THR: Will there be some heat because MGM changed the villains from the Chinese to the North Koreans?
Schlessel: No, but I think people will talk about it. It's a villain who people won't disagree is a villain.
THR: Why did you decide to leave the protection of a Hollywood studio for a more risky upstart?
Schlessel: I didn't look at it that way. It was time to take the next step. There wasn't room to create my own label, and my personal satisfaction had plateaued. I thought long and hard and had a lot of dinners with Amy [Pascal]. If ever I was going to leave, this was the time. To stay would have felt like a capitulation.
IN THE OFFICE
While still heading Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, the exec snapped up U.S. rights to District 9, a tiny South African film that went on to gross north of $115 million in North America, one of the most profitable movies of 2009.
The piece hanging behind Schlessel's desk in his Santa Monica office is from pop illustrator Burton Morris, who designed the poster for the 76th annual Academy Awards.