film reporter

'Vacancy's' Lieberman checks in on the cheap

As Hollywood grows increasingly risk-averse, studios and producers continue to look for ways to limit production costs. After all, smaller movies have a smaller downside.

Studio executive-turned-producer Hal Lieberman is building a slate around that adage. As Screen Gems on Friday rolls out the $19 million thriller "Vacancy," which Lieberman produced through his Sony-based shingle, the former Universal Pictures production topper explained the virtues of the cost-effective movie.

"I enjoy a more contained universe — something I feel like I can control better," Lieberman says over lunch at the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills. "You can fly a little bit more below the radar because all of the studio's forces are not beholden to that one film."

As a producer, Lieberman endured one of the biggest big-budget debacles in recent years with the $110 million-budgeted "Around the World in 80 Days," which grossed a mere $24 million domestically.

The Bronx native joined that project as a producer-for-hire and succeeded in securing domestic distribution for the film. But when the boxoffice returns on the 2004 Jackie Chan starrer began to trickle in, he realized the long odds that expensive tentpoles face.

"When I saw that first day's returns, and it was just $1 million, I said to myself, 'Holy shit,' " he says. "You do have pictures like 'Spider-Man' — those big successes that break out. But there aren't many of them."

Instead of answering the call of the blockbuster sirens, Lieberman is committed to making movies in the $20 million budget range. One way Lieberman keeps costs down is by hiring newbie directors.

In the case of "Vacancy," Lieberman tapped Nimrod Antal, who was well known on the European festival circuit for his previous helming effort — the Hungarian-language critical darling "Kontroll" — but was new to the studio system.

"I am always looking for new voices, telling a story differently," Lieberman says. "I don't know if it's so much a financial concern to hire someone who costs scale versus a person who has made a bunch of movies and perhaps their quote is higher."

Still, the approach helps limit the number of gross points that a more experienced helmer can command, which ultimately benefits the studio's bottom line.

With "Big Man on Campus," a project Lieberman is developing for Columbia Pictures, the producer made an unlikely choice with first-time director Mark Teitleman. A veteran of the TV sports world who worked for years at ESPN, Teitleman wasn't exactly a proven auteur or even a recent film school graduate.

But Teitleman's reel, which included shorts created for the sports network as well as "Monday Night Football," impressed Lieberman enough for the producer to hire the unconventional candidate.

"All of the short films he shot were delivered with some vibrancy and personality," Lieberman says. "If you look at the piece he did with Vince Vaughn, it was very funny."

Expect similar moves from Lieberman, whose films in development include the Leslie Bibb starrer "The Bachelorette Party" at Regency Enterprises, based on an original screenplay by first-time scribe Matt Olson, and "Moi" at Columbia, about an everyman who gripes that the world would be better if people were more like him.

"If you make a small film really well, and the studio gets a good handle on marketing it, it has a good chance to break out and deliver many times what your investment is," he says.
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