Lionsgate's Fraught Fall: 'Deepwater Horizon' and 12 Risky Releases Follow Studio Chief's Exit

Illustration by: Kyle Hilton

As movie chief Rob Friedman departs during an especially active period, analysts want the next 'Hunger Games' or 'Twilight': "They've had a series of misfires."

For months, rumors swirled that Rob Friedman was on his way out as co-chairman of Lionsgate's motion picture group after a series of box-office misses and the failure to find a successor to the Hunger Games and Twilight sagas, two of the most successful franchises in recent history. Making matters worse, Lionsgate was forced to downsize the final installment in its floundering Divergent film series to a TV movie.

So the Sept. 16 reveal of Friedman's exit, four years after Lionsgate merged with Friedman and co-chairman Patrick Wachsberger's Summit Entertainment, hardly was a shock. But ironically, Lionsgate's embattled film division is entering its most active period in years, with big questions swirling around the company and its ability to assemble a competitive slate in a market that is rewarding mostly major-studio tentpole franchises. A whopping 12 movies of all sizes (including smaller Lionsgate Premiere VOD titles) are set for release before year's end. Many of the high-profile films aren't easy sells, beginning Sept. 30 with director Peter Berg's $110 million oil rig disaster drama Deepwater Horizon, starring Mark Wahlberg. There's another Berg-Wahlberg ripped-from-the-headlines drama, Patriots Day, about the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as controversial filmmaker Mel Gibson's World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge, his first film in a decade, and La La Land, a modern-day musical hoping to ride awards buzz to woo mainstream audiences.

Lionsgate shares have plummeted about 40 percent since Nov. 20, the day The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 opened. The stock slide is less about the end of the lucrative YA franchise and more about the perception of a lack of quality product in the pipeline, unless Power Rangers, set for March 24, births a new franchise. (My Little Pony, opening Oct. 16, 2017, is another hopeful.) "They have had a series of misfires on films that led to a collapse of Wall Street estimates," says Northlake Capital Management analyst Steven Birenberg, who owns shares of Lionsgate. Friedman's departure thus doesn't worry Wall Street and could turn into a positive if the creative cupboard is refilled. Lionsgate declined comment.

Sources at the studio say there are no plans to replace Friedman, who arrived at Lionsgate with Wachsberger when it paid $412.5 million for Summit in 2012. But Wachsberger is known more for his prowess in the international sales market. And the blending of the Lionsgate-Summit cultures hasn't always been easy, with one source noting "there are too many chiefs." Erik Feig, who came from Summit, is co-president of the motion picture group alongside Lionsgate veteran Steve Beeks, who also is co-chief operating officer. (Feig is said to be the top creative executive now, though greenlights are all OK'd by CEO Jon Feltheimer.)

The film issues come as Wall Street takes stock of Lionsgate's pending $4.4 billion acquisition of Starz, which boasts 32 million subscribers to its pay TV networks. The deal will create a television powerhouse with about $4 billion in annual revenue (only 22 percent of it will come from the film side). Feltheimer says the combined company will spend about $1 billion a year to create new series and about $800 million on movies.

For now, Lionsgate's film division will bite its collective fingernails for the next few months since Blair Witch, which opened Sept. 16, failed to restart that dormant franchise. Deepwater Horizon has struggled in prerelease tracking. Gibson will be a major part of the publicity campaign for Hacksaw Ridge despite personal scandals involving anti-Semitic comments. (Lionsgate is hoping to appeal to the faith-based audiences who powered his The Passion of the Christ to record numbers.) Damien Chazelle's feel-good La La Land (Dec. 2) is seen as a potential breakout, having won the coveted audience award at the Toronto Film Festival. But musicals have a checkered past, though marketing chief Tim Palen's campaign for the Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling starrer has tested very strongly.

Analysts also believe Patriots Day (Dec. 21) has promise. The drama is from CBS Films, which has a distribution deal with Lionsgate but fully markets its own titles. And internally at Lionsgate, Wachsberger hopes to get back into the YA game with The Kingkiller Chronicle and Chaos Walking, both in development. "On one hand, you could say [Lionsgate] is committed to passion projects," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "On the other side of the coin, if Power Rangers is their only tentpole on the horizon, they're not only in serious financial trouble but in a creative rut."

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A BUSY AUTUMN SLATE FOR LIONSGATE

Deepwater Horizon (Sept 30)
Peter Beg's $110 million oil rig disaster film stars Mark Wahlberg. 

Middle School: The Worst Years (Oct.7)
CBS Films, which releases via Lionsgate, made the James Patterson adaptation about a boy who fends off bullies.

Boo! A Madea Halloween (Oct. 21)
Tyler Perry continues his yearslong partnership with Lionsgate.

American Pastoral (Oct. 21) 
Toronto audiences didn’t love Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel.

Hacksaw Ridge  (Nov. 4)
Mel Gibson’s World War II drama is his first directing vehicle since Apocalypto in 2006.

La La Land (Dec. 2)
Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is an early Oscar best-picture contender.

Patriots Day (Dec. 21)
The Boston Marathon drama, from CBS Films, reteams Berg and Wahlberg.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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