The man who figured out the indie film business
EmptyA death marked the beginning of Patrick Wachsberger's life.
It was 1975, and Wachsberger, son of an influential French producer, graduate of a privileged private school, part-time rebel who had briefly been jailed during the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris, had dropped out of law school to become an assistant director. Now, having persuaded his father Nat to finance Jerry Lewis' holocaust-themed "The Day the Clown Cried," Wachsberger fils was coping with Lewis' eccentricities and realizing that this job, this film, this fly-by-night existence must change.
"It was a total turning point, to realize that being an AD was definitely not what I wanted," he recalls, with the marked French accent he's never quite lost. "There were some absolutely amazing moments, and moments of great sadness, drama and depression. But I realized at this point that the ceiling was pretty low in France."
Uncertain what to do next, Wachsberger took up a friend's offer to fly to Rio de Janeiro. There, after days sipping mojitos, he learned that an ocean liner was about to depart for America. It seemed the perfect solution, an escape to the place he had always dreamed of, but the cruise was far too expensive.
Then death stepped in.
An elderly passenger chose the perfect moment to die, vacating an entire suite -- and so Wachsberger, with the exceptional combination of style and serendipity that has marked his entire career, arrived in Los Angeles to begin his new life.
Today, Wachsberger is the joint head of Summit Entertainment, and serendipity and style continue to accompany him: Style, in the pictures he has sold or financed, like "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "Perfume" and "Babel," that have allowed Summit to emerge as the most prestigious of the independent sales and production companies; serendipity in the purchase of "Twilight," the Stephenie Meyer novel that has turned into one of the most promising franchises in movie history.
"Having a hit is fantastic," he says. "Having a hit which is part of a franchise is even better. Having one at the very beginning (of the company) is great."
Sitting in his luminous office, inside a loft-like space in Santa Monica, Wachsberger, 58, bubbles with an almost peck's-bad-boy sense of mischief as he describes how Paramount allowed the "Twilight" option to lapse.
"The way it started was at a Sundance lunch organized in early 2006 with (former Paramount executive) Karen Rosenfelt and (Summit production president) Eric Feig," he says. "We had done our first small franchise, 'Step Up,' and we liked these Romeo-and-Juliet teenage movies. Karen said, 'There is a book we optioned at Paramount, and I don't know what's going to happen there.' "
Wachsberger read the book, which had sold only 4,000 copies, and decided to buy it. But Paramount owned the rights.
"They had five more months to go (on their option)," he says. "We were willing to make a deal, but we also had to satisfy Stephenie, make her at ease that we were not bad guys."
By the time the author felt comfortable enough to sign a contract, the studio's option had elapsed.
"Paramount had to pay $750,000 to exercise the option," Wachsberger explains. Instead, it let the rights go; the book went on to sell millions of copies (4 million alone by the time Summit greenlit the movie); and Wachsberger had a life-altering hit.
While the executive describes "Twilight" as coming near the launch of his new firm, its November premiere took place almost a year and a half after Summit expanded from being a foreign sales company to a full-fledged studio, when Wachsberger teamed with former Paramount vice chairman Robert Friedman and raised more than $1 billion to create a mini-major with its own domestic distribution apparatus.
It was an odd yoking of talent -- Wachsberger, the consummate independent, and Friedman, the ultimate studio insider -- "the yin and the yang," as one insider says.
The pairing was first mooted when Friedman, an old acquaintance, came to see Wachsberger about setting up an international sales operation to go with the domestic distribution system he was creating. He was only asking advice, not for Summit's involvement.
"As he was talking, I thought: 'Maybe this is something we should do,' " Wachsberger remembers. "It was obviously a different business model, which required more capital. But this was something that could make sense for both of us."
It did -- at first. But after the lukewarm performance of early releases like "P2," "Penelope" and "Sex Drive," rumors swirled that the new Summit was doomed. Even Wachsberger admits the picture wasn't rosy. "I think, honestly, the start of every company can be difficult," he observes. "The beginning was not great."
"Twilight" changed everything, earning $390 million worldwide. Its sequel, "New Moon," opens Nov. 20 and the third in the series, "Eclipse," arrives in July. Wachsberger has the rights to at least one picture after that and maybe more.
"Stephenie has written four books," he says. "I don't know what she wants to do, if at some point she'll decide to go back and extend the story. We'll talk about it."
With at least three movies to come, the "Twilight" series has ensured Summit's future. It has established Wachsberger as one of the first ports of call for any producer in Hollywood. It has made this dazzling Parisian exile the patron saint of the independent film business.
Growing up in Paris' plush 16th arrondissement, Wachsberger learned about filmmaking from his father, who made such films as "Star Crash" (1978) and "The Queen of Babylon" (1954). Rather than emulate him, however, Patrick -- an only child -- reacted against him. "He was very good at putting things together," he says. "But I was more interested in the art."
Leaving law school after three months, Wachsberger found work as an AD, first on short films for famed producer Pierre Braunberger, then on features.
It was a marvelous training ground, with Wachsberger jet-setting back and forth to London and Rome, hanging out with such anti-establishment figures as Serge Gainsbourg, before an encounter with agent Jack Gilardi helped bring him to Lewis.
"I was crazy about Jerry Lewis," he says. "I probably had seen every one of his movies 15 times and I knew that Jerry was working on a project. I got the screenplay and I told my dad, 'You have to do it.' I organized this marriage and got chosen by Jerry as his assistant, which was the most exciting day of my life."
But the experience turned sour.
"Jerry became quite crazy," he explains. "He had a lot of demons and a lot of problems."
Fed up, and feeling constricted by the insular French film business, Wachsberger toyed with leaving Paris. That notion grew more powerful when he met then-executive Robert Evans at a dinner party.
"I was looking at him thinking, 'This guy is handsome, has the girls, is successful, makes the movies I love, is president of Paramount.' I thought, 'What am I doing here?' "
And so Wachsberger left for Rio, and then for America.
In Hollywood, he got lucky. With the help of Gilardi and mega-agent Sue Mengers, he began to put together his own project, the Telly Savalas starrer "Killer Force" (1976), which netted him $800,000.
He was rich beyond most twentysomethings' dreams. He could have just sat on the money; instead, he invested in screenplays. "The projects were very ambitious, 'King Kong'-size," he says. "But I had no clue how to put them together."
Because of that, he lost everything.
Was he a gambler? "No," he insists. "I was never a natural gambler. I have always been very prudent in my business life, going very slowly, very slowly -- like a staircase: if you fall one step, it is not too bad. But this was like winning the lottery; it was too quick, not real."
Wachsberger may have lost a small fortune, but the lessons he learned were worth more. He had discovered how valuable a script could be, and also how vital it was to know the right people.
"I tried to understand: How do you keep networking and meeting more and more important people, so that you can really create a solid base for yourself?" he says. The answer: "You need to be a buyer."
Wachsberger's attempts to become a buyer led him to Hong Kong, where he met distributor Jean Ubaud and agreed to become his representative in L.A. From there, he went on to team with London-based J&M Sales and later joined Odyssey Entertainment, before mogul Arnon Milchan approached him in 1991 to work for Summit.
It was less than a year after Milchan had created Summit with producer Andy Vajna. Now, he put Wachsberger in charge.
Six months later, Wachsberger took over the company.
Sixteen years have passed since then, during which Summit -- at first led by Wachsberger and partners Robert Hayward and David Garrett, more recently with Friedman alongside him -- has become a staple of the independent film world.
With recent hits like "The Hurt Locker" and upcoming releases including the Robert Pattinson starrer "Remember Me" and "Furry Vengeance" with Brendan Fraser, Wachsberger revels in his success. There is a joie de vivre about him, a sheer vitality as he relishes his company's success, that is enormously seductive. At the same time, something keeps driving him, as if success isn't enough.
Right now he is immersed in his latest battle -- figuring out what to do with "The Ghost," the new film directed by Roman Polanski that premieres at the Berlin film festival.
Wachsberger leaps to his friend's defense. He's become one of Polanski's de facto spokesmen in a campaign to fight the director's extradition to the U.S. and has been in touch with Polanski's associates on an almost daily basis.
"He has four phones with him," he says. "One for his wife; one for (agent) Jeff Berg; one for (his lawyer) and one for Robert Benmussa, his partner and producer."
Polanski has finished editing the movie, adapted from Robert Harris' thriller about a ghostwriter who gets in trouble when he embarks on a presidential memoir, Wachsberger says. But the score and mix remained to be done -- at press time leaving all sorts of questions about who will handle them and how the movie will be released.
Most executives would strain under the weight of these problems. But Wachsberger embraces them.
"I put myself against the wall every day," he insists. "I say to myself, 'Everything is wrong, everything is wrong' to push myself further. I don't want to be sleepy. And the only way (not to be) is to challenge yourself all the time."