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This story first appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Nicolas Chartier has an issue with impulse control. The 40-year-old France-born president of Voltage Pictures — which, since it opened nine years ago, has been releasing a steady stream of Oscar-nominated dramas (Dallas Buyers Club), scrappy indies (Don Jon) and action kitsch (Maximum Conviction) — was once famously barred from attending the Oscars (for bad-mouthing Avatar while campaigning for Voltage’s The Hurt Locker). Recently, he was at it again, angering every below-the-line laborer in town by complaining at an industry conference in April that union salaries are too high.
For a guy who started out as a janitor at Disneyland Paris, the union jab was a particularly tone-deaf statement but not an especially surprising one. Since climbing his way up the ladder from screenwriter to sales agent to his current position at Voltage, where he has become a go-to producer for stars with passion projects — he’s producing Natalie Portman‘s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness; a drama Russell Crowe has long wanted to make called Fathers and Daughters; and a quirky movie about a shoe repairman, The Cobbler, for Adam Sandler — Chartier clearly has developed an appetite for controversy (his movie about Erik Prince, the founder of the scandal-plagued paramilitary contractor Blackwater, is sure to court more of it).
In his office hangs a poster for Dallas Buyers Club, which Chartier says was saved by Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar.
But these days, what Chartier is best known for — aside from purchasing Ashton Kutcher‘s $9.9 million glass mansion above the Hollywood Reservoir — is his super-aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the war on online piracy. In fact, he may well be the individual most responsible for an exponential growth of copyright litigation in the U.S. He hasn’t just targeted file-sharing websites, he’s filed suits against tens of thousands of individuals who happened to get caught downloading Hurt Locker, Dallas Buyers Club and other Voltage films. The tactics have seemed excessive to some, making him a Darth Vader-like figure in certain chat rooms, but it seems to be working (and it’s being imitated by others, including the adult entertainment industry). Chartier, who believes online piracy is “destroying” the film industry, makes no apologies for his tough stand. But he does promise — in a French accent thicker than bearnaise — to behave himself the next time an Oscar nomination comes along.
Do you have a philosophy about the types of movies you get behind?
We’ve done movies with Kathryn Bigelow, Billy Friedkin, Terry Gilliam, Andrew Niccol, movies from the kind of directors [from whom] I really wanted to see one more movie made. We also do a ton of action movies from Steven Seagal, Nic Cage, John Cusack, Bruce Willis. The action movies are good for buyers, and those allow us to take risks and gamble with films like Good Kill, Dallas Buyers Club or The Whistleblower. Usually it’s political movies, because that’s kind of what I like.
Do you think you bring a European mentality to films?
Maybe. I just try to find stories that we like. We just did Fathers and Daughters with Russell Crowe, which we really love. We’re doing the new Jim Sheridan movie [The Secret Scripture] in four weeks. It’s backing filmmakers and storytellers and reading a new story that we’re excited about.
A hardbound copy of the script for The Zero Theorem, which Voltage produced.
What do you think the economic climate is for producers these days?
It’s definitely getting much more difficult. There are fewer buyers. There’s plenty of equity to make movies, there’s still plenty of financiers, just not enough distributors. And also movies are becoming very difficult to both market and to get an audience to pay and come to. Between piracy on the Internet, people watching or playing games on their phones and being on Facebook or other stuff instead of just going to the theater or watching a DVD, we’ve lost a lot of people.
Why did you decide to sue the individuals downloading your films?
Hurt Locker ended up winning six Oscars, but at the same time we had 8 million illegal downloads on the movie. And I was like, “Wow, you know, we barely reimbursed the movie and we had 8 million illegal downloads.” Well, if everybody had given me one dollar, that would be 8 million dollars, and the movie cost 11, so we lost 80 percent of the movie to piracy. That cannot hold. So we decided to make a statement. And the day after we announced 20,000 lawsuits, the Internet downloads of Hurt Locker went down about 40 percent. So, you know, you frighten people and then they stop.
Did that economic theory — one dollar for every pirated download — work out? Did the lawsuits get the money back?
I wish. It would be nice. I mean, every movie is pirated the day after it comes out, so at what point are people going to be like, “Enough is enough”? I know of movies that have done 10,000 views on VOD on iTunes with 60,000 illegal downloads over the Internet for free. When you have 5 percent or 10 percent of your whole business [tolerating that amount of piracy] it’s OK, but when it becomes 80 percent of your total downloads, that doesn’t make sense.
You’ve talked about making fewer movies in the future — only five this year, as compared with the usual 10. Why?
Everybody is making fewer movies because the movies are making less and less money. And one of the big things is the fact that people think movies are for free. … Listen, we need to create new actors, there’s no new action star for the past five years or 10 years. We need to be able to break new actors, we need distributors to be able to take risks. We need financiers to get behind good movies and original stories. People are not taking risks.
A prop from Voltage’s upcoming Fathers and Daughters, in which Crowe plays a fictitious famous author.
Studios aren’t taking risks, but what about indie producers?
We’re reacting a different way. We’re just not making the interesting movies anymore. I get scripts where it’s just like, “too dangerous financially.” The economics don’t work because half of the world is suffering from huge piracy. From Spain to France to all of Asia, the DVD business is dead, and all the major movies are getting pirated. I don’t know the solution. I think it has to be reducing the volume of pirated movies as much as possible.
You drew attention recently by criticizing the salaries of below-the-line crew on films. What did you mean?
Bruce Willis makes a million a day, but we make the movie because of Bruce Willis. But at the same time, when I see a union driver sitting for 12 hours and being really difficult, that’s why we end up shooting a lot of movies in foreign countries. People don’t understand that without movie stars making big money, there’s no movie. It’s nice to victimize the big stars, but we need that because otherwise we don’t make the movie. I don’t make the movie because of the driver.
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Are you also making a point that people need to reset their expectations about what they should be making?
Listen, on independent films, everybody takes a pay cut except, you know, obviously the people who are on union salaries. It’s a complicated point. All I know is, it’s so complicated to deal with the Teamsters that we try to not shoot the movies in America, which is kind of stupid. It’s bad for everyone; people don’t go home, people work less and less, it’s a spiral.
You have a pretty good track record right now, coming off The Hurt Locker and Dallas Buyers Club. Do you have your recipe worked out?
You always start again. That’s the fun thing. Every producer will tell you that you always start again at zero. It gets easier sometimes because people trust your taste, your judgment and everything. But then it’s like, “OK, I have 100 pages, how do I make this movie, and how do I make the greatest movie that everybody will want to see?” I think that’s the very humbling part — every time, you have to start over.
The clapboard for The Hurt Locker, which Chartier says was illegally downloaded 8 million times.
What’s one thing that you haven’t accomplished yet that you would like to?
Winning an Oscar and going onstage.
Well, you’ve won an Oscar, for Hurt Locker …
Not being kicked off. Going to get the Oscar for real. I’m going to try to make a good movie in the next 40 years of my life. And I’ll be very quiet.
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