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In the 30 years since Avi Lerner founded Millennium Media, then Nu Image, in 1992, the company, legendary at the American Film Market for its straight-to-video mockbusters (Freefall, Cyborg Cop), creature features (Crocodile, Killer Rats) and cookie-cutter macho action mov- ies (Operation Delta Force, Deadly Outbreak) has grown up. A bit.
Millennium hasn’t abandoned its genre roots, but by focusing on fewer, bigger movies that can secure proper theatrical releases — most of them economically shot at the company’s Nu Boyana studios in Bulgaria and Greece— the company has built up an impressive library of blockbuster franchises, from Gerard Butler’s Has Fallen series to action comedy romps The Hitman’s Bodyguard, featuring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek, to the AARP all-star actioners The Expendables, which revived the careers of many a Millennium veteran. Expendables 4 hits the- aters next year.
Under the leadership of Jeffrey Greenstein and Jonathan Younger, who took over as president and co-president, respectively, in 2017 (Lerner remains company chairman), Millennium has also shifted culturally, adding more female-focused films — Jolt with Kate Beckinsale, The Protégé, star- ring Maggie Q, Megan Fox-starrer Till Death — to its roster and signing a deal with the estate of Curious George authors H.A. and Margret Rey to tell the incredible origin story of the beloved children’s books.
Greenstein took time from the shooting of Millennium’s Red Sonja — the reboot of the ’80s action film about a ginger-haired warrior princess — to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about how much the company has changed, why that Expendabelles film isn’t happening and why, unlike his mentor Lerner, he actually reads scripts.
Let’s start with Red Sonja: a female-led action movie helmed by a transgender filmmaker, M.J. Bassett. Does this show how much Millennium has changed from its origins 30 years ago?
Yeah, I think so. But I think it also shows how the world has changed. Because for us, it’s really just about creating content and telling compelling stories, and M.J. Bassett has been a friend of mine for a decade and we’ve been talking about working together. We were having dinner one night, and just kind of floated the idea. M.J. is just such a huge fan of Robert E. Howard and the [Red Sonja] comic book and everything just aligned. It was the perfect fit.
It’s a similar thing with Matilda Lutz [who stars as Red Sonja]. She’s been a friend for over a decade and we’ve been trying to find the right thing to do together. And it just kind of coalesced at the right moment.
It just fit from a storytelling perspective. Sonja is about a woman who grows in nature and con- fronts this leader who is trying to destroy the beauty of the world. It’s a hero’s journey about using one’s own power to curate and protect what is beautiful in the world. That’s what’s behind the epic, fantastic world that M.J. and the incredible crew have created.
But of course M.J. wasn’t the first director attached. At one point, you had Bryan Singer set to direct. How do you feel about that choice, which you made after the sexual assault allegations had been made against him?
Well, you try to make the best decision you can in the moment. As time goes on, you pivot and continue to make the best possible decision for the movie, for the studio, for everyone involved. We came to [Transparent creator] Joey Soloway, who is a good friend and was going to direct and remains a creative force and executive producer on the project. And M.J. took the reins after and really helped to bring the story into fruition.
Just one more question on Singer and I’ll leave it. Has media perception, social media perception, became more important when it comes to attaching talent? Is that influencing your decisions now?
Information is more readily available, but I think the world just wants to hold itself to a higher standard. That’s something that is important for all of us to take on board. With that being said, we’re trying to focus on telling stories, and anything that takes the focus away from that, isn’t something that’s good for the studio, for the project and for the audience.
Have you got distribution and sales locked up for Red Sonja?
We’ve got international mostly taken care of, but no U.S. deal yet. We’re in the middle of shooting right now and we’re wrapping up in a week and will be putting some material together to show [at AFM].
Millennium seems to be making a lot more films with female leads: Red Sonja, Till Death, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. Is this a strategic shift for you?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a shift, at least from our perspective. Maybe it’s more that the rest of the world is now thinking about other stories to tell. With The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Salma’s character was just so much fun, it made sense to build the second film around her.
We also like working with the same people, so we did Till Death with Megan and she’s in the new Expendables. It’s really just about working with talented people. But I will say something: We’d been trying to develop The Expendabelles, a female version of The Expendables, but my problem with that project was always trying to find a way to justify why we’d have a woman team. Instead of trying to explain that, why not just have women on the regular team and [they’re] badass? Instead of having to explain why a women character got there and all that, you just do what you’d do with a man: show them kicking ass.
Is that a change in the audience? Because there used to be the perception that action films were mainly for the young male audience.
It’s a good point. The ’80s, ’90s action films were predominantly male-driven. I think it’s a generational thing. The younger demographics are dominating the box office now. They are more progressive, they are more open, they are more story-focused. They don’t make a distinction between man or woman, as long as you give them a character that’s awe- some. They go for it.
You and Jonathan Younger took over at Millennium in 2017. How do you think your approach and business model differ from those of Avi Lerner, who famously never read a script?
Well, I think Avi’s model was sound and right for the time and as the business changed, our mission pivoted toward telling theatrical stories, more wider-release movies, where it became much more important to focus on story and storytelling.
I think of myself as a storyteller. I’m also a writer. So I read every script. But at the same time, what I’ve learned from Avi is that you have to sell the concept. I won’t read a script unless I can sell the concept. Because you can always fix a script, but you can’t fix a story.
Avi would always look at a concept and say yay or nay. For me, it’s looking at the concept and saying: We should do that. Then we’ll read the script and focus on making the best possible script. Also knowing our strength lies not in making the $250 million movie, but in making something really fun in the most creative way possible, for $40, $50 to maybe $80, $100 million.
What role does Avi play as chairman?
He’s still involved. He’s still got projects, like The Expendables, that he created, that still heavily have his imprint. He loves the business. We talk every day, and talk through everything. Some of the projects are more mine, some more his. He still brings things to the table. It’s a good relationship.
Avi’s business model was very much based on the video market. Your shift to theatrical has been very successful, but the theatrical market is going through a tough phase. Do you still see theatrical as your main focus going forward?
Good question. My focus on our business is threefold. I always like to say we’re all about engineering. Some of our movies are theatrical. Some more day-and-date, some are great for streaming. It depends on timing and opportunity. Jolt had great success going straight to Amazon.
It’s all about opportunity and availability. [Rod Lurie-directed] The Outpost was released during COVID where we didn’t have access to theaters, and the film did incredibly well across all platforms. I think today is the era of content, but the key is knowing how to make the content right
for each specific avenue. That’s what we’re focused on: delivering content to all avenues.
When it comes to the really big films, — The Expendables, Red Sonja — how much has the market changed given that you no longer have the Chinese and Russian presale market?
It’s a change, but the business is cyclical. I remember when Italy and Spain were huge markets, and then Italy and Spain died. Back in 2010, there was no theatrical market in China. We don’t hang our hat on any specific territory. We handle all the sales and distribution ourselves. We have our finger on the pulse, we’re constantly monitoring where these things are.
The same goes on the production side. At the moment we’ve got a situation where inter- est rates are rising, because of the war in Ukraine. You’ve got rising construction costs, increased energy and gasoline costs. Higher costs for paint, materials. But you’ve got to roll with the punches and figure out how to make the movie in the best way possible way. At the end of the day, I just love making movies and I’m going to continue doing so.
Do these market changes mean you’ll be making different types of movies? Or even series, which is a growing market but not one Millennium has been involved in up till now.
Our focus is on making the bigger films but also segueing into television with some of our IP as well. We control the brands for Hitman’s Bodyguard, Rambo, Hellboy, Expendables, et cetera. And we’re exploring how to build those brand and continue to deliver content for their core audiences and fans across all media, whether that’s location-based entertainment, or gaming, or whatever.
So is there going to be an Expendables theme park in Sofia?
We’re exploring all avenues and we have some plans that we’re working on. I can disclose more. But there’s a lot of fun to be had, right and delivering content in all kinds of ways to fans globally.
Does that include fans outside the typical Millennium audience? You’ve been developing this project on the origin of the Curious George comics, which seems outside the kind of film Millennium is known for.
Curious George is definitely a big passion of Yoni’s [Jonathan Younger] and mine. But we have an obligation to tell the story in a powerful way. We’re working on a couple of angles and I think we’ll definitely get there. It’s an incredible, impactful story, of these German Jews who created Curious George in Paris, who escaped Paris on bicycle as the Nazis invaded, carrying only this manuscript that went on to inspire hundreds of millions worldwide. It’s an incredible story and something hopefully we’ll be able to bring forward soon. But it is for sure a very different kind of movie for Millennium.
How are you dealing with increasing costs on the production side?
I think our biggest strength is just being very focused, with feet on the ground, in terms of knowing what the costs are. When we make a budget, we know we’re going to deliver the film for that budget. Of course, there’s an element of risk-taking when it comes to the upside, that’s in our DNA, as a company, and myself personally, we’re risk-takers. If we get excited about something, if we believe in it, we’ll put our money where our mouth is.
It’s also about having the buy-in and support of our partners globally. After 30 years of Millennium, through my entire career, I can say personally that I couldn’t do it without them, without their belief, without their support. The Has Fallens, the Hitman’s Bodyguards, The Expendables, the Rambos, became global successes with all of these partners. We’re in it together.
Given the state of the market right now, where do things start to get really risky, in terms of budget?
I think once you start to get above, let’s say $50 million, if you don’t have kind of a proven brand, that’s more risky. But it all comes down to the story. If you have a great story, its maybe worth tak- ing the risk.
You work with a lot of older action stars. Can I ask about Bruce Willis, who was continuing to work when he was already quite ill, with companies making movies and making money off of him? Do you think the industry, particularly the independent industry, has a certain responsibility to care for their aging stars?
It’s hard to address that with Willis. I didn’t make any films with him through these years. And I think it’s got to be really up to each individual. You saw in Top Gun: Maverick, I thought the portrayal of Val Kilmer was very elegant, and done in a really cool way as a tribute to him. If you do it in the right way, with their cooperation in a way that is good for them, then that’s fine.
But I think everything should revolve around respect and care. I don’t think it should be exploitative, but if there are the right opportunities to work together, it can be a collaboration.
What’s the mood of the market going into AFM? How optimistic are buyers given rising inflation and the threat of recession?
Well, I think recession was inevitable. Obviously, there are concerns, but it’s our job to run this business, and continuing to run this business means con- tinuing to need content. Toronto was very encouraging for all of us, the need for content remains and, if anything, is only going to continue to grow. Audiences are coming back out.
There might be a little blip as the uncertainty rises, but that uncertainty will soon turn into a further need to produce, to deliver and to release movies, because audiences’ appetite is going to continue to grow across all media. The question becomes: How do we continue to deliver that from a production standpoint and a distribution standpoint? I don’t see the need dwindling, I see it only growing in the long term.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 4 daily issue at the American Film Market.
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