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This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Basil Iwanyk left Warner Bros. in 2006 to start his own production company, he thought long and hard about what to call it. “We needed a title that was all-encompassing — but not Iwanyk,” says the 46-year-old producer with the Ukrainian last name (pronounced eye-wahn-ick). Then it hit him. “I’m from the Jersey shore, and I’ve worshiped Bruce my whole life.”
Turns out Thunder Road Pictures fits nicely. Over the past 10 years, the Santa Monica-based production house, where Iwanyk oversees six employees, has been making plenty of noise both at the multiplex (with hits like Clash of the Titans, which grossed $493 million worldwide in 2010) and at the art house (with movies like 2010’s The Town and 2015’s Sicario garnering critical praise). THR checked in with Iwanyk — currently on the Rome set of John Wick 2 — to discuss how producing has changed over the decade, why running numbers doesn’t always work and how Sicario originally was supposed to end.
What did you learn from being a studio executive working under Lorenzo di Bonaventura? How did that prepare you for producing?
I learned that the only thing you have as a producer is your point of view, your opinion. You’re not a craftsman, you’re not a DP or editor or production designer. Your craft is your point of view and articulating that point of view. And I learned how to have empathy for the studio executive.
Why is empathy for execs important?
If someone is going to give you money, you have a responsibility. A lot of producers — and some directors — forget that. They forget that someone is investing in you and wants a return on that investment.
Certain studio heads believe that running numbers is the way to make decisions on movies. Does that work? Do you run numbers?
You do run numbers and make models and have a financial construct, but at the end of the day, that last 30 percent leap is all your gut, or your trust in the filmmaker. I respect people who say they have a formula, although it would shock me if that formula actually exists. Many of the movies I’ve worked on would never survive a formula. John Wick was a successful movie [it grossed $86 million worldwide], but you couldn’t have said, “It’s an action movie with Keanu Reeves about a guy who gets revenge when his dog dies and it’s directed by a bunch of second unit guys who have never directed before” and have gotten a green light. Same thing with Sicario.
You’re saying, “Trust the filmmaker.”
Exactly right. I mean, Sicario had a totally different ending. In the original script, Benicio Del Toro has his discussion with the drug lord, then he shoots the drug lord and turns to the mother and says, “Get your kids out of here.” But a week before shooting, we changed it [to having his family killed]. At our first test screening in New Jersey, I told people, “Listen, as those kids are killed, there’s going to be a big chunk of the audience that’s going to reject the movie.” But that was the highest-testing scene in the movie. I would never of thought of that, but my job was to take that leap with Benicio and [director Denis Villeneuve].
What’s changed about producing since you opened Thunder Road?
When I started, the best position to be in was studio producer. You received guarantees, you got large overhead, and it was a really good backend. It was a good living. What has changed is that the studios have cut out the middle-budget movies. Overhead has been cut, your backend has shrunk, and they don’t pay as much front end. It has become harder to make a living as a studio producer. So the biggest change I made was that I decided to bet on myself. The gold standard of being a producer is no longer being a studio producer; it’s being what Thunder Road is now.
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