Byron Allen on "Chasing Studio Crumbs," Weinstein's Future and Christian Bale's 'Hostiles'
The chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios/Freestyle Digital Media, who has an awards hopeful with the Bale-starring Western, reveals how a Weinstein film he rescued from a direct-to-DVD fate became the year's biggest indie and the other assets he's eyeing.
At age 14, Byron Allen was already doing stand-up, and one night at the Comedy Store, Wayne Kline, a writer on TV’s Good Times, happened to see his act. "He said, 'Can I get your phone number? I know somebody that might be interested in working with you,''' Allen recalls. Two weeks later, he was sitting in star Jimmie Walker's apartment alongside Jay Leno and David Letterman, writing material for the show. He got $25, the first money he made writing jokes, which paid a lot better than working as a paper boy. "I had to throw two papers to make a penny," he says. "So, I had to throw 5,000 papers to make that."
Allen, now 56, spent 18 years as a comedian and host of television hits such as Real People before launching Entertainment Studios in 1993. He owns 100 percent of the company, which he says has $1 billion in assets and boasts 41 TV shows and seven 24-hour HD networks — including Pets.TV and Comedy.TV — that reach nearly 80 million subscribers. And Allen grabbed attention in the film world after his first feature release, the June shark thriller 47 Meters Down — which he rescued from a straight-to-DVD fate at the Weinsteins' Dimension Films — became 2017's most successful indie with $44 million domestic. He then acquired three splashy films in Toronto, including the $50 million awards hopeful Hostiles (in theaters Dec. 22), a Western starring Christian Bale.
Since 2007, Allen has been married to Jennifer Lucas, executive producer at Entertainment Studios, and the couple, who live in West L.A., have children ages nine, seven and five. He invited THR to his Century City office, from where he oversees a staff of 200 and a 75,000-square-foot studio in Culver City, to discuss what other assets he's eyeing.
You got to know the average entertainment consumer from doing Real People for five years. From your vantage, do Hollywood decision-makers lack that insight?
I also was on the road as a comedian for more than 22 years. I made my living and fed myself by standing onstage in front of an audience all across this country. And if I didn't know how to make them laugh every six seconds, I didn't eat. A lot of people in Hollywood, in the studio system, are arrogant. They fly over America in private jets, and they pretty much think they are smarter than the people between [the coasts]. They try to get the audience to buy in to their taste and get the audience to buy what they like. As a comedian, you quickly learn you have to give them what they like. I opened for Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. When you stand in front of their audience for half an hour, you're like, "Yeah, I know what you like."
You bought 47 Meters Down from The Weinstein Co. Have you considered buying the studio?
No. We haven't really looked at it. No need. I mean, it's a great acquisition for somebody who wants to get a relationship with the theaters. We already have that. We bought Freestyle Releasing in October 2015. That's how we got into the movie business. We have an output deal with Netflix, and Lionsgate handles our home entertainment. Our infrastructure is built and up and running. So, for us, it's not a fit.
I bought 47 Meters Down off of Bob [Weinstein]. I never dealt with Harvey on that at all, because Harvey wasn't on that side of the house. This movie was on a truck and headed to the DVD store. We were able to stop the trucks from delivering it to the DVD stores, and it ended up being the biggest indie release of the year.
What do you think will happen to TWC?
I don't know. As far as any interest in buying their finished movies piecemeal, we look at whoever brings a movie to the table. But I'm guessing that they would want to keep the movies intact for a sale.
What is the most profitable part of your business?
Our television business. We think being in the movie business is also a wonderful pathway to being in business with talent that can grow our TV side, because some of this talent will lend itself to television. We just want to be in business with the best of the best. And we saw that the top of the pyramid, that talent pool quite often sits in the movie sandbox.
What makes a film right for Entertainment Studios?
We are really focused on movies that we believe warrant a wide release of 2,000 to 4,000 [theaters] and can do anywhere from $40 million to $70 million at the box office. We're chasing what the studios don't necessarily want. Their ambitions are much higher. So, we're staying in our weight class. And we're chasing the studios' crumbs. Basically, we're chasing box-office failures for a studio. But their box-office failure is our success. Their crumbs are our gourmet meal. When you do that across 15 to 20 movies a year, it's a real business.
For an indie distributor, you are spending big on prints and advertising. It worked on 47 Meters but not on horror entry Friend Request. Are you rethinking that strategy?
You know, Hollywood is a casino. You have to put your chips on the table and hope for the best. It's a big gamble. But I believe it's real simple. Number one, you need a good movie. Number two, you need a good release date. And then number three, you need to spend enough money to tell everybody you have a good movie. We know there's a built-in audience for horror movies. We just didn't do well with our first horror outing.
You've pledged to spend $16 million to market the Ted Kennedy scandal film Chappaquiddick. Still the case?
How will you make it relevant? Will you lean in to the current sex scandal climate with your marketing?
It's very timely. What happened then would be gargantuan news today. At the end of the day, the landing on the moon really did an amazing job of keeping him off the front page.
You did the courtroom show We the People With Gloria Allred. Any plans to reteam amid this #MeToo moment?
She was great to work with, and I would love to work with her again. She was as professional and as focused as they come.
As a longtime stand-up, is there too much political correctness in comedy today?
When you start punishing and censoring comedians, that's a real bad sign of us as Americans losing our First Amendment rights. As a comedian, I'm gonna push the boundaries. Some things you're going to love, and some things you're going to hate. But this is America. Great people died for us to have this right. And don't ever let anybody lose one drop of blood over something that is rightfully yours. Especially comedians.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.