Zurich: Lionsgate's Patrick Wachsberger on His Journey From Jerry Lewis to 'Twilight,' 'La La Land'

Patrick Wachsberger Headshot - P 2013
Robert Maxwell

Patrick Wachsberger Headshot - P 2013

“The game has changed me, I haven't changed the game,” says the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group chairman, who will be honored at the Zurich festival on Sunday.

Eventually, someone should make a film about Patrick Wachsberger's career.

Few studio heads could point to a CV that includes a stint as Jerry Lewis' assistant.

“It was the dream of every Frenchman,” Wachsberger, 64, jokes, recalling his first industry gig, on Lewis' 1972 drama The Day The Clown Cried. Patrick's father, Nat Wachsberger, produced the film about a circus clown imprisoned in a concentration camp, but it was was never released (“Lewis has made sure it won't be while he's still alive,” says Wachsberger). The film has entered into legend as one of the worst movies ever made.

From that inauspicious start, Wachsberger somehow made it to Hollywood, first as a international buyer —“I knew everyone talked to the buyers, so I picked the smallest country to buy for, I picked Belgium” —later as a co-founder, in 1993, of production and sales entity Summit Entertainment. In 2007 he teamed with Rob Friedman, a former Paramount executive, and together they optioned the rights to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, turning the vampire romance series into a billion-dollar global franchise.

In January 2012, Lionsgate bought Summit Entertainment for $412.5 million. Since then, Wachsberger, who is now chairman of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, has overseen another blockbuster franchise (The Hunger Games), the somewhat-less successful Divergent series, and a few bona-fide bombs (Mortdecai, Gods of Egypt).

But Lionsgate, and Wachsberger, are riding high again, enjoying major awards buzz for Damien Chazelle's modern-day musical La La Land and strong box office expectations for both Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge and Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon. Potential franchises in the wings include Power Rangers (“which looks amazing,” Wachsberger says) and The Kingkiller Chronicle, based on the best-selling fantasy book series by Patrick Rothfuss.

Then there's Lionsgate's $4.4 billion acquisition of U.S. pay-TV group Starz, a deal that will link up Lionsgate's film empire with the Starz 30 channel platforms around the world.

So, when the Zurich film festival honors Wachsberger Sunday night with its Game Changer award, it could hardly seem more appropriate. Despite his insistence that “the game has changed me, I haven't changed the game,” Wachsberger's impact on the independent film industry has, and continues to be immense. Scanning the current landscape, the jovial Frenchman says the business is currently undergoing a “sea change” driven by disruptions both technological (online streaming, piracy) and structural (the fall of DVD sales, an overcrowded domestic release schedule) that he predicts will shake up not just the indies but the studios as well.

“What's going to happen to Paramount, to Warner Bros.?” he says. “You are already seeing, internationally, the studios teaming up to reduce overhead, getting into local production, looking for co-financing partners to reduce risk.”

Wachsberger says both studios and indies have to realize that “the no-risk film does not exist” and that the old pre-sale model, using supposed market value of stars in certain territories to calculate a movie's budget, is broken. “Who can open a film internationally, guarantee an opening? Leo (Di Caprio), Jennifer (Lawrence) and Tom Cruise. That's it,” he says.

Instead, Wachsberger suggests taking bigger rolls of the dice —he pushed Chazelle to increase his budget for La La Land, knowing “from my experience doing the Step Up movies” that good musicals don't come cheap. And to be flexible. After the last Divergent film stumbled at the box office this spring, Lionsgate rethought its strategy for the final installment in the franchise. Now The Divergent Series: Ascendant will be a TV movie, kicking off a standalone television series. Wachsberger hinted Lionsgate might use the same strategy for its long-in-development reboot of the Highlander franchise: with the first of the new Highlander films a theatrical property but later titles segueing onto the small screen.

Wachsberger is even returning to his cinematic roots in France. Lionsgate has taken international sales rights on Based on a True Story, Roman Polanski’s French-language thriller, which will star Emmanuelle Seigner and Eva Green. Wachsberger said he's been wanting to work with Polanski since he passed on picking up the The Pianist (2002) which won three Oscars and grossed more than $120 million worldwide.

It's no Jerry Lewis, but it will have to do.