Q&A: Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger


For years, Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger were unlikely friends. Friedman was the corporate insider who spent years at Warner Bros. before becoming vice chairman and COO of Paramount, then parted ways with the studio when Brad Grey took over in 2005. Wachsberger, a gregarious Frenchman, had established himself as one of the top international sales gurus with Summit Entertainment.

So when the duo decided to go into business together in April 2007 by reinventing Summit with domestic distribution and production, skeptics wondered how the melding of indie and studio pedigrees (backed by $1 billion available through Merrill Lynch) would fare in competing against the major studios with low- to midrange-budgeted films.

Despite a few early stumbles, like the heavily promoted "Sex Drive" (which grossed just $8.4 million domestically) and the 3-D animated "Fly Me to the Moon" ($12.4 million domestically), those naysayers largely have been silenced, thanks to the mini-major's first massive hit. "Twilight," made for $38 million, has grossed $180 million and counting domestically since November. Most importantly, it has spawned the film business equivalent of a brass ring: a bona fide franchise.

Friedman and Wachsberger have proved there is still room for bold thinking in indie film; in recognition of this, they have been named the recipients of the 2009 Nielsen Impact Award for their contribution to independent filmmaking, to be presented at the Sundance Film Festival. They sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway in their Santa Monica headquarters.

The Hollywood Reporter: How has "Twilight" changed the company?

Rob Friedman: Well, people are smiling a lot more than they were before.
Patrick Wachsberger: There definitely is a change. First, it's fantastic for all our troops. Second, it's fantastic financially. Third, I honestly believe that we made no mistakes; I don't believe that any studio could've done a better job. But I do not feel there has been any envy or jealousy -- everybody has been looking at it as a piece of good news in a really dark time. Yes, there's hope. There's hope in the banking community, there's hope for independent producers and other studios that it can happen to them on a low-budget movie with no stars. Things have also changed from the point of the view of the agencies as well. It's like, "Wow, look at this little movie coming out of nowhere, handled by this new studio. They really proved that they can basically do (major studios) good or better."

THR: Despite the success, you're going in a bit of a different creative direction with Chris Weitz directing "New Moon," the sequel.

Patrick Wachsberger: If you look at "Harry Potter" -- or other movies sort of like "Harry Potter," I shouldn't compare -- but they change director every movie. The second book is slightly different. (There are) new characters and more visual effects. Catherine (Hardwicke) did a fantastic job (on "Twilight"), and there is a naturalistic feel to the movie that she created and we're going to keep. The first movie was very good, and we hope the second movie (will) be even better.

THR: What happened with Catherine?

Friedman: Basically, we had a different vision of what the movie should be, and we decided that the best course of action was to part (ways as) friends. She has done a fantastic job with "Twilight" and continues to promote it. She's still working with us on the movie -- the DVD, she's doing her director's cut. We just agreed that we had a different vision.

THR: Will "New Moon" stay in the same $38 million budget range?

Friedman: No. The next one will be higher than that. We believe that the film will naturally be more expensive. Sequels become more expensive, and we have more special effects.

Wachsberger: And locations. In the second movie there is a sequence in Italy.

THR: There is talk that because Edward is out of the picture for much of "New Moon," there will be elements of the second and third books combined into the second movie.

Wachsberger: No, but Edward is present for the movie.

THR: Patrick, you were a classic indie guy who's now running a mini-major. And Rob, you're a classic studio guy who's now in the independent world. How has each of you adjusted to that?

Wachsberger: For me, it's a learning process that started 19 months ago, because frankly I have never had to deal with domestic distribution. I was selling the movie, trying to make the best deal.

THR: What surprised you most about the distribution process?

Wachsberger: Release costs. When you go through the details and break them down, I had no idea that things were that expensive. And the process of finding a (release) date, this minefield, I had no idea.

Friedman: When we started the company, we knew that we were trying to create a new vision of what a studio is. We wanted all the fundamentals and we wanted them more efficient, both as far as work effort and cost. So it's an interesting exercise daily, if not hourly, to make sure that we're thinking with a big view -- but with an execution that's going to have a smaller approach economically as well as with staffing. We released "Twilight" with a staff of less than 150 people on a worldwide basis. Most studio marketing departments are more than 150 people. The idea that we've executed this whole mammoth franchise with less staff than most marketing departments is something, when you think about it, that is quite extraordinary.

Wachsberger: The way we operate this company is that the various departments are really involved from the get-go. In other words there is never a movie that arrives to the greenlight process where somebody will say, "What is that? What are we talking about? Why are we doing it?" They're pretty much there from the development process. They can even give their opinion.

Friedman: Where many studios have silos, we have none.

THR: What can studios learn from what you've done?

Friedman: They need to be cautious of independents that can come in and capture a market segment or capture a release date. A lot of times studios don't even look at the independent slates. They'll look at what Paramount or Disney has, and when they're thinking about their competitive environment they're focused on them and not on the smaller guys. And so "Twilight," for most people, came out of nowhere.

THR: Is the reverse true? Because of the success of "Twilight," are you now pursuing more studio-style franchise-oriented films?

Friedman: Yeah, we have "Knowing" coming out, which is a very high-profile, not-inexpensive film that will go toe-to-toe with the big boys. "Push" is a thriller that's in the midrange as far as budget, but it's absolutely a front-line, broad commercial release. We absolutely are looking for franchise properties. Are we gonna be in the $100 million-plus production business? No.

Wachsberger: Well, we might, but with some partners. We are hopefully going to reinvent "Highlander." We acquired the rights -- and it was actually very complicated -- to be able to do a prequel to the original movie, and this is something we hope will turn out as a franchise. We're actually getting our first draft of the screenplay from the writers who co-wrote "Iron Man" (Art Marcum and Matt Holloway).

THR: Summit's ratio of developed properties to production is very low. How many projects do you have in development now?

Friedman: Actively, about 35. We get 150 scripts a week but the stuff that we retain is stuff that we're going to make a movie about. Studios tend to warehouse material. They do it to make it and they do it to take it off the market and have that wealth of material available to them. We see it all, but we only take out what we plan to make a movie out of. We're going to produce eight and acquire another four. Our slate is still 12 to 15 films a year.

THR: Given the global financial crisis, what do you think the time frame is for money to begin flowing back into the independent film world?

Friedman: There's no money right now. We believe that over next three to six months that will change. Eventually banks are going to start to turn back on the flow. It won't be anywhere near what we saw, but I think there are very solid independent companies that have good risk profiles.

THR: Are you being approached by various companies offering to give you a ton of money in the wake of "Twilight"?

Friedman: We've become a much prettier girl at the dance. (Laughs.) Look, a business plan always evolves. Are we looking for acquisitions, for library and things like that? Would that involve a partner? Potentially, sure. Would that partner be bringing equity or money to it? Potentially. We're open to discussions with everybody about everything.

THR: In what ways has the financial downturn affected your business?

Wachsberger: We have been cautious in our selection of movies that we offer to the foreign marketplace. We came to Cannes with four movies, thinking that if things don't go well, it's not going to hurt too much. And we did really well. Way above our projections. So today we are fine. Are we protected from a major crisis? No.

THR: The fundamental bet that you took is that you can make it work if you have domestic distribution. Is that still sound?

Friedman: When you look at the overall risk profile, the opportunity we saw was to drive down our domestic risk through our foreign sales and licensing operation. That takes a tremendous burden off our risk profile.

THR: What's most surprised you about working together?

Wachsberger: That he didn't carry that studio culture with him. We blended really well. (There was a question:) "Is something going to fall into the studio culture or the independent way of doing business?" and he's been very good about that.

Friedman: I knew Patrick had excellent relationships with filmmakers, but how detail-oriented and knowledgeable he is was surprising.

THR: In the next five years are we going to see the same kind of monumental changes in the American film business as we're seeing in the auto industry?

Wachsberger: Luckily, Americans make much better movies than they do cars.