risky business

Another career turn as Canton rolls '300'

Mark Canton is a survivor. A born Hollywood insider, the son of PR maven Arthur Canton, he ran production at Warner Bros. Pictures and rose to chairman of Columbia TriStar Pictures, where he infamously promoted the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "The Last Action Hero" as "probably the greatest action movie of all time." And he got beat up royally by the debacle that was Jon Peters and Peter Guber's tenure running Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But as the Hollywood cliche goes, you're only as good as your last picture. Canton is awaiting the opening of a potential blockbuster that should score and at the same time restore his faded luster. That movie is "300," Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the legendary Battle of Thermopylae that pitted 300 of the best Spartan warriors against the endless armies of Xerxes in 480 B.C. The movie has tested through the roof in early research previews ? especially with the young male demographic ? and Canton, who always has been a relentlessly gifted marketer, is making sure that people know it. Warners will launch the stylized CG actioner, starring the well-muscled Gerard Butler ("The Phantom of the Opera"), this month at the Berlin International Film Festival. It opens stateside March 9.

Admittedly, Canton has much to live down. The studio exec-turned- indie producer will be cited by film historians as the Columbia suit who paid Jim Carrey $20 million for 1996's "The Cable Guy," a payout that permanently inflated talent salaries, creating the overpriced studio budgets that still warp the film industry. After he left Columbia TriStar, Canton's fortunes sagged as he set up the Canton Co. at Warners and then suffered through an unfortunate stint running Michael Ovitz's movie division at Artists Management Group.

Canton moved on, finding and losing money on the German Neuer- Market, then raising more financial backing, anticipating what has become the trend for high-end producers. Canton is now chairman and CEO of Atmosphere Entertainment MM Llc., which he co-founded with investment manager Mark Kimsey in late 2003, backed by Kimsey's Daedalus Media Fund and advised by Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Management.

Canton learned about co-financing partnerships from his old Warners bosses Terry Semel and Bob Daly, he says over drinks at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge. "I was ahead of the curve. I was the first one out," he contends.

Canton is enjoying his relatively simple life as the head of a small, eight-person operation in Beverly Hills, he says, though his free-spending studio days are over. He's functioning now in a leaner, meaner Hollywood. "You have to earn it in order to get it," he says. "Gone are the days of giving out movie jackets at premieres. There's nothing fancy other than rolling up my sleeves to do the work."

Canton has movie madness in his genes. After studying history at UCLA, he started his career in the Warners mailroom, eventually rising through the studio ranks at Warners to production president. While he can claim credit for making Prince's "Purple Rain" and discovering Tim Burton, who made "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Batman" for him at Warners, Canton was never a development guy invested in story arcs and third-act payoffs. He was always someone who leveraged relationships with the likes of Ovitz or Peters to grab the commercial brass ring.

He followed Peters and Guber to SPE, where they famously burned

through $3 billion and released such duds as "First Knight," "Poetic Justice," "The Age of Innocence," "Lost in Yonkers" and "Striking Distance." Nor did Canton always endear himself to the town during this period. (For some amusing bad-boy tales, check out Nancy Griffin & Kim Masters' must-read tell-all "Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood.") But a number of hits, including "Bad Boys" and "Sense and Sensibility," were greenlighted on his watch, and after Canton departed the studio, a raft of pictures that he had set in motion scored big: "Men in Black," "As Good as It Gets," "Jerry Maguire," "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Air Force One."

Canton has paid his dues since then. He hasn't slackened his pace as he's made such films as "Taking Lives," "Jack Frost," "Angel Eyes," "Red Planet" and "Land of the Dead."

Thanks to that unassuming zombie sequel, Canton is poised to make the comeback of his life. At a meeting four years ago with old pal Gianni Nunnari, the Italian producer mentioned his Battle of Thermopylae project (a subject that had been developed by two studios and Michael Mann), Canton, who remembered loving 1962's "The 300 Spartans," jumped at it and persuaded him to let him partner. Canton also knew "300" graphic novelist Miller, going back to Miller's Batman novel "The Dark Knight Returns." "What do I have to do to get into '300'?" Canton asked Nunnari. Canton brought in Zack Snyder. "When he first saw the material," he says, "he had a vision of how to take Frank's work and make a new-fashioned version of an epic movie."

Even after Warners' experience on the inflated megabudget disappointments "Troy" and "Alexander," Canton was able to sell his more modest period epic ? which had been gestating for nine years ? to Warners execs Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov. Canton wowed them with Snyder's 90-second test of the movie. In turn, Warners brought in Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios to co-finance the R-rated, violent and sexy $64 million period battle epic. "We live in a world in which we're at war," Canton says. "There's so much chaos and distress. This is the story of this battle, which is a real case where the few stood up against the many, united in recognizing that it really was for the greater good. Maybe people would like to think that the world is that simple now."

Warners is launching "300" in the pre-spring break March slot that worked well in the past for "The Matrix" and "Lethal Weapon." Footage from "300" stunned comic book fans at July's Comic-Con, where they demanded to see the teaser three times.

This hugely entertaining, over-the-top action adventure uses the latest technology to bring a comic book to visceral life ? from Butler's star-making role as the heroic (and half-naked) Leonides to bloody, hacking swordplay, a grossly deformed hunchback and a deadly shower of arrows that blots out the sky. This highly stylized graphic technique inevitably will be widely imitated. (Miller already is plotting a follow-up screenplay set a few years after "300," involving the Spartans and the ancient Greeks.)

Also in Canton's pipeline is "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a $130 million, would-be family franchise at Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Canton is producing with Kennedy/Marshall Prods. Again, an old relationship with the Gotham Group's Ellen Goldsmith Vein ? going back to "Jumanji," "Gremlins" and "The Goonies" ? as well as his friendship of many years with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, led to Canton's involvement on Mark Waters' screen adaptation (written by John Sayles) of the children's best-seller about the magical Spiderwick mansion. The film stars Freddy Highmore and Mary Louise Parker, with Nick Nolte as a vicious ogre. Industrial Light + Magic and Phil Tippet supply the visual effects for the Paramount release, scheduled for February 2008.

Clearly, Canton is in his element, and still feels the hunger to succeed. "The critical discovery for me has been to go back to what motivated me in the first place," he says. "Being involved in movies is my passion. What's gotten me off the mat is the sense of the child in all of us. I feel like the same guy as I did back in the mailroom, but with more wisdom, from the depths of experience to the heights."

Anne Thompson can be reached at athompson@hollywoodreporter.com and www.reporter.blogs.com/risky.