10 Producers to Watch

It went from being the most buzzed-about B-movie since “The Blair Witch Project” to a box office champ, even if its opening weekend numbers didn’t quite live up to the hype. It also helped reinvent word-of-mouth marketing in the MySpace age and drew both general audiences and serious filmgoers, who couldn’t resist its campy appeal.

But without Craig Berenson, the curious pop culture phenomenon that is “Snakes on a Plane” would have never gotten off the ground.

After starting out as an actor in early ’80s, Berenson moved into producing when he took an internship at Davis Entertainment. He worked his way up to development exec during his nine years at the company before taking a post at DreamWorks shingle Patchwork Prods.

In 1998, while still at Patchwork, he came across “Venom,” a horror script about snakes and planes by writer David Dallesandro, and the concept inspired him. “I optioned the script but used it really as a jumping-off point,” says Berenson.

“I became fascinated by the idea of combining two of our greatest fears — air travel and snakes — and that’s when I came up with the title and started brainstorming.”

After optioning Dallesandro’s script, Berenson hired his assistant John Hefferman to write a new draft from scratch, loosely based on the initial concept. “Snakes” was set up at MTV Films in 2001, but then 9/11 happened.

Realizing that a hijacking movie was an impossible project at the time, Berenson started his own shingle, reacquired the rights and waited.

Five years later, the film was finally in production, but with a twist: The filmmakers relied on the blogosphere to come up with what amounts to the picture’s punchline, uttered by lead player Samuel L. Jackson: “That’s it! I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” It’s the first time a major studio, in this case New Line, used a bit of dialogue inspired by an online fan.

“What makes Craig unique is that at no point in the process did he ever let up his commitment or his passion,” says Don Granger, who produced “Snakes” with Berenson. “That sort of indefatigability is rare, and his old-fashioned caring and passion was energizing and inspiring to everyone around him.”

Upcoming projects include the ’30s noir “Bay City,” which Mark Romanek is attached to direct, Bruce McKenna’s “36 Hours” for Warners and Scott Sommer’s “Barking Orders” for Lakeshore.

VITALS

Age: 51
Base: Los Angeles
Model producer: “When I first did ‘Airplane,’ the producer was Howard Koch Sr. He was the first person on the set and the last person off every night. I hope I live up to what I saw in him.”
Hard lesson: “Don’t despair — good projects will find their time.”
Now playing: “Snakes on a Plane” (New Line), starring Samuel L. Jackson

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