Culpepper delivers high concepts at low costs

Screen Gems topper Clint Culpepper likes to fly under the radar. As far as he’s concerned, less is always more; delivering a strong bottom line to his multilabel bosses, Sony Pictures chairmen Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, is the way to go.

Culpepper’s mantra: Keep costs down, risks low, niches narrow and grosses high. That way, no one will have anything to complain about. “Amy is the most supportive person creatively,” Culpepper says. “And Michael couldn’t be more supportive financially.”

By staying one step ahead of the market and mixing up his annual slates with unexpected but accessible high-concept stories — such as the $12-million hip-hop hit “Stomp the Yard,” which grossed $62 million — Culpepper boasts one of the most consistent track records in town.

After the wily Sony acquisitions exec kept picking up hits like “The Opposite of Sex,” starring Christina Ricci as a sexy ingenue fatale, Culpepper created the new label in 1999 with the blessing of SPE chief John Calley, who let him change the venerable old Screen Gems TV monicker into a theatrical label.

For Screen Gems, Culpepper picked an area of focus that would overlap with neither big Columbia nor little Sony Pictures Classics: low-budget genre films.

Culpepper admits he started off not knowing the difference between Freddy and Jason. But when Pascal’s Columbia team wasn’t interested in chasing after B-genre movies, Screen Gems rode the crest of the horror wave with such robust franchises as “Resident Evil” (starring Milla Jovovich) and “Underworld” (starring Kate Beckinsale).

“It was ‘Romeo & Juliet’ between vampires and werewolves,” Culpepper says. “Vampires are seductive to both men and women; a man bites into a woman’s neck and seduces her into a life of immortality.

“The first ‘Hostel’ was a great concept,” he adds, “what happens to straight kids backpacking in Europe when they unwittingly get involved in trafficking humans to be tortured to the highest bidder? ‘When a Stranger Calls’ aspired to be a classic old thriller in the vein of ‘Wait Until Dark.’ “

Culpepper also relies on Screen Gems marketing chief Marc Weinstock for inventive strategy. “We’re not trying to be four quadrant,” Weinstock adds. “We have to reach the audience in innovative and clear ways to stand out above all the clutter. It gets harder every year.”

Knowing that movie genres roll in cycles, Culpepper & Co. saw the Xtreme horror bust coming over the horizon more than a year ago. “The only thing that is permanent is change,” Culpepper says. “Guilty pleasures begin to feel guilty. Everything old is new again.”

Thus the label’s upcoming release slate is rigorously eclectic: 2007 brings the third “Resident Evil,” “Extinction” (Sept. 21); an urban holiday drama from “Stomp the Yard” producer Will Packer and writer-director Preston Whitmore, “This Christmas” (Nov. 30); another urban picture, “First Sunday,” about a two thieves led by Ice Cube who try to rob a church (Jan. 18); the thriller “Untraceable,” starring Diane Lane as an FBI agent tracking a brutal killer who tortures his victims live on the Internet (Jan. 25); and the classic title “Prom Night,” which invokes the horror of high schoolers’ best night turning into their final night (April 11).

Going forward, Culpepper is remaking two big titles. “Prom Night” director Nelson McCormick will helm an update of 1987’s “The Stepfather.” And it took five years to get Lawrence Kasdan’s blessing to set up an African-American remake of “The Big Chill” (with Packer and Whitmore attached). “Things happen when they are supposed to happen,” Culpepper says.

Also in the works are two Maxim-branded teen comedies set in a cheerleading camp and the New Orleans Mardi Gras, respectively.

Three more pics are set to shoot before the threatened writers’ strike: “Armored” about an inside heist job via armored car to be directed by “Vacancy’s” Nimrod Antal; father-son basketball drama “Phenom” starring Chris Brown; and Easter story “The Resurrection,” written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd, and set for Easter 2009, which follows Jesus Christ after he dies on the cross. Farther down the pike is the female action picture “The Crossing.”

Scheduled to shoot in 2008 are a burlesque movie with 12 song-and-dance numbers; “The Burial,” a David-and-Goliath courtroom trial drama written by Doug Wright and directed by Stephen Frears; and the true story based on the Italian documentary “On Moral Ground,” about the largest class-action award ever against Germany: $5.2 billion in Holocaust reparations.

“If it’s not new or interesting, if it’s a repeat of something old, it gets lost,” Culpepper says. “And when the movies fail to offer that, people eventually stop coming.”

Corrections were made to this article on Sept. 7, 2007.

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