‘Narnia’s’ Johnson rides hot streak

Multi-tasks at Sundance, AMC, Academy

He’s everywhere — selling two films at Sundance … reforming Oscar’s foreign-language selection committee … debuting an edgy AMC cable series … and readying a major summer tentpole.

The epitome of today’s multitasking producer, Mark Johnson is riding a hot streak — and trying to enjoy it as long as it runs.

With the halcyon days of deluxe studio deals long gone, Johnson still crafts films, big and small, that sell to both major studios and micro-indies. He steadily generates two to four movies a year — some great, some awful, most better-than-average.

“I feel more ambitious now than I have ever felt,” says Johnson, who was born in Maryland and spent 10 years in Spain before returning to the U.S. for college. “It’s not about succeeding or how many movies I make. It’s playing in as many sandboxes as possible. And having fun.”

Johnson’s against-the-grain taste for PG fare like “A Little Princess” and “My Dog Skip” paid off bigtime when he landed the Walden Media/Disney franchise “The Chronicles of Narnia,” plus a first-look deal to produce family films for Walden; the pact covers much of the overhead on Johnson’s four-person Beverly Hills office.

On this morning, he and “Narnia” director Andrew Adamson are going over studio notes from a preview of sequel “Prince Caspian” the night before in La Verne, Calif. Even though some 65 non-civilians from Walden and Disney comprised a third of the test audience, Johnson is a model of calm.

That’s one reason why he landed the gargantuan gig in the first place. He’s a hands-on producer with a steady gaze, easy manners and a firm handshake.

With a budget heading toward the $200 million mark, “Prince Caspian” tested just fine, Johnson says, while admitting that this second installment in the C.S. Lewis series is a darker, more dramatic, boy-friendly action piece than the $180 million “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which grossed $745 million worldwide.

Thankfully, an Americanized adaptation from Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall earmarked for Paramount — set in Brentwood and featuring not Turkish Delight but cheeseburgers — never jelled, and the blockbuster returns for the first “Harry Potter” pic gave Walden the confidence to proceed with a British-accented series.

Johnson is also shepherding the third “Narnia” adaptation, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After being stymied by the WGA strike, it’s scheduled to start filming in November for a May 2009 release. “As long as the Narnia movies keep succeeding and I don’t make a big mistake,” Johnson says, “I will continue doing them.”

The Walden deal, “Narnia” and an ongoing relationship with Disney make it possible for Johnson to indulge his penchant for also backing smaller pics with up-and-coming talent.

He took two micro-budget pics to January’s Sundance festival: “Ballast,” shot in Mississippi with nonpro black actors, was a critical hit and sold post-fest to IFC Films; the S&M-flavored “Downloading Nancy” earned mixed reviews and will likely go directly to DVD. But both films put their respective directors, Lance Hammer and Johan Renck, higher on the filmmaking radar.

Ironically, the tiny “Ballast” fared better at Sundance than Barry Levinson’s $20 million “What Just Happened?,” which didn’t seem to have the edge festgoers we’re looking for.

Johnson and Levinson go way back together. After meeting on Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” as second assistant director and writer, respectively, Johnson and Levinson partnered for 12 years, sharing the best picture Oscar for “Rain Man” in 1989 before splitting in 1994.

It was during filming of Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World” that Johnson realized his relationship with Levinson had run its course. “Barry and I disagreed on the movies we should make,” says Johnson. “When we did ‘Diner’ we were babes in the woods.”

But recognizing talent early is Johnson’s forte.

It almost broke his heart when Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” earned raves and then failed at the box office. He licked his wounds for eight months. “Where do I belong when a movie that is as good as this doesn’t work in the marketplace?” he asked himself. “Since then, I remember that a good movie is so hard to make that I’m thankful when a film goes through the gate and doesn’t jam. The rest is gravy.”

That insight has served him in good stead, as mentoring “A Perfect World” writer John Lee Hancock, for example, yielded both the Hancock-helmed baseball sleeper hit “The Rookie” and the historic action bellyflop “The Alamo.” “It was too ambitious,” he admits. “When something doesn’t work and things fall apart, you have to pick yourself up and go back at it.”

Also a TV producer, Johnson lost his CBS/Paramount deal due to the Writers Guild strike. But this month, his new cable series “Breaking Bad” debuted to strong reviews and numbers on AMC. The series, which Johnson developed with writer-director Vince Gilligan and which stars Bryan Cranston as a hapless chemistry teacher who comes into his own making crystal meth, grew its audience by 45% the next weekend.

As if he didn’t have enough to do, Johnson also is a member of the Academy Board of Governors and is lobbying for reform of the selection process for the foreign-language branch, of which he has been chairman for nine years.

“In the early days it was the only way to see nudity on screen,” he quips. “It’s a whole different world that has so little to do with the world I mostly work in. It keeps me on my toes.”

Openly expressing his outrage at the films omitted this year by the committee of about 400 voting members, Johnson may have offended some people. “I don’t want to denigrate the movies nominated,” he says. “I’m not trying to impose my taste on the committee. But some of the films undeniably among the best movies of the year didn’t make the short list of nine.” (He cites, most notably, 2007’s Palme d’Or and best European film winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”)

“I feel the committee doesn’t reflect the Academy at large and I have to do something to effect that. We can change things so we can incorporate some different voices.”

After the Oscars, Johnson expects reform discussions to get under way; an invitation-only committee more similar to the music and documentary branches (which also generate their share of controversy) may come into play.

And in three weeks Johnson starts his next picture, which reunites “The Notebook” team of writer Jeremy Leven and director Nick Cassavetes at New Line. Adapted from the Jodi Picoult bestseller, “My Sister’s Keeper” stars Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin and Elle and Dakota Fanning.

It’s never possible to predict how a movie will turn out, especially the execution-dependent relationship pics Johnson calls “landmine films.” He’s still trying to find a film fest berth or distributor, for example, for the indie-financed $2-million drama “Lake City,” starring Sissy Spacek, which has been in the can for over a year.

“When you do the kind of movie the studios call a ‘tweener,’ you have to do it perfectly,” he says. “Otherwise it doesn’t have a place for itself. High-concept movies or movies with stars you know are going to work. Not a lot of movies I produce are about bank robbers and car chases. I often say that movies should be judged like dives: on execution and degree of difficulty, too.”

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