Studio's incoming toppers discuss fresh focus

New CBS Films co-prexies Terry Press and Wolfgang Hammer don’t like to define themselves by their budgets, P&A caps or even the type of films they release, but they’re happy to shed light on how to make specialty films make economic sense.

For instance, Press says, Robert De Niro is in talks to star in “Last Vegas,” with Michael Douglas already in advanced negotiations for the comedy. Press says that if De Niro signs on to the pic, its profile changes, and so does the cost.

The question is, at what price does the pic become too expensive? “Is there a point (when we say), ‘That’s very nice, but we can’t do it’? Yes there is,” Press says.

Like “Last Vegas,” CBS Films is at a crossroads. Since founding president Amy Baer ankled at the end of her four-year contract in October, the CBS Corp. shingle has experienced its biggest hit (the $54 million-grossing “The Woman in Black”), rolled out $5 million Toronto fest pickup “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” to a gross of $8 million and counting, and landed the first big buy of Sundance (the Bradley Cooper-toplined “The Words”), all while remaining, more or less, in executive limbo.

In an anticipated move made just in time for Cannes, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves on April 23 named Hammer, the division’s chief operating officer, and marketing consultant Press — who’ve worked for the shingle since 2010 — as co-toppers. They hope to overcome a rocky few years of underperforming, big-name films and a nearly year-long gap in releases, which ended with February’s boffo bow of “Black” (helped along by $14 million in marketing, a precisely targeted spend Press hopes to make a hallmark of CBS Films).

With Press, a former DreamWorks exec, overseeing creative, distribution, marketing and physical production, and Hammer handling business, finance, legal affairs and acquisitions (including financed, co-financed and completed projects), their first official move was to promote Maria Faillace from senior VP to exec VP of production. Faillace will oversee the shingle’s inhouse releases, in a six-pic annual slate that’s evenly balanced by acquisitions.

“She has really good taste, a team of good people and understands what Wolfgang and I are trying to accomplish,” Press says.

Hammer says the company will invite input from all execs, including vet theatrical distribution exec VP Steven Friedlander, in the production process

How much resetting will be done remains unclear. There are no plans to change the size of the staff, which numbers about 50, and numerous projects remain in the pipeline (including Spanish prison thriller remake “Cell 211,” and two lit franchises: the young adult sci-fi-thriller “Legend” and spy thriller “American Assassin”).

In addition to more lit pickups with sister company Simon & Schuster, Hammer says he’s open to further co-productions on bigger projects like “The Stand” (in development with Warner Bros.) and overseas partnerships on unique fare like dog-kidnapping action comedy “Seven Psychopaths,” co-produced and co-financed with Film4 and the BFI Film Fund, out Nov 2. Other slated releases include the horror thriller “7500″ (Aug. 31), “The Words” (Sept. 21), caper comedy “Gambit” (Jan. 11) and next year’s family comedy “Get a Job.”

In general, Hammer says he and Press will be looking for filmmaker-driven fare from fresh voices, no matter the genre, and that time spent over the past year making CBS Films an even leaner outfit will allow them to take more creative risks. The most important litmus test, Press stresses, is to “first figure out who will show up based on an emotional connection to the material,” and only release films “where you can say ‘This is the exact audience this is for.’ ”

They pair have also tapped in to corporate synergy, using the CBS television network and Showtime (the cabler CBS Films was launched to supply) as well as sister radio and digital networks to help promote pics like “Salmon Fishing,” which Press says is a good fit with Eye web viewers.

The new toppers are exploring alternative distribution models as well, but other than ruling out day-and-date, Hammer says plans (likely to include sister digital outlets) are still being discussed.

As for Cannes? “We’re in buying mode, and we’ll be there in force,” Hammer says. “Some of the movies may be a bit too small for us, in a releasing sense rather than an artistic sense, but there are a lot of really good competitors and we want to run with the best of them.”

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