Castle Rock: Earning its keep?

Shingle weathers tough year but bets its loyal talent will pay off

Sitting in the same office he’s had since the startup of Castle Rock Entertainment 15 years ago, chairman-CEO Martin Shafer drapes his legs over the arm of his chair and warily regards his guest.

After the critical drubbing Castle Rock films received last year, it’s understandable that he’s a little edgy when asked how he views his company going forward.

“We don’t seek franchises. It’s not about doing the same movie again,” he says. “I don’t want to do more movies than we do now.”

As for working in other media, he shrugs: “I don’t know what else we’d do (if not movies).”

While the shingle has seen its fortunes rise and fall, it has always remained true to its vision — constantly favoring challenging material over cheap (if highly profitable) laughs. In addition, its execs are widely praised for being idealistic and highly principled.

Fortunately, those qualities are a luxury Castle Rock can afford.

Time Warner wholly owns the shingle, and Castle Rock co-founder Alan Horn, who’s now president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros., serendipitously oversees its greenlight process.

But after last year’s flops — Scott Hicks’ “Hearts in Atlantis” and Frank Darabont’s “The Majestic” –observers wonder if the company can afford to continue its course, despite its cushy corporate home.

While Shafer acknowledges he looks forward to emerging from a down cycle, he shrugs off concerns over long-term effects.

“No one gets through their careers unscathed,” he says. “We were never as good as people thought when we were hot and we were never as bad as people thought when we were cold.”

That assessment is considerably more modest than what might have been hoped for 15 years ago. Castle Rock has, however, simply not been able to sustain the heat that, say, a shingle like Imagine has generated over the same time frame.

And the money was on Castle Rock, not Imagine, in 1987.

Horn had been chairman of Embassy Communications and president/chief operating officer of 20th Century Fox; another co-founder, Glenn Padnick, was the former prexy of Embassy Television.

Director Rob Reiner was a helmer of critically acclaimed crowd-pleasers, while Andrew Scheinman produced Reiner’s “The Sure Thing,” “The Princess Bride” and “Stand By Me.” For his part, Shafer had worked under Horn at both Embassy and 20th Century Fox.

By contrast, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard — who had launched Imagine Entertainment a few months earlier — had just three comedies under their belt, including the hit “Splash.” A nice start, but hardly inspiration to bet the house.

Both companies can point to multiple B.O. winners, while Castle Rock’s first foray into TV hit the jackpot: “Seinfeld” still holds the record for syndie revenues.

But at some point, Imagine began to pull ahead in the bigscreen blockbuster count.

Knowing the shingles’ top execs, that’s not entirely surprising.

Where Grazer is hands-on — even manic — in his approach to filmmaking and marketing, Shafer is low-key, even-handed and self-effacing, totally devoid of Grazer’s fire-breathing qualities.

And while Imagine unabashedly embraces populist fare — think Dr. Seuss, “Nutty Professor” and “Curious George” franchises — Castle Rock has just one sequel, the poorly received “City Slickers II.”

Had they tried to do a “Porky’s” or a “Police Academy,” Shafer laughs, “we’d probably mess it up.”

Castle Rock continues to focus on an eclectic mix of projects.

Up next is “The Salton Sea,” a drama that centers on an underground band of speed freaks, starring Val Kilmer.

The company also is producing another of its profitable Christopher Guest mockumentaries: “A Mighty Wind,” a spoof on the folk-singing circuit, begins production in May.

Castle Rock shows no fear in taking on films that require sprawling budgets.

These include the Mel Gibson-produced “Farenheit 451”; “Polar Express,” being developed by Robert Zemeckis and scribe William Broyles for Tom Hanks to star; and a Howard Hughes biopic from “Memento” writer-director Christopher Nolan that would star Jim Carrey.

Whatever the drawbacks to its approach, Castle Rock gets kudos for treating its talent well, tending those relationships with a care usually reserved for orchids.

“People know what they’re getting with us,” says Shafer. “You buy into somebody. We’re a very loyal company.”

The Castle Rock stalwarts are legion.

In addition to Guest, who cowrote Reiner’s 1984 feature debut “This Is Spinal Tap,” they include William Goldman, who first worked with Reiner on “The Princess Bride” in 1987 and most recently penned CR’s “Dreamcatcher.”

There’s also Sandra Bullock, who’s on board for a “Miss Congeniality” sequel and is now shooting a romantic comedy with Hugh Grant, whose own Simian Films is based at the company.

Darabont has spent his feature directing career at the shingle. And when “Metropolitan” helmer Whit Stillman finishes his next screenplay, it will have a home at Castle Rock.

That faithfulness extends to the company’s management, with Horn being the only founder to have exited.

And while Reiner hasn’t directed since “The Story of Us” in 1999, Shafer says Reiner is now “desperate” to find something he wants to helm after taking time off for political work.

Given these pluses, bets are that as long as Castle Rock continues to crank out singles and doubles along with the occasional prestige piece, the shingle is safely moored in the WB harbor.

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