HOLLYWOOD – Robert Lantos is by his own admission an aberration.
One of the last of a dying breed of indie producers, he specializes in financing projects via long-term relationships with such filmmakers as Atom Egoyan, Istvan Szabo and David Cronenberg.
Moreover, he relishes making films that many would not care to take on — like Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” or Szabo’s “Sunshine.”
The downturn in the international presales market and the inherent difficulty of getting any upscale arthouse pic financed at all have made his life even more difficult.
But Lantos has managed to roll with the punches. While he can at first come across as brash and impulsive, he can also be best described as deeply literate and strategic in his thinking. He has also used his position as an outsider to his advantage. A Hungarian Jew by birth and the only son of Holocaust survivors, Lantos grew up in Canada and broke into films in the 1970s by starting his own distribution business with college friend Victor Loewy and a couple of others while he was a student at McGill before becoming a producer.
“I’m not dependent on Hollywood, on one town or one system of financing or one method of filmmaking. I’m genuinely independent of the rules and regulations that run the way films get made in Hollywood,” Lantos says.
“But nothing is for free. I think it comes from never having been a full-blown member of the Hollywood community. I am and always have been an outsider in terms of relationships with the key players in town. I know most of them, but we don’t go to each other’s barbecues.”
In recent years Lantos has continued his maverick ways and has had to break the producer’s cardinal rule by investing his own money in his projects via his own shingle Serendipity Point.
“I finance my projects through a combination of equity investments, subsidy incentives and presales, but more often than not through my own personal investment,” he explains.
That was the case for his newest pic, his latest collaboration with Egoyan, the most recent in a relationship that spans 13 years.
“Where the Truth Lies” will star Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon and marks the first time Egoyan has directed a pic not based on his original script. Pic will start shooting this August in Toronto, L.A. and London.
It was also the case for the Annette Bening/Jeremy Irons starrer “Being Julia,” which opens the Toronto Film Fest in September.
Unlike most of his pics, “Julia” came together quickly by Lantos standards. It was only about three years from its inception to the start of shooting — usually his pics take anything from five to seven years before they get made.
“I truly have to fall in love with a project to make it. ‘Like’ is not enough. Take Egoyan’s ‘Ararat.’ ”
When Lantos was introducing Egoyan, who was being honored at the Armenian Community Center in Toronto, Lantos pledged in front of the crowd to back Egoyan if he ever chose to tell the story of his own people.
Lantos battled to find financing for the $11 million “Ararat,” which focuses on the Armenian genocide. Though both he and distributor Miramax lost money on the pic, it was a decision he stands by.
“I had no alternative but to stand by the pledge I made that day. My only concern was let’s make it as good as possible.”
But it’s not all a case of passion vs. business.
When he was still a film student in Montreal, Lantos made his first foray into the distribution biz with Loewy but then became a producer.
After producing his first pic “L’Ange et la femme” at age 26 and “In Praise of Older Women” at age 27, he co-founded Alliance Communications in 1985 with Loewy. He remained chairman and CEO until 1998, when he sold his controlling interest after the company merged with rival Atlantis to form Alliance Atlantis Communications.
In 2003 he acquired a 50% stake in North American distributor ThinkFilm after he was freed from a non-compete clause from Alliance and became chairman.
“I have a fondness for the distribution business, it’s part of my roots,” he explains. “But I also think there is opportunity in the marketplace in the U.S. and Canada for nonstudio-owned specialty distributors. We’re not the only ones who are doing it, but I see the gap ever widening as the traditional players pay less and less attention to it.”
Lantos is currently in the process of closing an equity deal for ThinkFilm to add cash to its coffers.
Looking forward, Lantos says he will spend his time and energy building ThinkFilm — “it’s part of the five-year plan,” he says — and continuing to make films.
“As a filmmaker, I’m just going to continue to make one film a year based on my heart. If my films find and please people and deliver something of value, that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”