For Phoenix Pictures, the 15-year-old indie production banner headed by Mike Medavoy, “Shutter Island” is emblematic of the company’s long-view approach — one that’s allowed the company to foster its own vision while working with studio partners, to nurture maverick filmmakers alongside established pros and, these days, to weather the current squeeze in available bank funding.
The box office success of “Shutter” follows seven years of gestation from the time Sony first optioned feature film rights to the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane and then the stigma of having been held back for four months because eventual distrib Paramount didn’t have enough money in its 2009 year-end marketing budget.
Now, with domestic grosses on the film having topped $80 million in two weeks, Medavoy says Phoenix can’t rest on “Shutter’s” success, but will keep seeking new relationships and alliances while navigating the hurdles of the ongoing financing crunch.
“What I’ve learned is that looking backwards is a waste of time,” says Medavoy, who’s been involved in more than 300 films — including seven that have won the best-picture Oscar going back to 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a project detailed in his 2002 biography, “You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot.”
Despite the tightened access to funds that has hit the biz, Phoenix is working to advance a substantial slate that ranges from comedies to superhero stories to sci-fi and which includes “Water and Power,” the story of William Mulholland that Frank Darabont will direct from a script by Bruce McKenna. (Medavoy notes that when he told “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne about the project, Towne responded by saying, “That’s the real ‘Chinatown’ story.”) The drama is based on “William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles,” by granddaughter Catherine Mullholland.
“We need successful movies to stay in business,” says Medavoy of the balancing act exacerbated by the credit crunch. “We have to be more careful about spending and we can’t finance the way we used to.”
The success of “Shutter Island,” though, should help pave the way for other key Phoenix projects. Besides “Water and Power,” the shingle also hopes to set up a potential tentpole with “Anvil of Stars,” based on Greg Bear’s books in which the Earth is destroyed by aliens and the surviving children scour the galaxy seeking revenge.
The banner is in talks with Stefan Ruzowitzky, who directed Oscar winner “The Counterfeiters,” to come on board “The Last Voyage of Demeter,” the story of Dracula arriving in England by ship.
It’s developing a pair of fantasy adventures — “The Nightmare King” and “Dark Harbor.” The former’s penned by Dan and Kevin Hageman based on Troy Nixey’s comic “Trout,” about a young man in an orphanage where souls and dreams can be stolen; “Shutter Island” scribe Laeta Kalogridis is rewriting. In Zane Smith’s “Dark Harbor,” a schizophrenic reinvents himself as a superhero.
It’s also moving ahead on “Never Send Flowers,” an action romantic comedy centered on a salesman on a business trip to Monte Carlo who falls in love with a female thief. Screenplay’s by Jeff Treppel and Kevin Almeida.
It’s difficult to generalize about Medavoy’s sensibilities as a producer and studio exec and those of Phoenix, which logged its first production credit on “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and has since encompassed “Zodiac,” “All the King’s Men,” “Holes” and “The Thin Red Line.”
“I’ve done all kinds of films — ‘Terminator,’ ‘Robocop,’ ‘Silence of the Lambs, ‘Philadelphia’ — so what I can say is that if it’s different, then it intrigues me,” Medavoy says.
The producer’s more-than-four decade Hollywood career has encompassed stints as co-chief at United Artists, Orion and Columbia. Phoenix, notably, has made more than 30 films over 15 years with the same exec team in place. President Arnie Messer and co-presidents Bradley Fischer and David Thwaits have all logged more than a decade.
“We are brutally honest with each other,” says Medavoy of the quartet’s process. “This works if everyone works with the same purpose.”
Like other shingles, Phoenix is coping with a dramatically altered landscape for film financing. Its last first-look deal with Sony — under which Phoenix would supply part of the production costs — expired five years ago, with “The Sixth Man” the final pic made under that arrangement. And following the recession, access to coin has been limited.
“The biggest difference for us is the disappearance of banks,” says Messer. “They ran for the hills after 2008. The gap lenders are gone, so we’re looking for other sources.”
Fischer contends that the film business still can generate decent returns on investment, particularly on such films as Alcon Entertainment’s “The Blind Side,” but he acknowledges that film hasn’t been an very attractive prospect for investors of late. “We’ve been tarred with the same brush as real estate,” he says.
Phoenix now focuses on the basic business of putting together packages, taking them to studios and then navigating the development process, even if it takes years.
For one, the Phoenix execs say they’re willing to wait for the right writers. “One of the biggest problems in development is when you get competing visions,” says Messer.
“If you’re at the script stage and you and the writer can’t agree, you’re probably not going to further down the line,” Medavoy notes.
Upcoming Phoenix releases include Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis and released through Fox Searchlight, and Mikael Hafstrom’s WWII spy thriller “Shanghai,” starring John Cusack and Gong Li and released through the Weinstein Company.
Medavoy was born in Shanghai in 1941, and it’s clear that he has a deeper personal interest in that pic. The film will open in Asia in April ahead of the domestic launch, and Medavoy says he’s keen to see what Harvey Weinstein’s marketing skills will do to make “Shanghai” stand out.