Lionsgate’s Mixed Message

A week ago, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer ignored the predominant mood in Hollywood and chose to boost industry morale with optimism.

He delivered an assured and upbeat address to the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) who were assembled in Las Vegas for their annual conference. A strategic cheerlead for the lords of television, he outright refuted “the death of Broadcast” and said, on the contrary, things are better than ever. So what if the way we watch television is changing, that’s just fundamentals, the demand for content is still vital. As it were, if “High School Musical” could become a billion-dollar franchise, and “Slumdog Millionaire” an Oscar contender, Feltheimer said, that proves there’s still room for unexpected success in the unlikeliest of places.

Call him a renegade. 

“Can things be so bad when a film like The Dark Knight captures the second highest box office gross on record and then helps usher in a brand new technology by selling four million BluRay discs in its first month?” Feltheimer asked. “Or can things be so bad when new shows like ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Damages,’ ‘Dexter’ and ‘The Tudors’ are coming out of a cable television environment that has tripled in size in the past 10 years?”

(As much as I love “Mad Men,” things aren’t exactly peachy if its star accepts a Golden Globe award and thanks the “two dozen or so” people who tune in to watch it.)

But that’s beside the point. A week later, after his exuberantly positive pontificating, the NY Times reported that Lionsgate spent $5.5 million buying the most depressing film in all of Sundance. “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” was a critical success, garnering three awards—the Audience Award, the Grand Jury Prize and a Special Jury Prize for Acting. It’s a sound choice for a company that appreciates quality independent moviemaking and prides itself on a marketing challenge. So why then, mere minutes after announcing its purchase, did Lionsgate begin backpedaling from the glory of their prize?

From the NY Times:

On Monday the company initially agreed to discuss the inherent marketing challenges. A few hours later it backtracked, rejecting any marketing talk but saying executives would be happy to speak broadly about their delight in nabbing the movie. Before long that offer was also rescinded.

I’ll give Lionsgate the benefit of the doubt, but mostly because I trust their backers. Oprah Winfrey agreed to promote the film. So did Tyler Perry. And yet, it’ll likely be Feltheimer’s strategy that will win the day. He’s not going to let a film about “an illiterate and obese African-American teenager in 1980s Harlem who is pregnant with her father’s child — for the second time — and is also abused by her mother” prevent him from making his company money. Who cares that it’s a hard sell, with dark subject matter, in a tough economy? Feltheimer’s answer is to do away with “big, soggy star vehicle[s] with no discernible story line” and target smaller, niche audiences.

“I’m making a point beyond the obvious one that commerce continues and the show will go on. Consumers are still spending but, like each of us, they’re rationing their dollars a little more carefully. Like each of us, they’re becoming a little more selective in their purchases. And, like each of us, they’re exercising the most awesome and dreaded weapon in their arsenal-the power of choice. They’re wielding it not like a club but like a laser, to target the best, the most familiar, the most recognizable and the most appropriate to their lifestyle, taste and peer group,” Feltheimer said.

“Now, think about that for a moment, because it has profound implications for what is produced for, delivered to and consumed by the world marketplace. The message is clear. A bad economy is the best critic on the planet.”