Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
BURBANK, Calif. — The mural in Todd Lieberman’s office captures the film producer’s uncanny year.
Taking up part of a wall in a room on the Disney lot, the artwork depicts a woman with a rose, a tattoo, and an eye bearing the word ‘‘wonder.’’ It is meant to represent ‘‘Stronger,’’ Wonder,’’ and ‘‘Beauty and the Beast’’ — the three movies Lieberman and partner David Hoberman produced last year at their Disney-based Mandeville Films.
As difficult as it is to get even one movie made in brand-driven Hollywood, Mandeville in 2017 somehow finessed three, all very different: a blockbuster, a sleeper, and a critical darling. Chances are if you saw a hit movie last year, you partook of Mandeville’s handiwork.
‘‘We didn’t orchestrate it this way,’’ Lieberman said, commenting on the mural he commissioned. ‘‘But someone pointed out to me that this year we had three pillars: beauty, strength, and wonder. Those strike me as the necessary traits for a good life.’’
In a Hollywood often portrayed as a faceless machine, Hoberman, 44, and Lieberman, 65, epitomize the very human, very hands-on type of producers who can operate the gears. The pair’s knack for versatility has helped them emerge as a surprisingly potent industry force.
But maintaining that relevance in a fickle business currently beset by great change may prove as tricky as Beast’s effort to evade the jealous Gaston. In the months ahead, Mandeville’s success will depend on an increasingly fragile balance of personal taste and corporate imperative.
Certainly it would be hard to argue with its winning streak in 2017.
‘‘Beauty’’ began when Disney executives asked Lieberman and Hoberman to develop a long-gestating script, initially conceived as an adventure-drama, as a musical instead.
A budget upward of $150 million meant a new kind of gamble, for both Hollywood and Mandeville. But the material was handled with just the right mix of verve and darkness by director Bill Condon and newly hired screenwriter Stephen Chbosky. Boosted heavily by the presence of Emma Watson, the bet paid off, to the tune of $1.3 billion in global box office.
‘‘Stronger,’’ based on the real-life story of Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman, was more organic. Lieberman and Hoberman heard about the survivor from an agent — Bauman had yet to even write a book. Mandeville worked with him on that and then hired director David Gordon Green, the ‘‘Pineapple Express’’ filmmaker lately returning to his indie-drama roots. They then set up the project at Amazon Studios. (Like most producers with studio deals, Mandeville can shop a project elsewhere if its home company doesn’t want it.)
And though ‘‘Stronger’’ has underperformed commercially, it gained raves for its candid look at the complexities of patriotism. Star Jake Gyllenhaal has also generated Oscar buzz for his portrayal.
But it’s ‘‘Wonder’’ that may be the most surprising of the bunch — a feel-good charmer about a boy with facial differences, based on R.J. Palacio’s bestseller.
Tipped off to the novel just as it was being published, Lieberman and Hoberman soon met with Palacio, who granted them the right to shop it more than five years ago.
Then the rejections came.
Few in Hollywood had heard of the book, and no one thought a film adaptation could be a hit. Mandeville struggled to crack the story too, with many top screenwriters telling them they should consider gimmicks such as not showing the boy’s face until the end.
But the demurrals helped, because in the meantime the book was gaining popularity among millions of middle-schoolers. Soon Julia Roberts, who’d read the book with her family, was calling Mandeville to be in it.
Made for $20 million, ‘‘Wonder’’ has just crossed $115 million in US box office, nearly as much as the latest ‘‘Transformers’’ installment. As an original piece of material without vampires, aliens, or dystopian warriors, it’s the kind of movie studios don’t make much and the kind of hit the American film business rarely sees.
In fact, a studio didn’t make it.
The film was passed on by Disney despite the family-friendly appeal. Making films for $20 million, no matter the word-of-mouth potential, just doesn’t ignite Burbank like it used to; the box office ceiling will never be as high as for a Marvel or ‘‘Star Wars’’ picture.
‘‘Wonder’’ ended up at Lionsgate, a so-called midmajor and a company that will still take swings on original films. (Disney still collects a percentage of revenue due to its overall deal with Mandeville.)
Lieberman did not address the Disney pass specifically but said that he ‘‘understands from a business perspective this was a tough risk; we’re thankful we found a place passionate enough to do it.’’
Mandeville began humbly. Hoberman founded it in the 1990s after a turn as president of Disney’s motion-picture unit. In 1999 he hired Lieberman, still in his mid-20s and fresh off an apprenticeship in the hustle-heavy part of the business known as foreign sales. The pair would soon move to Hyde Park, another production company, then re-formed Mandeville in 2002.
What began as a mentor-protege relationship between the two men would eventually evolve into a more equal partnership. Lieberman and Hoberman found themselves bonded by the difficulty of their mission: creating a slate of movies that could pack in audiences without sacrificing taste or even critical favor.
The pair endured their share of early missteps (2004’s drama-comedy ‘‘Raising Helen”). But they soon found their footing, and in a two-year span between 2009 and 2011 had the ‘‘Muppets’’ reboot, the surprise smash romantic comedy ‘‘The Proposal,’’ and the seven-time Oscar nominee ‘‘The Fighter’’ — a precursor to the tentpole-crowdpleaser-prestige trifecta of 2017.
In a movie-producing business populated by yin-and-yang partners, Hoberman and Lieberman are in fact very similar. Products of similar upper-middle-class Jewish upbringings, in Los Angeles and Cleveland, they have a knack for doing the heavy lifting on sets and a shared sensibility that might be described as quality-minded commercialism.
‘‘Typically in a partnership you have skillsets that complement each other,’’ said Lieberman. ‘‘We have very similar skillsets but very different outlooks. I lean optimistic and David leans realistic; I am asking ‘Why not?’ and David is giving a needed reality check.’’
Hoberman characterizes the difference, well, differently.
‘‘Todd has this curiosity and he’s looking for meaning. He makes declarations — and then does them. If Todd wanted to be a banker tomorrow he would do everything he needed to do and become a banker.’’ Hoberman laughed. ‘‘I never do that. I never know what I want in life; I just end up making the choices in front of me.’’
Of course, similarities can pay dividends, too. Some rival producers have wondered how Mandeville pulls off its bursts of productivity, but its little secret is that, because of overlapping tastes, Hoberman and Lieberman are rarely in the same city at the same time. Each takes lead where a film is shooting and tags out for the other when necessary.
All the while they are trying to balance their taste with the needs of a studio — especially a highly purposeful studio like Disney.
‘‘One place we’re really harmonized,”said Disney head of production Sean Bailey., ‘‘is with movies where you feel inspired — elevated and brighter — when you leave the theater. We like to look for that, and they’re very good at that.’’
The Disney relationship could have gone a different way. Hoberman, a loyalist of former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, ended up with a producing deal on the lot after being pushed out by Katzenberg successor Joe Roth in 1995. Hoberman endured at Disney, and years later he has become one of the studio’s more important creative figures.
Collectively, he and Lieberman have been able to punch above their weight with just a handful of employees working out of a corner of Disney’s so-called Old Animation Building, which Walt Disney once called home.
Chbosky chalks up their success to a light touch. ‘‘There are a lot of abusive people in our business who think being rough on an artist is the way to go,’’ he said ‘‘I’m not that person. And Todd and David aren’t those people.’’
Still, challenges abide. The future is generally uncertain for studio-based producers who follow their own taste; most major movie hits these days are highly calibrated, top-down affairs. Big film companies will certainly always need roll-up-their-sleeves types to execute a brand vision like ‘‘Beauty.’’ But will they embrace earthier entities that enjoy making throwbacks like ‘‘Wonder”?
Not lost on industry insiders is that two of Mandeville’s three 2017 movies weren’t made at Disney — a ratio that could widen even further once Disney acquires the vast pipeline of studio 20th Century Fox. Disney’s larger direction will strongly influence whether Mandeville re-ups with the studio when its current deal expires later in 2018.
Lieberman said he sees plenty of reason for optimism — for instance, that Disney’s planned streaming service makes room for riskier projects.
Mandeville is also continuing with some bigger-budget branded fare: It is behind development of ‘‘Prince Charming,’’ Disney’s latest catalog-mining effort, with Chbosky writing and potentially directing. It is a darker and not, at this point, definitively a musical tale, yet one that all parties hope rekindles the ‘‘Beauty’’ spark.
But Mandeville is really pushing its stack to the middle of the table with ‘‘The Aeronauts,’’ a 19th-century fact-based story of a rival scientist and hot-air balloonist that it will shoot in 2018 — with a budget more on the Disney end of the spectrum but hardly its franchise appeal. The studio tellingly making the film? Amazon.
Hoberman and Lieberman said all they can do is keep acting on what moves them and let the industry chips fall where they may.
‘‘I once nearly called the company Fool on the Hill, after the Beatles song, because we’re all trying to get something done, and we’re all fools to believe that we can,’’ Hoberman said. ‘‘But that’s what’s beautiful about Hollywood. There are no rules or reality.’’
Lieberman spins the murky studio future as an advantage. ‘‘The main goal as I’ve always seen it,’’ he said, ‘‘is to find something you’re passionate about, then convince others they’re wrong.’’
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