Films

A place in the sun

Robert Lantos and Alliance are basking in the big time

Brian D. Johnson June 3 1996
Films

A place in the sun

Robert Lantos and Alliance are basking in the big time

Brian D. Johnson June 3 1996

A place in the sun

Robert Lantos and Alliance are basking in the big time

Films

BRIAN D.JOHNSON

ON ASSIGNMENT

IN CANNES

It is no ordinary hotel. The price of a room begins at about $1,300 a night. It does not take credit cards. And to guarantee a reservation during the Cannes International Film Festival, it is sometimes necessary to slip an envelope stuffed with cash to the man behind the front desk. The Hôtel du Cap is where Robert Lantos, the Toronto-based chairman and CEO of Alliance Communications Corp., holds court when he attends the festival. Surrounded by acres of gardens, and sprawled along a gorgeous stretch of the French Riviera, it is not conveniently located—it is a half-hour drive from Cannes itself. But, with the snap of a concierge’s finger, a speedboat or a helicopter can be arranged to zip across the bay. Besides, IN

many of the big stars and power brokers who come to Cannes prefer to keep their distance from the rabble. Staying at “the Cap” is a sign of unassailable pedigree—its guests during this year’s May 9-20 festival ranged from Dustin Hoffman to Mick Jagger. And an invitation to “come up to the Cap” is like a summons to Versailles.

The atmosphere is casual. Towelling off from his pre-lunch swim in the cliffside pool, Lantos greets a visitor and tells him to ask the maître d’ for his table on the terrace. Lantos always has the same table, which commands a prime spot overlooking the

sea. Under a cloudless sky, with a stiff wind blowing off the Mediterranean, it feels like the deck of a ship. A waiter places a bottle of wine in an ice bucket. Lantos finally shows up half an hour late, apologizing that he had been stalled by negotiations over the foreign rights to Atom Egoyan’s next movie, The Sweet Hereafter. The film has not yet been cast, but he says distributors are already engaged in a bidding war over it.

Last year in Cannes, the same thing happened with David Cronenberg’s Crash, which went on to become the most talked-about entry in competition at this year’s festival. “We presold Crash in three days to the whole world,” says Lantos, explaining CANNES S8f ^at he covered most of the film’s $15-million budget before it was shot. “And we made the deal for the U.S. right at this table.” The Cap is a good place to do business, he adds. “The heads of all the Hollywood agencies are here, the studio heads are here. But that’s not really why I stay here. I got tired of having to fight the crowds.”

As the head of Canada’s largest show-business empire, Lantos can afford the luxury. Alliance is by far the most important producer and distributor of film and television products in the country, with annual revenues of more than $200 million. And by making cautious investments in artistically risky films such as Crash, Lan-

tos is making a flamboyant mark on cinema’s world stage. After Crash won a controversial prize at Cannes last week, he said, “We achieved our dream scenario—to position the film as a curiosity piece that everyone has to see for themselves in order to make up their own minds.”

Alliance’s ambitions keep escalating in scale. This week the company, in tandem with Turner Pictures, is announcing a $15million project to film a new version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Mandy Patinkin and Richard Harris. And an Alliance division called Le Monde Entertainment is churning out three or four low-budget action movies a year for the international video market. Alliance has also cornered a big piece of the domestic distribution market. The Alliance Releasing logo— that twinkling and tacky panorama of quartz crystals—precedes most non-Hollywood movies that play in Canadian theatres.

In television, meanwhile, Alliance has met the demand for Canadian content by stocking CBC and CTV with more primetime shows than any other private producer—including E.N.G., Due South, North of 60, Straight Up and Taking the Falls. Alliance, which has a Los Angeles office, is also the only non-American company producing pilots for U.S. networks. It owns a 50-per-cent share of Vancouverbased Mainframe Entertainment Inc., which creates popular TV cartoons such as ReBoot. It owns a majority interest in the specialty channel Showcase Television. And it recently presented a proposal for The History and Entertainment Network to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Alliance is no longer just a Canadian success story. At the gaming tables of the international film industry—at events like Cannes, where Alliance spent almost $500,000 to support and promote its operations this year—it is a serious player. It can, in fact, claim to be the biggest truly independent fílm company in North America. The other leading “independents” are actually owned by conglomerates—Miramax Films belongs to Disney, New Line Cinema Corp. belongs to Turner. “This industry has galvanized into such giant players over the past 10 years,” says Lantos, “that there’s no such thing as being a midsized company and really expecting to thrive. When you’re running with behemoths, you have to be at least an elephant not to get trampled.”

Alliance, which went public in 1993, would be a plum acquisition for any conglomerate. But Lantos does not see losing control of his empire in the near future. “It’s always possible,” he says, “but it would be quite challenging to take over this company right now given the way shares are distributed.” (Lantos and his Montreal-based partner, Alliance Releasing president Victor Loewy, own a significant stake in the company.) Then, with characteristic bravado, he adds: “Joining a conglomerate is not the only option.

The other option is to build one. Thus far in my lifetime, I’ve chosen to build.”

Born in Hungary, the only child of Jewish parents who barely survived the Second World War, Lantos immigrated to Uruguay with his mother and father at the age of 9, then to Montreal five years later. After studying literature and communications at McGill University, he and Loewy, a fellow student, jumped into the film business by securing the Canadian rights to The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival in 1972. Six years later, he produced his own film, In Praise of Older Women, which offended Ontario censors and became his first big success. Since then, with movies ranging from Joshua Then and Now (1985) to Black Robe (1991), Lantos has fought to win artistic respect—and an audience—for Canadian cinema while expanding his company through TV pro-

company duction and film distribution.

Now 47, Lantos has the manner of a mogul: the cigars, the brash talk, the legendary libido. (Unattached, he is divorced from actress Jennifer Dale, with whom he has two children, ages 15 and 12.) He has carved out his empire with a swagger that flies in the face of Canadian modesty. “Robert’s a bandit; he’s a cossack,” says Chris Auty, a co-executive producer of Crash, making it clear that he

means it as a compliment. “He’s a raper and pillager who has built this terrific corporation out of nothing.” Bob Shaye, chairman and CEO of Crash’s U.S. distributor, New Line, says the success of Alliance has a lot to do with Lantos’s and Loewy’s personalities: “They’re two aggressive spirits. Victor has particularly good instincts about the commerciality of films, and Robert has particularly good instincts about how to build a company.”

But according to Egoyan, who has made four movies for Alliance, material success is not what drives Lantos. “At the end of the day,” says the director, “what he really wants is to do feature films that are recognized by the international community as artistically valid. What Robert dreams of, and I hope one day he gets, is a Crying Game—a film made on very high artistic principles that totally breaks through commercially.”

Lantos has certainly aimed high. Alliance has produced four of five Canadian films shown in the main competition at Cannes since 1985—Joshua Then and Now, Léolo, Exotica and, this year, Crash. It has also scored modest commercial successes with art-house hits, including Egoyan’s Exotica and Patricia Rozema’s lesbian romance, When Night Is Falling. Its 1995 production of Johnny Mnemonic, a cyberspace thriller starring Keanu Reeves, was a critical flop yet grossed a healthy $60 million—double its budget. Meanwhile, Alliance Releasing, which snaps up theatrical rights for movies from around the world, dominates the distribution of independent films in Canada—doing more business than all other Canadian companies combined. It has long-term deals with three of the world’s hottest boutique production houses, including Miramax (Pulp Fiction), New Line (Dumb and Dumber) and Britain’s Channel 4 (The Crying Game). It also acts as a distributor abroad for non-Canadian movies. “When we get into bidding wars with some of the American independents,” boasts Lantos, “we tend to win. We have a certain cachet as an international distributor for upmarket movies.”

A gallery of Alliance products

A sampling of past, present and upcoming film and television productions from Alliance Communications Corp.:

Due South, the highestrated Canadian drama, which recently ended its second season on CTV and CBS

North of 60, which has run for four seasons on the CBC network

Exotica, Atom Egoyan’s 1994 hit, winner of eight Genie Awards and numerous international awards

When Night Is Falling, Patricia Rozema’s 1995 romance, winner of nine international festival awards

Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves, the top-grossing Canadian movie of 1995

Crash, directed and produced by David Cronenberg, winner of the 1996 Cannes Special Jury Prize

The Inheritance, Alliance and Cosgrove/Meurer Productions have the film and television rights to Louise MayAlcott’s long-lost manuscript

The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan’s new film, scheduled to go into production in October

Even Alliance’s competitors express a grudging admiration. Says Shane Kinnear, vice-president of distribution at New York-based Cinepix Film Properties: “By securing a stranglehold, this company has forced other Canadian distributors to be just as good or better.” Lantos’s ostentation, however, raises eyebrows. “Give me a break,” laughed a Canadian colleague after visiting him at the Cap. “He’s not the Sultan of Brunei.” And some smaller players question the fairness of such a prosperous company receiving public funds from the ever-shrinking coffers of Telefilm Canada. Alliance and its predecessor, RSL Entertainment Corp., have obtained about $150 million in Telefilm funds since 1976—more than any other company.

But that is partly because Alliance has always pounced on opportunities to provide Canadian content when it was required— even if it meant producing such flops as CTWs Mount Royal. The company’s worldwide distribution network also makes it a secure vehicle for public investment. Says competitor Peter Simpson, chairman of Norstar Entertainment Inc.: “They’ve played Telefilm better than anybody else. That was a key part of Robert’s strategy, to play the Telefilm card hard and fast.”

Telefilm funds still make up 10 to 12 per cent of Alliance’s total production budget, but Lantos insists that the figures are deceiving. “That money is concentrated in a small number of productions that are culturally driven and simply wouldn’t be made without Telefilm,” he says, citing CTWs E.N.G. and

the CBC’s Diana Kilmury: Teamster, a movie that ran in March. “Generally, they are either marginally profitable or break even.” Although E.N.G. was eventually sold to 60 countries, says Lantos, “not a single one wanted it before it was made.” North of 60 is another series that could not be presold, he adds. “A story set in a remote Canadian native community about the harsh realities of everyday life—this is not something the major broadcasters in Germany and Spain reach into their wallets for before the ƒve seen a frame of film.” But Alliance can sell the finished product by packaging it with its more mainstream fare, such as the TV movies Gridlock, starring David Hasselhoff, and Family of Cops, with Charles Bronson. North of 60 is now seen in 36 countries.

Alliance’s bottom line no longer depends on Telefilm. In some cases, the money is even starting to flow the other way, as the agency seeks to recoup profits from Alliance projects. Telefilm invested $1.5 million in the $15-million Crash budget very late in the game. “There’s no need for Telefilm in a David Cronenberg film,” says Lantos, “but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be involved. They will make money on Crash, and they made money on Exotica. I think it’s fair for them to not only subsidize but also to reap the benefits of the film-makers they nurture and actually make profits. We would make Sweet Hereafter without a dime of government money. But every government agency would like to be an investor.” Looking back on his career, however, Lantos acknowledges that public funding has been crucial. “I like Canada, and I don’t particularly want to live in Los Angeles,” he says. “But I doubt very much that I could have remained in Canada if Telefilm had not come along. The odds would have

been insurmountable----”

In mid-conversation, Lantos’s attention suddenly strays as he notices an attractive woman cross the terrace. “I’m sorry I’m having trouble talking,” he mutters, displaying a flash of the younger Robert Lantos, the playboy mogul in training. ‘You might want to avail yourself of the view.” Lantos has paid handsomely for the view. He owns the view, and has worked hard to acquire it. But, as his horizons expand, he still needs to remind himself to enjoy it. □

A TRIUMPHANT CRASH UNDING

He was all ready to go home emptyhanded. Then, just hours before the closing ceremonies of the Cannes International Film Festival, David Cronenberg was advised to unpack his tuxedo and show up to receive an award. Cronenberg’s Crash, an outrageous movie about characters who have an erotic addiction to car accidents, was clearly the most controversial movie at Cannes. Sharply dividing critics, it also created the most heated debate in the festival jury. It was an open secret that the jury president, director Francis Ford Coppola, detested Crash. And just two of the 10 jury members championed it at first: Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan and Vietnamese director Tran Ahn Hung, who both suggested it should win the Palme d’or. Later, with support from British actress Greta Scacchi and Japanese visual artist Eiko Ishioka (who worked for Coppola on Bram Stoker's Dracula),

they persuaded the jury to award a special prize, although two members who considered the movie beneath discussion abstained from the vote.

In a bizarre moment at the awards ceremony, Coppola announced that the jury had created “a special prize for audacity, daring and originality.” Stressing that “certain members did passionately abstain,” he awkwardly conceded that Crash deserved an award “even though in trying to find some truth in the human condition, it offended—and there is a great tradition of this, as we know.” Cronenberg gracefully accepted the honor amid boos and whistles.

British director Mike Leigh, meanwhile,

took the festival’s top honor, the Palme d’or, for his widely praised family drama, Secrets and Lies. And its star, Brenda Blethyn, won best actress for her mesmerizing performance as a distraught mother who meets a forgotten daughter whom she once gave up for adoption. Provoking an outpouring of sentiment worthy of Forrest Gump, Belgium’s Daniel Auteuil shared the best actor prize with his Down’s syndrome-affected co-star, Pascal Duquenne, in Le huitième jour (The Eighth Day). And the runner-up grand jury award went to Danish director Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a virtuoso melodrama about ill-fated newlyweds in a remote village on the Scottish coast.

Cronenberg’s consolation prize, however—like Crash itself—stole the show. “It was a very special film,” said the director, “and it’s appropriate that they had to invent a special prize to accommodate it.” Asked about Coppola’s feelings about Crash, Cronenberg smiled. “I notice that he kissed everybody else on both cheeks but did not kiss me.”

B.D.J.