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Producers to Watch: Jonathan Dana

Photo of Sydney Levine By Sydney Levine | Sydneys Buzz August 31, 2010 at 1:00AM

By guest blogger Peter Belsito:Jonathan Dana is an independent producer and former distribution executive currently at CODE Entertainment. He is known for the quality and number of his productions and his longevity in the L.A. and international film business at the highest levels.Also a good guy and friend. More than just a friend, he introduced us to the founders of Withoutabox, David Straus and Joe Neulight, in 2000. Jonathan was one of the original investors in WAB and supervised the launch of WAB with Joe and David. Six years later reminded us to give them a call. That call resulted in our joining forces which resulted in IMDb, an Amazon company, acquiring our joint company.
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By guest blogger Peter Belsito:

Jonathan Dana is an independent producer and former distribution executive currently at CODE Entertainment. He is known for the quality and number of his productions and his longevity in the L.A. and international film business at the highest levels.

Also a good guy and friend. More than just a friend, he introduced us to the founders of Withoutabox, David Straus and Joe Neulight, in 2000. Jonathan was one of the original investors in WAB and supervised the launch of WAB with Joe and David. Six years later reminded us to give them a call. That call resulted in our joining forces which resulted in IMDb, an Amazon company, acquiring our joint company.

Jonathan was raised in Boston and went to Dartmouth and then to Stanford where he earned an MBA in Marketing and a PhD in Organizational Behavior.

I first ran across him when I was a hustling indie producer in L.A. in the early ‘80’s and pitched a project to a company he was running on Sunset Blvd., Atlantic Releasing. He impressed me then and now as an extremely nice, cool headed guy who really cared about cinema and the people involved in it.

He began in the business in 1971, and made films for a while, most notably his first feature film, the theatrically successful documentary Sandstone, recently profiled on The History Channel.

His first job as an executive was in 1979 as a buyer for The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Then in 1981 he became an executive at Atlantic Releasing, and in 1989 became President and CEO of the highly regarded indie label Triton Pictures, before returning to producing and repping in 1995.

Perhaps a better way to begin to talk about Jonathan is to (partially, very...) list some, just a few, of the projects he’s been associated with over the years both as Producer and Executive.

Sandstone 1975
Soldier of Orange 1979
Valley Girl 1983
Teen Wolf 1985
Stormy Monday 1988
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse 1991
The Spitfire Grill 1996
Standing in the Shadows of Motown 2002
What the Bleep Do we Know? 2004
Ballets Russes 2005
You Kill Me 2007

Today Jonathan is enthused with his latest feature to be released, Kill The Irishman (aka The Irishman). There is a very charming short video piece on the MovieSet website with Jonathan, from the production set, speculating on the love affair audiences have with screen versions of gangster antics.

Meanwhile business continues with this new film as Anchor Bay Films has acquired all North American and English-speaking territory rights to the Code Entertainment crime-actioner, about real-life Cleveland gangster Danny Greene. Jonathan Hensleigh (“The Punisher”) directs, while Ray Stevenson (“The Book of Eli,” “Rome”) stars in the title role. Also starring are Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino and Linda Cardellini. Anchor Bay, a division of Starz Media, is planning to release the film in North America, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand in early 2011. “The Irishman” chronicles the rise and fall of Greene, who muscled in on the Italian mob in 1970s Cleveland and set off a turf war that ravaged the streets of Cleveland and led to the collapse of the Mafia in a number of U.S. cities, including Kansas City and Los Angeles. It’s being sold internationally by Lightning Entertainment.

Q – What is the biggest problem facing filmmakers today?


JD – The younger generation coming in now is wrestling with all of these new distribution questions, such as digital, etc. When I was young and just starting out ‘no one knew anything’! Then in 1975-76 when HBO went on satellite that changed the world and started the ancillary rights revolution. Before that it was theatrical and then TV, just those. Ancillary rights, continuing today, started new revenue streams for the movie business.


JD – Different types of filmmakers have a different set of ‘problems’. The ‘studio filmmakers’ mostly have no distribution issues per se because that’s what studios do worldwide, i.e. 'distribute'. They do, however, have 'revenue stream' issues, i.e. how do you recover from having your revenue streams being driven steadily down? The ‘indie filmmakers’ have a more all encompassing and different dilemma. Their old business model is gone. They, indies, have to find a new model. That is proving not so easy in the new digital world.


JD – Another way to look at it is this: Anticipated foreign revenue drives local U.S. production. So, to back into a budget, international sales estimates are matched with anticipated revenue from various types of soft money, usually from governments, either domestic or international. These can be in the form of international tax treaties, or state by state U.S. tax rebates and incentives. The balance of the budget must come from equity, which is the 'last money out'. The U.S. distribution crisis is far from over despite the possibility of the emergence of some new companies. There may be a modest uptick in the revenue from pay television as Netflix is now aggressively pursuing that 'window' with license fees designed to capture that exhibition window and effectively becoming the pay TV window – this action in theory could push up the prices paid by HBO, Showtime and Starz, and it is always nice to have a new buyer.


JD – On the 'small film' level there are entirely different issues and perspectives, with a concentration of effort going to get ‘eyeballs’ in front of the movie. Young filmmakers want mostly to be seen. Their movies are generally not expensive, and their motivation is often not first for profit, so that necessity to recoup, while always important, is perhaps not as strong as with more ‘commercial’ filmmakers with higher budgets. That said, every film has a certain level of risk. Some types, or genres, are thought to be ‘surefire’ but they really aren't and there’s also a real danger of homogeneity to the extent people try to follow 'formulas' for success.. Movies like ‘Precious’ are great because they break the mold, they challenge all assumptions about what works or not. Even when you have a big success, there are challenges. It’s tough. Take Summit and their huge hit ‘Twilight’. Now the question switches from whether they'll have a hit - or not, to ‘when will they have another hit?’

Q - Talk about the U.S. now, about what’s happening here.

JD – With costs, you tend to back into the budget of a movie, but if you take as many data points as you can then you try to figure out if you can do it, and it becomes a function of talent deals, production offsets, soft money, pre-sales. Part of the pre-sale business is finding out if you are the only one crazy enough to want to make that particular movie. VOD is becoming a big part of the business though it’s tough to measure it because for some reason people don’t like giving out the numbers. If you don’t have a pay-TV deal, it’s very hard because it’s a risky proposition selling for TV on a case-by-case basis. The Relativity-Netflix deal creates a de facto additional pay-TV buyer.

Q – What about women in the movie business and the problems they face today?

JD – I know a lot of women who do very well today in the movie business, but there is no doubt that women are under-represented in many film categories. I am not totally qualified to speak about this, as I don't see all the statistics, but its obvious women directors are having problems. Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar for ‘Hurt Locker’ made the problem glaringly obvious in that after all these years, her gender was such a giant story . At Atlantic, we pioneered in this department in the early ‘80’s when we hired Martha Coolidge to direct ‘Valley Girl’. I must say, though, that we didn't really focus on her gender one way or another... she was just the best person to direct the movie. It obviously gave us all great pleasure years later when Martha became President of the Director's Guild. I honestly do not know why the problem still exists. Seems like gender is the last issue anyone should be concerned about when hiring a director. So many other things should be so much more determinative.

Q - Do you like producing?

JD – I work now mostly as an Executive Producer and sometimes as a consulting producer and still enjoy it, despite the ever increasing challenges. I love the team at CODE Entertainment and am lucky to have such good, and well funded, colleagues. Surprisingly, having the money does not make the process as easy as one might imagine. It has become extremely difficult to vet movies under consideration, and the margins of error have become disturbingly tight. And when you 'miss' now, it is all too easy to fall into the chasm. So it becomes increasingly important to know a film's market literally territory by territory, and to have a knowledgeable team in every aspect of the films creation and rollout. We are looking forward to the release of "Kill the Irishman" and pleased that Anchor Bay loves the movie so much and has a great take on how to market it.

Outside of CODE, I also have, just released on DVD, Mary Ann Braubach's remarkable "Huxley on Huxley" which has gotten wonderful response and is a definitive piece on the personal side of Aldous and Laura Huxley's lives. Also upcoming is "Golf in the Kingdom", based on the well loved mystical golf novel by Michael Murphy, the founder of the Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California. Mindy Affrime has spent 20 years putting it together, so it is a special delight for me, and attorney Mark Halloran, to have been instrumental in seeing it come to fruition. There is also a new movie from Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, with whom I did "Ballets Russes". This one is a murder mystery doc set in the 1930's in the Galapagos islands. "Satan Comes to Eden" is the working title, and we have at least another year of editing on that one. It's the story of the first European, German, settlers there and the ensuing grand ‘scandale’ with sex, death and ecology all mixed in, a fabulous story. I did get to go to the Galapagos, and it was a career highlight.

I don't do a lot of producer repping these days, but sometimes I can't resist. I am doing Monte Hellman's "Road to Nowhere" which is premiering shortly in the Competion in Venice. Charlotte Mickie of E1 is selling the movie world-wide, and Monte is a delight and an inspiration to be working with. Steve Gaydos is one of the producers and wrote the script. He is a friend of many years, which makes the whole thing even more fun.


Back at CODE, we're spending a lot of time reading at the moment, looking for our next projects. It is a lot of work, no doubt, but worth the effort.

I'm obviously a lucky guy to have been able to work for so long on so many worthwhile and fun projects, and I try not to take any day of it for granted. I'm looking forward to Toronto next week and to another year of adventure and movies.

Sandstone 1975

Soldier of Orange 1979

Valley Girl 1983

Teen Wolf 1985

Stormy Monday 1988

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse 1991

The Spitfire Grill 1996

Standing in the Shadows of Motown 2002

What the Bleep Do we Know? 2004

Ballets Russes 2005

You Kill Me 2007


This article is related to: International Film Festival, Producers to Watch, Film Funding & Financing, Toronto International Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, Independent Film Financing

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