Hoffman at Sundance
Hoffman at Sundance

Roadside Attractions co-presidents Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff are running their specialty label--co-owned by frequent distribution partner Lionsgate--with taste and smarts. They have a handle on what will work in the the specialty theatrical market, when to go day-and-date with VOD, and when to chase an Oscar campaign that can cost more than it's worth. (They did well with Oscar nominations for "Winter's Bone" and Jennifer Lawrence, "Biutiful" and Javier Bardem, and "Albert Nobbs" and Glenn Close, among others.)

Roadside Attractions Co-Presidents Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff
Roadside Attractions Co-Presidents Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff

The Oscar question came up when their most recent release, Anton Corbijn's Sundance entry "A Most Wanted Man," based on the John Le Carré novel and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role, opened strong last weekend. Cohen came by Sneak Previews to talk about how they released the film, Hoffman, and the indies' future. He's bullish.

Anne Thompson: "A Most Wanted Man" might have been a studio project not so long ago. Have the indies taken over this kind of lower-budget venture?

Howard Cohen:  The studios, because of the nature of the big, multi-national companies that own them, have to make really big movies. Even a movie like this, which has big, commercial intentions and stars, is not really on the docket for studios. It’s too small.

How did this come into being? Do many different players and countries find a cast they can support?

It’s usually built around an international sales company. In the case of this movie, it’s FilmNation: Glen Basner, who was one of the major players from Focus, is still doing specialty films. They started with the script and the director, slowly built the cast, and then raised money by selling international territories one by one. I think this movie, being so “international,” was able to raise money relatively quickly.

A Most Wanted Man
A Most Wanted Man

They ended up going to Sundance.

Actually, we saw about five minutes of footage in Cannes about a year ago, and we bought it off of that.

That’s pretty unusual.

Well, we were excited by it, and we were born out by the final movie. It was what we hoped and expected; I think we knew it had “genre elements” as well as being upscale smart fare, and it didn’t have that “pure art film,” where you had a really small target. For a lot of our films, you feel like, if the movie isn’t absolutely perfect, you can’t make any money. This movie, we felt it can be good, it can be better, it can be great, and all of those would still work.

I think people love spy thrillers; I love them. I was asking my staff, this week: “If you didn’t have anything to do with this movie, would you go see it?” And they all said “yes.” So I would go and see this movie if it were opening.

It has an edge-of-your-seat quality, and it’s also truly paranoid, in a naturalistic kind of way.

We were talking about John Le Carré, that he’s managed to continue writing after the Cold War and still really engage with what’s going on in the world in a smart and unique way. The paranoid nature of it — the non-US-centric view --is in his books. 

The Americans are the bad guys here.

I don’t feel like the Americans are the bad guys, but there’s moral ambiguity. Robin Wright’s character is no worse than anyone else, but she’s no better. That’s what’s great about it: she’s right there, because, by the way, she may be right. They may be right at the end of the day. It’s not clear; that’s what’s great about his writing. You’re not 100% sure, and in real life you’re not.

Has the market become competitive again, where you have to step up to get the good movie? If you’re at a festival and waiting for it to play to see if it’s good, you could lose it?

There are a number of trends happening once, because there’s such a plethora of movies, and the bar of entry to make a movie is very low now. There are more movies being made than ever, but I think audiences, maybe because of that, are more discerning, so that competition for the few things that have a chance at theatrical life is greater.

So there’s a narrow sweet spot: the movie is narratively compelling, you’ve got sexy movie stars and exciting genre elements? 

There are certain kinds of movies that people bet on year after year — frankly, things that don’t look like studio movies but still have commercial elements. British movies, in general. I mean, the studios are not making British movies, generally. Certainly they used to, especially in the days of United Artists, but I think that British movies have been a reliable source of alternate programming, because they’re making great films and they’re in the English language, and they don’t look like studio movies. So the “Philomena”s of the world, “The Iron Lady,” “The King’s Speech” — those are reliable if they’re made at a certain level.

I say that often about documentaries, too: studios don’t make documentaries. Even if it’s a great documentary, it’s automatically unique. That’s something that smaller American independents don’t have, because if it just looks alike a cheap version of a studio movie, it’s not going to stand out.