The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Harvey Weinstein zoo has a new lion

January 27, 2009 |  2:45 pm

I hate to be so blunt about this, but one of the biggest problems the Weinstein Co. has faced in recent years is bad karma, which is sometimes worse than bad box office. Because of the Weinstein brothers' long history of bullying rivals and engaging in all sorts of bad behavior, they've been trying to survive in a business that is eager to see them fail. But that may change with the news that the Weinsteins have hired longtime Lionsgate top exec Tom Ortenberg to be the company's president of theatrical films, overseeing its marketing, distribution and acquisitions.

OrtenbergPopular with the press and respected by virtually all of his studio rivals, Ortenberg will bring a huge breadth of experience, not to mention some much needed no-drama maturity to the chaotic Weinstein operation. I've spent a lot of time with Ortenberg at film festivals, watching his Lionsgate team engage in heated bidding wars for new films, and I've never failed to be impressed by his cool under fire -- he's a shrewd judge of a film's strengths and weaknesses, rarely allowing his emotions to color his judgment.

Lionsgate will miss his collegial professionalism. Even after Ortenberg had agreed to leave, he still went up to Sundance to help the company scout and acquire new films. Contrary to some inaccurate early blog reports, Ortenberg was not pushed out of his job. It was his choice to leave early, even though he still had time on his latest deal, a 15-month contract that would've expired in June. Ortenberg had his share of policy disagreements with Joe Drake, the Lionsgate motion picture chief who arrived in the fall of 2007. But the real source of tension was between Ortenberg and Lionsgate chief exec Jon Feltheimer, who often second-guessed Ortenberg's decisions and made no secret of his disdain for his theatrical film chief.

I'm betting Feltheimer will miss Ortenberg's steady hand. Ortenberg played a key role in a long line of Lionsgate successes. He was a key advocate for acquiring "Crash" at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, even though the film had received mixed reviews and was believed -- even by some key Lionsgate execs -- to be a huge commercial question mark. The film, of course, went on with the best picture Oscar. Ortenberg championed the Sundance acquisition of "Open Water," telling so many people that the company could sell the low-budget thriller as "Jaws" meets "Blair Witch" that several media festival wrap-ups, notably one in Newsweek, used the same line in describing the film. Ortenberg quickly snapped up Bill Maher's "Religulous" in Cannes after only seeing a promo reel and was a primary factor in the Weinstein's striking up a partnership with Lionsgate to release Michael Moore's controversial "Fahrenheit 9/11" after Disney refused to distribute the picture. 

With his fondness for detail and statistical analysis, Ortenberg often reminds me of a Billy Beane-style baseball general manager. When Lionsgate had "Monster's Ball," one of the company's most profitable pictures in recent memory, it was Ortenberg who set about convincing Halle Berry, the film's star, that her Oscar chances were completely intertwined with the film's commercial performance. Months before the film was released, Ortenberg had lunch with Berry and her manager, bringing along a big flow chart tracing the box-office performance of every film in the past 20 years whose leading lady had won the best actress Oscar. The chart showed that only two actresses had won for a movie that had made less than $10 million. Ortenberg bluntly told Berry: "You need to do every red carpet event, every talk show, every interview possible, because if you want to win an Oscar, the picture has to break out of the art-house world and be a commercial hit."

Berry didn't pass up a single media opportunity and went home a winner. It will be interesting to see if Ortenberg can work the same kind of magic at the troubled Weinstein Co. If he left Lionsgate looking for a new challenge, he's certainly found one.

Photo of Tom Ortenberg from Lionsgate Films.