Robert Lantos is making me wait.
Summoned to his three-storey Serendipity Point Films office in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood, I’m politely deposited in a corner of the white-stone lobby, facing a gold-coloured Elektra cappuccino machine that is larger than my fridge. I’m stationed here no fewer than 15 minutes, just long enough to wonder whether the delay is an old-school power move, a carefully calculated ploy to get journalists to admire the finer details of the building, or none of the above – maybe Canada’s only true (and perhaps last) movie mogul is just a busy guy.
But if this is indeed a scene-setting trick, it works: I’m given ample time to take note of the gleaming foyer, the winding staircase, the entryway lined with Gemini Awards, Golden Globe plaques, autographed posters (Barney’s Version, Johnny Mnemonic), and the 1991 Genie Award for “Outstanding Contributions to the Business of Filmmaking in Canada” – an Air Canada-sponsored honour that Lantos accepted with a speech lambasting the airline for playing “imported sequels and unreleased turkeys” instead of Canadian films.
This is the Robert Lantos I expected to face over lunch: cigar-chomping leader of an empire during his days atop Alliance Communications, blustery independent force since establishing Serendipity Point Films in 1998. But today, the 73-year-old is in a dialled-down mood. Once inside his third-floor office – which includes an expansive balcony overlooking downtown, photos of famous friends and family, and art given to him by the late Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott – the producer presents as reflective, laid-back, alarmingly chill.
Then again, this could be another signature Lantos media-smoothing move. Go through the archives and read every Globe journalist’s encounter with the man on Price Street (yes, that really is the office’s address), and you’ll notice a pattern: expecting fear and intimidation, we encounter warm mellowness.
Another thing that has remained constant in Lantos Land: lamentations that the film industry ain’t what is used to be. In 2000: “The centre is owned and dominated by the Hollywood studios.” In 2016: “I don’t want this to be a pessimistic [article], but film means much less than it did.” And on this day in late April – which happens to be the first non-virtual National Canadian Film Day in three years, as well as the morning after Netflix’s stock nose-dived after losing 200,000 subscribers – things really ain’t what they used to be.
Which is tricky when you’re Lantos, who is preparing for the release of the most anticipated Canadian film of the year: David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, world-premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off next week. While the fest is a coup – Crimes is the only Canadian title there in official competition this year – it is old hat for Lantos, who now has 10 Cannes-certified films to his name, including the back-to-back punch of Cronenberg’s Crash (1996′s Special Jury Prize) and Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997′s Grand Jury Prize). At the time, those films seemed like risky enough bets. In today’s pandemic-wracked film world, Robert Lantos productions feel like high-stakes gonzo gambles.
“Some great films will still get made, but they will be made against all odds, because the world is dominated by the streamers and what remains of the movie studios, which are essentially nothing other than superhero factories. Neither of them produce what I or you call cinema,” Lantos says while picking at his salade niçoise. “If they do make those kinds of movies, it’s an afterthought. It’s so far down the priority list. So, what’s left?”
This is the question that Lantos faces with Crimes of the Future, a modestly budgeted sci-fi thriller that features high-wattage stars with international appeal (Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Stewart, Léa Seydoux) but no intellectual property or franchise potential. It does, though, boast plenty of Cronenbergian body-horror freak-out appeal, with dialogue (“surgery is the new sex”) that blood-gurgles, “extreme specialty audience.”
“To pull it all together in today’s environment was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do,” Lantos says, adding that he avoided going to Netflix and its ilk for financing because “the streamers have abandoned theatrical exhibition, and I’m not ready to do that. I’m not saying that I never will, but not now. So, I cobbled this together the old-fashioned way: piece by piece.”
Or, as Lantos puts it later, he “ran around the world with my hat in hand. That’s the definition of an independent producer. It’s an elegant word for a beggar.”
For Crimes, that begging involved going to distributors in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland and the United States (where the film is being handled by savvy upstart Neon, of Parasite fame). There are also equity investments, tax credits and a new subsidy system for productions shooting in Greece, which, according to Lantos, “made all the difference.”
“I believe we were juggling 19 different financing entities on this film, and all have their own points of view and agendas, and that affects everybody else, and it can really drive you crazy,” Cronenberg says in a separate interview. “But Robert is a very good filter.”
He has to be, given that Crimes of the Future is Lantos’s fourth collaboration with Cronenberg – and one that the producer had to gently nudge along for two decades, eventually prodding the filmmaker to revisit the script (initially titled Painkillers) three years ago after letting it sit on a shelf.
“Robert phoned and said, ‘You haven’t made a movie in years. You should read Painkillers again,’” recalls Cronenberg, who mused about retiring in 2019. “But it has a sci-fi component, which I assumed meant that it would be outmoded by now. He said, ‘No, it’s more relevant than ever!’ Okay, I thought that was a good line. And he was right.”
In Canada, Crimes will be distributed theatrically by Sphere Films, playing in cinemas “for however long there’s an audience,” Lantos says. The film will open the same day in about 500 U.S. theatres – a big summer-movie counterprogramming bet for Neon, which is so high on Crimes that it flew Cronenberg and Lantos to Las Vegas for the annual theatre-owners conference CinemaCon. (The film’s delightfully gross footage perplexed some of the early-morning attendees, who are more used to salivating over superheroes and Minions.) But after three weeks in U.S. cinemas, Neon will send Crimes to premium video on demand.
“Neon assures me that this is the right way to do this, because the theatrical release will in turn fire up desire to see the film,” Lantos says. “I’m used to theatrical, but I’ll see how it works.”
What doesn’t work for Lantos, at least not yet, are the financial conditions that come with working with streamers like Netflix.
“I couldn’t today build a company like Alliance because streamers own the title lock, stock and barrel,” he says. “You might make a decent living yourself, but a company with 500 employees? You need a content library to support that. Streamers want to own the film forever, not for 10 years and the rights revert.”
Don’t cry too quickly for Lantos: He made $60-million when he sold Alliance to rival Atlantis Communications, which is how he affords his Price Street digs. And even back in Alliance’s heyday, the company made most of its money in broadcasting, television production and film distribution, not film production. “Being an independent producer,” Lantos says while overlooking the city, “does not lead to this.”
Indeed, Serendipity Point has experienced as many ups as it has downs, with critical hits (Barney’s Version, Being Julia), films that won over both the media and the box office (Eastern Promises), and titles that did neither (Where the Truth Lies, Through Black Spruce, Remember). And in between, there were the passion projects that spoke to Lantos’s family history – the Holocaust-backdropped dramas Sunshine and The Song of Names – that made the industry game one worth playing, at all costs.
But if Lantos wants to keep making films – movies that he believes Canadian artists must be afforded the opportunity to tell, and movies that he believes Canadian audiences want to see – it’s not just streaming that he must contend with. The domestic support systems that Lantos has become a master at navigating have changed, too.
In 2000, Telefilm Canada suspended its “Fast Track” system, an automatic funding program that allocated $20-million to $25-million a year, or roughly 30 per cent of Telefilm’s annual production budget, to producers with favoured track records. At the time, Lantos and fellow producers Denise Robert, Niv Fichman, David Gross and Patrick Roy told the National Post that such a move would threaten industry predictability and place too much responsibility in the hands of civil servants.
Today, all Lantos says about Telefilm is that the Crown corporation’s investment in Crimes of the Future was 14 per cent of the film’s budget, “which was very helpful.” (Telefilm says it supported the project with $200,000 under its 2019-20 development program, and $3.5-million under its 2020-21 production program; figures were unavailable for its marketing program as “nothing has been signed.”)
Over a dessert of mixed berries, the conversation turns to Bill C-11 (“Finally, it looks like there will be regulation, but that by itself is not enough – it’s how you interpret it”); whether his CRTC-quashed idea to start a Canadian movie cable TV channel called Starlight back in 2013 would work today as a streamer (short answer: maybe, but it wouldn’t be him running it); and the country’s film distribution scene almost a decade after Alliance Films was acquired by Entertainment One, which itself was acquired by Hasbro in 2019 (“There are very few distributors who are actually marketing their movies as opposed to pushing a button and putting them on their platforms”).
What gets Lantos animated – in that heavy-duty mogul way – is his development slate, a highly varied lineup that includes a new Cronenberg film (Consumed, based on the director’s 2014 novel, which Lantos almost turned into an AMC series in 2017) and his most ambitious project ever: Rise of the Raven, a 10-hour series about the 1456 Battle of Belgrade. Focusing on warrior Janos Hunyadi, a national hero in Hungary, where Lantos was born, the show might be the producer’s own Game of Thrones. Lantos’s son, Ari, has been in Budapest for a year working on preproduction, with shooting set to begin (“in theory”) this July.
“We have 250 speaking parts. We bought 100 horses that we’ve been training for six months. But so many things can go wrong when you’re building the 15th century,” Lantos says. “It’s by far the most expensive production of my life. If I’d known all of this today, I’m not sure I would’ve done it.”
But as was the case so many other times, Lantos could not stop himself.
“It’s like an addiction,” he says. “How do you call it quits?”
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