'Juno' born of a talent Mandate

IT'S no secret that "Juno" is a sensation, having both earned an Oscar best picture nomination and easily cracked the $100-million mark at the box office. For all the well-deserved hoopla for young actress Ellen Page and rookie screenwriter Diablo Cody, there's an untold story that centers on the little-known company that actually put the movie together.

Mandate Pictures may not have a high profile today, but it's on the way to emerging as one of the most ambitious and innovative companies in Hollywood. Now owned by Lionsgate, Mandate is the brainchild of Joe Drake, a savvy foreign sales executive who with the help of Mandate President Nathan Kahane has quietly turned his company into a successful producer of critically loved comedies and commercial genre films as well as a magnet for creative talent.

In addition to making "Juno," which was financed by Fox Searchlight, Mandate has backed a string of thrillers (led by the "Grudge" franchise) through Ghost House Pictures, its joint venture with "Spider-Man" maestro Sam Raimi. Mandate also made "Stranger Than Fiction," the well-reviewed 2006 Will Ferrell film, as well as the ongoing "Harold & Kumar" comedy series.

Everyone in today's Hollywood loves to chant the same mantra, boasting about their talent-friendly credentials. That turns out to be an awkward fit, especially for the big studios, which are currently locked in a bitter labor dispute with a big chunk of their key talent -- the writers who create the stories that attract the talent.

Mandate, on the other hand, has essentially based its business model on talent relations. Many of its biggest successes, starting with "Juno," have come from its aggressive pursuit of hot scripts, be it Cody's "Juno" or Zach Helm's "Stranger Than Fiction," both of which ended up at Mandate despite competitive bids from bigger studios.

"Our niche at Mandate isn't so much a movie niche as a talent niche," says Drake, 47, who is now focused on broadening Lionsgate's international horizons as president of the studio's motion picture group. "Movies are made by great writers, directors and actors, and our job is to support their vision, give them the best possible economic support and then get the hell out of the way."

Eager to attract great scripts, Mandate has a deal to produce modestly budgeted dramas with A-list writer-director Steve Zaillian ("American Gangster," "Schindler's List"). The company has also been signing top writers such as "Babel's" Guillermo Arriaga for a profit-sharing program in which writers who are willing to cut their initial fee for a script get approval rights over talent attached to their project and receive a healthy chunk of the gross for a film after the picture goes into profit.

People who've made movies at Mandate are impressed by its singular vision. "What you get from Mandate is something you rarely get from anyone these days: a real clarity of point of view," says producer Lindsay Doran, who has a first-look deal there. "Nathan has great taste, and Joe is one of the smartest, most straightforward people in the movie business. You always come out of a meeting at Mandate feeling that everybody at the company has a voice worth listening to -- that good ideas can come from anywhere."

THAT'S what happened with "Juno." Kahane remembers Jim Miller, then one of his creative executives, telling him that producer-manager Mason Novick had just slipped him a great script by an unknown, unproduced writer.

"Jim has unbeatable taste, so I simply started reading," recalls Kahane, who at 35 still radiates a boyish enthusiasm for the movie business. "After 20 pages, I was so excited I just said, 'Buy it!' Diablo's script had heart, an explosive character and a real original voice. When you're little guys like us, you have to read everything, but you hope you recognize it when the good stuff comes along."

It was typical of Mandate's artist-friendly gestalt that Kahane quickly brought in Lianne Halfon and her partners at John Malkovich's Mr. Mudd company to help Mandate produce the film. "We felt the story needed someone who was both smart and who understood the female point of view of the story," Kahane says. "Lianne had produced 'Ghost World,' which did a great job of capturing the spirit of teen angst, so we all thought she was perfect."

Everyone may be looking for "Juno" knockoffs today, but when Kahane sent the script out to directors, he was surprised at how many filmmakers passed on the project. Mandate ended up hiring Brad Silberling to direct, but the filmmaker left the project over differences about how to cast the picture.

Mandate turned to Jason Reitman, who had shown an astute eye for comedy in his film "Thank You for Smoking." Reitman did a screen test with Page and Michael Cera that convinced everyone the duo had the right chemistry for the lead roles. Once Mandate had its talent package assembled, it took the project out to look for distribution.

"We always want to have a 'go' movie before we take it to a studio," Drake says. "It allows us to exercise more creative control and get a better financial result. It makes us more of an equal, and when everyone at the table is an equal, you're negotiating from a much stronger position."

Fox Searchlight was a perfect fit, having made Reitman's previous film and having enjoyed breakout successes with such comedies as "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Little Miss Sunshine." Searchlight agreed to finance and distribute the film, which ended up costing roughly $7.5 million. "Searchlight is great because they understand the marketplace better than anybody," Kahane says. "No one understands marketing and distribution better than they do."

For all of the oft-voiced unhappiness with timid studio fare, it's been a horrible time for independently financed movies, which took a bath at the box office last year and largely bombed at the recent Sundance Film Festival, where dozens of indie-financed projects went unsold. While Mandate has had its missteps, notably last fall's poorly received "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," it has flourished by picking good scripts, making shrewd deals and attracting top talent by promising lots of creative control.

Even though the company is owned by Lionsgate, Mandate remains autonomous, setting up its projects elsewhere. Its Ghost House deal is at Sony, its "Harold & Kumar" franchise is at New Line and it is making a horror thriller, "The Strangers," at Universal's Rogue Pictures. This year the company is making the Raimi-directed "Drag Me to Hell"; "Whip It," a coming-of-age comedy directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Page; and "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," a comedy with Cera -- red hot off "Juno" and "Superbad" -- that is slated for release this fall.

Mandate's co-venture with Raimi has resulted in five No. 1 box-office releases at Sony Pictures, most recently last fall's "30 Days of Night," an example of how a small company can marry its eye for talent with a studio's distribution muscle.

"We're obviously in an era where there is a lack of rapport between talent and the studios," says Ken Kamins, who as manager of "Lord of the Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson has fiercely protected Jackson's autonomy while building relationships with various studios over the years. "Studios today are more in the business of portfolio management. So that creates a lot of opportunities for companies like Mandate, who can attract talent that's been frustrated dealing with the studio development process."

THE old studio model has less of a competitive advantage, especially for writers who want more control over their scripts and stars who don't want to spend their time making movies where the special effects cost more than they do.

"When you're at Mandate as a filmmaker, you're not at a company that's trying to feed a big studio pipeline," Kahane says. "The same people who said, 'I want to make your movie' are in the editing room with you, trying to help achieve your vision. Let's face it -- there's no profit-and-loss model that would've justified making 'Juno.' We bet on the talent. It's nice to know that passion for a great story still beats statistical business models every time."

"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail questions or ideas to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.

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