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The Don stares down his cinematic opponents

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO — If Canadian cinema were to have a Godfather moment, surely this would be it.

Tonight, for a record 10th time, a Robert Lantos-produced film - Fugitive Pieces, based on Anne Michaels's best-selling novel and directed by Jeremy Podeswa - will kick off the Toronto International Film Festival.

Then, on Saturday night, TIFF will confer the same gala treatment upon another Lantos production, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. By mid-September, this violent tale of sexual slavery and London's Russian mafia will be playing in 1,500 theatres across the continent.

The early buzz about both films has been bullish.

A heady time for the 58-year-old Mr. Lantos, the only child of a struggling garage mechanic and jack-of-all-trades who fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1958 for Montevideo and then Montreal.

But if the Godfather - responsible over three decades for more than 30 films, including Oscar nominee Being Julia, Golden Globe nominee Sunshine, and seven films with Atom Egoyan - is gloating, you'd never know it.

"Like an experienced marathon runner who has just begun the race," Mr. Lantos says, invoking one of the trademark analogies, "you only feel good, if you feel good, at the finish line. And I know what lies ahead."

What lies ahead is not only Mr. Lantos's future production slate, which includes Atom Egoyan's next project, Adoration, and, if he can ever find the right screenplay solution (now in its fourth incarnation) Mordecai Richler's final novel, Barney's Version, but an even more ambitious agenda - the finish line extended.

Less than a year after selling his equity stake in Toronto-based ThinkFilm, Mr. Lantos last month jumped decisively back into the distribution game, setting up two new companies that will respectively handle Canadian and foreign features and documentaries.

Does he need the chronic headaches of film distribution - the crippling overhead, the endless demands for reporting results from noisome producers? Not financially.

Mr Lantos is a self-made multimillionaire with a home in verdant Forest Hill, another in Los Angeles, a cottage on Muskoka's Lake Joseph and a late- model Mercedes in the driveway. Once married to actress Jennifer Dale, with whom he had two children, his name has been linked with a long string of attractive women.

By turns driven and willful, charming and self-deprecating, Mr. Lantos swims (he once played on Canada's national water polo team), practises yoga, lifts weights, and dreams about writing a book, a memoir of his often disjointed, but never less than interesting, life. The new venture almost certainly means that project will be put on hold, again.

But "psychologically," he concedes, "I need it."

An unprecedented flood tide of money has been washing over the Hollywood Hills and other film capitals for the past few years, courtesy of private and corporate equity. The result is a cornucopia of new films, much of it seeking distribution homes.

All of this "makes access by independent distributors more privileged than it has ever been," Mr. Lantos explains, sprawled on a couch in his midtown Toronto offices. "It's a buyer's market for the foreseeable future. So I can't help myself. There are too many opportunities to make money." It's classic Lantos, to jump at opportunities. He was, after all, one of the few players to actually invest in the flagging Canadian film industry two decades ago, taking advantage of government rules that favoured Canadian distribution companies and filmmakers.

Now he is at TIFF, ready to mark his territory once more. This time, though, others sense the opportunity, too. Mr. Lantos has competition and it will be fierce. Toronto-based Entertainment One has recently set up a distribution division, hiring a former Lantos colleague, Patrice Theroux, to run it. Earlier this year, New York investment house Goldman Sachs and its Canadian partner, EdgeStone Capital, paid $193-million for a 49-per-cent stake in Motion Picture Distribution, the releasing arm of Alliance Atlantis Communications. MPD will be run by Mr. Lantos's old friend and former colleague, Victor Loewy. Depending on what deals go down over the next 10 days, this year's festival may be the turning point for the industry.

Mr. Lantos also thinks MPD may be vulnerable, having lost several executives that built its business, including the two who will run Maximum Films, his new distribution arm. "Alliance's share has been in decline for three years," he notes, "in a market that is not declining."

Privately, friends say Mr. Lantos was appalled at the neglect and ruin heaped upon the company he built and that his return to film distribution is in some measure an attempt to restore Canadian pre-eminence.

Jeff Sackman, Mr. Lantos' former partner in ThinkFilm - sold last fall to L.A. entrepreneur David Bergstein - says he wishes him well. "It will be fun to watch, especially since there will be five or six companies now competing in what is a very small market."

There is no particular ill will between the two men, although the relationship is not exactly warm. Mr. Lantos says he wanted to build the company and "it didn't really happen." Mr. Sackman says ThinkFilm's growth was phenomenal, "probably a world record for independent distribution, and made Robert a handsome return on investment."

And he's a little tired of the attention constantly being paid to Mr. Lantos's endeavours. "Hasn't enough ink been spilled?" Success in distribution, Mr. Sackman insists, is almost entirely about the success of a movie, which is, as often as not, an accident. "To paraphrase a political saying, 'It's the movie, stupid.' Is anybody really good at picking winners? Al Gore gives a lecture on the weather. Who thought that film [An Inconvenient Truth] could make money?"

Mr. Lantos got into the distribution game early. In 1972, still an arts student at McGill University, he and his friend Mr. Loewy secured Canadian rights (for $500) to The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival. But for years afterward, Mr. Lantos found entry to the Canadian film industry thwarted, phone calls unreturned.

A stubborn sort, he persisted, forming Vivafilm, a small distribution company, with fellow Hungarian Mr. Loewy and later, with Montreal lawyer Stephen Roth, a production company. It bought rights to Hungarian émigré Stephen Vizinczey's novel, In Praise of Older Women, for $42,500 and 6 per cent of gross earnings, and made it into a feature in 1978; it ultimately grossed $20-million worldwide.

Most of Mr. Lantos's early films were critical and financial flops, plagued by poor scripts, insufficient financing, pathetic marketing and a system of reflex compromise seemingly built into industry thinking.

He concluded that filmmaking would have to be an occasional indulgence, underwritten by more secure income streams. To that end, in 1985, he and Mr. Roth merged their company with another Montreal firm to form Alliance Communications and, despite a chorus of naysayers, soon built it into the country's largest and most profitable producer and distributor of film and TV shows. Among the former were Black Robe (1991), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Mr. Cronenberg's Crash (1996) and Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997); among the latter; Night Heat, E.N.G. and Due South.

In 1998, he merged Alliance with Michael McMillan's Atlantis Communications, then cashed in his chips for tens of millions to produce features, under the umbrella of Serendipity Point Films, where he's been parked for the past several years.

Of Fugitive Pieces, a metaphysical tale about a Jewish child in Poland saved from the Holocaust by a Greek archeologist, Mr. Lantos says he was initially skeptical that Ms. Michaels's lyrical, poetic novel could become a movie. But when he read Mr. Podeswa's script, "I realized I was wrong, so almost against my will I said I have to do this." It took five years to finish.

Once he decided to do it, however, Mr. Lantos became very critical of the script. "That's really my job, to subject the project to the harshest possible criticism, because however critical I might be, I'm still a pussycat compared to what it's going to be like out there in the real world."

Mr. Podeswa says his relationship with Mr. Lantos was agreeable, but not without conflict, much of it having to do with pacing the film in post-production. "He is willful," Mr. Podeswa allows, "but it doesn't come from ego. It comes from his passion. In the end, I think we all got what we wanted."

Toronto producer Laszlo Barna, a friend of Mr. Lantos's since childhood, says: "Robert is one of those rare producers who could have had a tremendous impact on Hollywood. He quite deliberately chose to fight his battles in Canada and it's benefited us tremendously."

Mr. Cronenberg says Mr. Lantos is more worldly and less insular than many Hollywood producers. "Look at his background. He's lived in many different places, learned different languages. He understands the world of politics, not just cinema. You can have a literate, wide-ranging discussion with him. He has a point of view, but I expect that from a creative producer and he will give ground."

Mr. Cronenberg says he is not surprised by the return to distribution. "Robert has a lot of energy. Maybe making one movie at a time is just not enough."

Will Mr. Lantos celebrate this double TIFF triumph? "We'll celebrate whether there's a triumph or not," he jokes."Movie-making is my passion, my love and my addiction. I don't make movies in the fantasy that I'll make so much money. I make those films that I believe must be made, that I have an affinity for. I don't really expect to make money. I'm happy when I don't lose money."

Picture of a career

Starts RSL Productions

Robert Lantos enters into film production in 1975 with such notable movies as director Gilles Carle's L'ange et la femme (1977) and George Kaczender's In Praise of Older Women (1978). Other highlights include Heavenly Bodies (1984) and Joshua Then and Now (1985) based on Mordecai Richler's novel. Through a merger with Montreal-based International Cinema Corp. in the mid-1980s, RSL morphs into Alliance Communications. Alliance also absorbs his distribution company, Vivafilm.

Awards and accolades

Among the major award winners Mr. Lantos helps produce during a particularly strong stretch throughout the 1990s are director David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), which won the special jury prize at Cannes and a handful of Genie awards, and Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which won the Cannes grand jury prize, along with a number of Genie awards, and received two Oscar nominations.

Sells Alliance Atlantis

The merger of Alliance Communications and rival Atlantis Communications to create a Canadian entertainment powerhouse in 1998 nets Mr. Lantos a multimillion-dollar golden handshake. It also lets him get right back into film production. This era of his career includes such films as Mr. Egoyan's Ararat (2002) and Istvan Szabo's Being Julia (2004).

Back in film distribution

Days after unveiling his new distribution start-ups, Maximum Films International and Maximum Film Distribution, Maximum announces a partnership this week with the fast-growing Brampton, Ont.-based Entertainment One. The two have entered into a multipicture deal with U.S. distributor Magnolia Pictures and the U.S. cable channel HDNet. This once again changes the landscape of the Canadian film business, with Mr. Lantos in the centre of activity.

Guy Dixon

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