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The Don stares down his cinematic opponents

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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."

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