An Interview with Peter Block
   by Michael Neff

Peter Block is the President of Home Entertainment, Acquisitions and New Media for Lions Gate Entertainment and its related entities. He has negotiated a full range of motion picture development, production, acquisition, distribution and financing agreements, as well as formerly overseeing the Company's business affairs and music divisions. Under his supervision, the Lions Gate Acquisitions department has acquired approximately 75 theatrical and video motion pictures per year including CUBE, ROB ZOMBIE'S HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, NATURAL BORN KILLERS - DIRECTOR'S CUT, BULLY, NARC, WISEGIRLS, LOVELY AND AMAZING, and SECRETARY as well as output deals with NBC, DIC Entertainment, and Spain's foremost genre producer FANTASTIC FILMS. Under Block's leadership, Lions Gate Home Entertainment ("LGHE") has grown into a $150 million full-service distribution business in the United States and Canada. Lions Gate Home Entertainment includes more than 1,300 titles and generates over 100 new DVD releases, comprised by new to sell-through and over 70 new rental titles annually. LGHE prides itself on being able to place its product in every rental outlet and with every retail merchant.

Lions Gate's recent and upcoming home video and DVD titles include the Academy Award-winning MONSTER'S BALL (the Company's first million unit DVD), the acclaimed FRALITY, LANTANA (winner of eight Australian Academy Awards), "O" (which upon release became the Company's highest grossing revenue title), THE CAT'S MEOW, AMORES PERROS (Lions Gate's first Best Foreign Language Film nominee), STEPHEN KING'S ROSE RED, SONGCATCHER, LOST AND DELIRIOUS, LARRY CLARK'S BULLY, THE WASH (the DVD of which contained the entire soundtrack CD through a joint venture with Interscope Records), DANCING AT THE BLUE IGUANA and THE WEIGHT OF WATER.

In the area of New Media, Block oversees the Company's in-house web ventures, and serves as the primary liaison with the Company's affiliate, CinemaNow. In an industry first, Block designed and negotiated the venture, an agreement for streaming and advertising motion pictures over the internet provider. The agreement established (now Yahoo) as an equity investor in the Company, and furthered the Company's ability to avail itself of Yahoo's dominating media presence on the internet. Block is also responsible for the Company's VOD and PPV efforts, as well as positioning the Company for distribution by new forms of distribution.

Before joining Lions Gate, he served at Trimark Pictures as Executive Vice President of Acquisitions, Distribution and New Media where he fulfilled his current functions, as well as overseeing Trimark's theatrical releasing division. Prior to Trimark, Block represented banks, writers and producers for such pictures as CUTTHROAT ISLAND, POINT BREAK, THREESOME and SNIPER, and worked for the WGA and in the marketing and studio operations departments at the Walt Disney Company. Block, a frequent guest speaker at graduate schools and industry events, is a member of the advisory board of the U.S Comedy Arts Festival.

Block received his J.D. from USC, his M.B.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and his B.A. from Duke University, where he has recently established an endowment for student programming.

Neff: Lion's Gate has seen phenomenal success in just a few years of operation -- to what do you attribute that success?

Peter Block: To a certain extent, our success has been due to our flexibility to tackle a variety of types of productions, as well as to a very entrepreneurial management structure. We have tried to expand the breadth of our product without abandoning the niche markets upon which this company was built. When Lions Gate acquired Trimark Pictures two years ago, it suddenly had the ability to be a full service distributor both domestically and abroad. Moreover, Trimark's strength lay in its genre pictures, such as its horror franchises, Stephen King titles, and Saturday Night Live home video distribution. That product complemented Lions Gate's theatrical success in the art-house arena, and I think the current slate of product is a complimentary marriage of the two.

Neff: According to some directors, Lion's Gate is easy to work with in that the company/producers gives sufficient room for a director to realize their vision, rather than creating obstacles to the creative process. Can you comment on this?

Peter Block: To a certain extent, that position is one of necessity: in order to attract the level of talent that we are pursuing, and be able to make the pictures at the budgets with which we are comfortable, we do our best to be responsive to the creative team. To a certain extent we try to defer to the film maker and their vision of the script. We have tremendous faith in the directors that we work with and their capabilities which allows us to give them the freedom to follow their instincts. However, this is not to suggest that we are not 100% hands-on with all of our productions. With our financial commitment and vast understanding of both production and marketing, we are willing to take an active role to make sure that our product is representative both of our vision for the film, but also serves the best interests from a commercial standpoint.

Neff: Do you consider Lion's Gate to have a unique production culture, and if yes, then what distinguishes that culture from a Hollywood studio?

Peter Block: Unlike the major studios, Lions Gate isn't built on layer after layer of bureaucracy. Moreover, since we can control our own destiny from a distribution standpoint, when we do decide on a picture, we can act very quickly. The most interesting thing about the company is that the people who are buying the films (at festivals), and putting projects together for the company to produce, are the same people responsible for distributing those pictures.

Neff: "Monster's Ball" was such a phenomenal success -- how did that project evolve?

Peter Block: The script was known to be one of the great unproduced screenplays for a number of years. Many of us had read it over the years with various casts attached. Sometimes it's just serendipity: when the project resurfaced with Halle Berry attached, it was at a time when Lions Gate was having not only good theatrical success with edgy art films, but also was really able to use a strong cast to drive the product in ancillary media. Also, we happen to be particularly good at producing quality product, and marketing that product, for significantly less than a major studio would spend. That, coupled with the cast being willing to do the picture more for passion than for profit, allowed the budget to be manageable. Marc Forester had previously directed a film of which I was a huge fan, "Everything Put Together". When he came aboard, we knew it was the right cast, right director and right budget. While that doesn't always guarantee success, it certainly was a great place to start.

Neff: A lot of people have said that the independent film industry is going through a major shift, a bust after a boom, so to speak. The Village Voice even went so far as to declare the independent film movement (at least in the US) "dead." To what extent do you think this is true? How do independent filmmakers hope to find financing and/or distribution in the current climate?

Peter Block: I believe that independent filmmaking is alive, but defined differently than it was 5-10 years ago. Independent film has evolved to mean intriguing artistic fare as well as visionary re-imagined stories and even a place for established talent to rediscover themselves. On the other hand, the most successful independent movie to date is "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". I prefer to think of "independent" as risk-taking. As we are not owned an controlled by a major corporate conglomerate, everything we do is a risk, some more calculated than others. When you can't rely on your game division to make up for studio losses, or your theme parks to carry the load, you have to make sure that you can weather your disappointments. Not every film can be profitable, but if you can be profitable over a string of pictures, you're doing something right. What you don't want is to be in a situation where one film can break your whole year. Some of the players have disappeared in the past few years so we are very proud to be able to continue producing and acquiring films, and I think we are careful to remember the companies that are no longer in this position.

Neff: Do you believe that producers and filmmakers can lead an audience, rather than simply addressing "the market"?

Peter Block: Yes, I do, but the moment you let that be your mantra, you're in trouble. "Monster's Ball" was a great example of bringing a film to an audience that may not have otherwise found that film, but the road is strewn with lots of examples of what I refer to as "emperor's new clothes" films -- that is, form over substance pictures -- and "medicine" films -- films that are important from a message standpoint, but perhaps too heavy handed to draw an audience. We are not the tail that wags the dog in terms of producing films, and while we can take chances to find a niche audience and use economies of scale to release important films efficiently in ways that a major studio cannot, our longevity exists to a certain extent in giving people what they want.

Neff: We at SolPix like to believe in the potential for a healthy synergy between the literary arts movement and the indie film movement. Do you find the relationship between independent film and literature a strong one, or is it waning?

Peter Block: Literature and independent film share the ability to capture the essence of an entire generation. When these two art forms come together, it allows those who have already been affected by the literature to experience it on a totally new and exciting level. Still, that's the high-brow answer. The truth of the matter is that by basing a movie on a piece of literature, it's possible to draw upon a tremendous amount of pre-awareness and long-standing publicity. When the company got involved with "The Weight Of Water", "The Pilot's Wife", "American Psycho", "The Rules Of Attraction", "Rose Red" and "The Dead Zone", it was with the conscious awareness that the constant readers of Anita Shreve, Bret Easton Ellis, and Stephen King, respectively, would be aware of what we were doing.

Neff: It says in your bio at the Lion's Gate site that you once "represented writers and producers," and "worked for the WGA." Can you tell us a bit about that experience and whether or not it is still relevant to your work now?

Peter Block: Any experience in the business is relevant. Having a background working with and representing writers has provided me with a vast resource of knowledge (that hopefully I haven't forgotten!) about the specific needs and concerns not only of writers, but also of the creative team. When you're making a picture, it's like starting a whole new business. Sure, you can draw somewhat from past experience, but to a certain extent, none of the parts come together in exactly the same way. Being able to put yourself in the position of the other participants doesn't mean you'll always take up their cause, but it does sometimes facilitate the process.

Neff: Does Lion's Gate accept unsolicited submissions from writers and/or independent filmmakers, or do they need to go through an agent?

Peter Block: Lions Gate does not accept unsolicited submissions from writers and filmmakers. We only accept submissions through an agent or manager, or entertainment attorney. Truthfully, it may sound like a rather hard position, but the truth of the matter is that "accepting" a project is one thing, "processing" a project is another. The best way to ensure that your script is not only accepted, but that it's read (and read by the right people) and fully evaluated, is to have it come in through traditional means: agents and attorneys with whom we've worked in the past. This goes for finished films too. My office can get piled high with scripts and tapes, and often it's a matter of prioritizing: we can only watch so many movies and read so many scripts in a weekend. On the other hand, a submission with desirable cast attached (and we always call talent agents to confirm cast attachment) and available financing is hard to resist.

Neff: Lion's Gate has interest in Internet companies such as CinemaNow and Broadcast.Com. What do you think it takes for an entertainment company to be successful on the Internet? Is there a future for streaming entire films over the net?

Peter Block: CinemaNow is truly a success story. For all of the internet companies that have come and gone over the years, CinemaNow continues to grow. The reason is easy: they have content. Initially, having access to the Trimark Pictures library gave CinemaNow credibility to do its subsequent deals with independent distributors and more recently with the major studios. Of course, the Dept. Of Justice played a hand as well. For the major studios to explore a similar internal means of distribution, it's important that they steer clear of anti-trust issues. Licensing films to CinemaNow allows them to avoid some of that scrutiny. Now, that doesn't mean that CinemaNow's success is based upon good fortune: unlike most internet companies, they have a lean staff and reasonable overhead. Moreover, they have a good understanding of their place in the distribution pipeline. As for the future of internet companies, that's a very broad question. I think that there are great opportunities to utilize the internet (and various sites) to target market your picture. When you have a niche picture, as we often do, this is very effective and cost-efficient. As a distribution mechanism, I think the internet is as viable as satellite and cable, etc. For any entertainment company, it's about getting your product to the consumer (or getting your consumer to the product); you don't want to leave any stone unturned.

Neff: What are some of the upcoming films from Lion's Gate -- any in particular that you are personally excited about?

Peter Block: Currently in theaters we have "Secretary", the most unusual love story of the year. We think Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance is Oscar worthy, and apparently critics seem to agree. Later this year we have "Max", starring John Cusack and Noah Taylor, and the Spanish language thriller "Intacto" which has been gobbling up festival awards. Next year we'll release "Confidence" (Dustin Hoffman, Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz) which is a twisting con movie, the amazing documentary "Stevie" from Steve James who directed "Hoop Dreams", and three great horror movies: Rob Zombie's "House Of 1000 Corpses", the wild "May" about a girl who will either win your heart or just cut it out, and "Cabin Fever" which recently caused a storm at the Toronto Film Festival and is the closest thing to the cult classics "Evil Dead" and "Dead Alive" that I've seen in quite a while. I think our eclectic slate is representative of what Lions Gate is all about.

Neff: At SolPix look forward to reviewing future LG films, especially "Confidence." Thanks, Peter! I'm off to see "Secretary" tonight.

Copyright Web del Sol, 2002

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