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'Juno' born of a talent Mandate

February 05, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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.

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