Nathan Kahane with his "Young Adult" star, Charlize Theron.… (Alex J. Berliner / ABImages )
It's been four years since Nathan Kahane had a reason to get excited for award season. The head of Mandate Pictures, the small production and finance company owned by Lionsgate, last got Oscar love for 2007's "Juno," which received four nominations and an original screenplay award for Diablo Cody.
This year, the company has two underdog Oscar contenders. The cancer comedy "50/50," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, took in a decent $35 million at the box office after opening in September. It was a surprise winner for original screenplay from the National Board of Review and has earned Golden Globe nominations for Gordon-Levitt and as best comedy film. The dark comedy "Young Adult," written and directed by the "Juno" team of Cody and Jason Reitman and starring Charlize Theron, opened Dec. 16 and is getting buzz for Theron (a Golden Globe nominee) and costar Patton Oswalt. The two films were produced and co-financed by Mandate but released by partners Summit Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, respectively.
Kahane spoke to The Envelope about going into award season and what a win means to a small movie company like his.
"50/50" and "Young Adult" are both movies that feature young characters dealing with young people's issues. Does that present a challenge in getting the attention of the older people who vote for the Oscars and other awards?
It felt like that was possible, but a wonderful thing happened to me recently as our screeners went out on "50/50." I got a lot of emails from older people who hadn't seen the movie, didn't know if it was for them, and loved it. We knew that would be true because, when we tested it, "50/50" played the same for 13-year-olds as people in their 70s and 80s. Cancer is something that touches everyone.
One thing both your award contenders have in common is a dark sense of humor. What categories do you think that tone might lend itself to?
Both those movies started with the screenplays. We were fortunate enough to get our hands on unbelievable pieces of material. And we have responded to the fact that critics and audiences are responding to the scripts of both those movies, though for very different reasons.
In "50/50," you have the unbelievably unique situation of a screenwriter whose close friends happen to be in the movie industry and encouraged him to write about his own story. It's wonderful to see something like that come to fruition.
With "Young Adult," it was the identical group of people we worked with on "Juno," but this new screenplay is about an evolution that was happening with Diablo. It's a new maturity personally and in her writing. So we're getting a team back together on a completely different type of movie.
"50/50" is already well out of theaters, while "Young Adult" is opening in the very crowded tail end of the year. Both seem like challenges in getting award voters' attention, albeit for different reasons.
The truth of the matter is there are movies that have been more widely seen and have bigger advertising budgets. So the trick is getting people to notice us. Luckily, on "50/50" we have a passionate distribution partner in Summit, who had enormous heart and other organs. They're continuing to push that film every way they can.
"Young Adult" [opened] Dec. 16, but Paramount has been doing pop-up screenings for audiences in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis and other cities. It's truly one of the most shocking and polarizing movies I've ever worked on, so it's exciting to watch with an audience. It's not a film with easy answers or that follows traditional studio tropes. But what's exciting is that I've never had a movie where people argue so much after seeing it.
You must be hoping "Young Adult" can get some acting attention as well.
Yes, that film has two remarkable performances. One is Charlize, who did something amazing in "Monster" but is doing something even more amazing here. Instead of going into someone who is not a human being, this is a character who is in our workplaces and at our senior proms.
With Patton Oswalt's character, I knew on the page that audiences are going to love this guy. So as the financier I was asking, "Who are the giant movie stars we can get?" But with someone like Jason, when he feels strongly, you let him do what he wants. Literally, for him it was, "I know who this is, and it's Patton. End of conversation." The truth is you go, "Who?" Then you see it. The only thing I can take credit for is letting Jason go with that choice.
For a small company like Mandate, do Oscar nominations and wins make a big difference? What was your experience after "Juno"?
Oh, absolutely. It helps a lot when you are the little guy competing against studios. With the next generation of writers, we can look them in the eye and tell them we are going to fight for their movies and protect their original voice. "Juno" made a massive difference for us in that regard, and that's why when Diablo and Jason come calling we always take them up on an offer, because that movie was a game changer for us.