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How I Made It: Peter Schlessel

The longtime Sony Pictures executive now runs an independent movie distribution company and advises a production and finance company on strategy.

May 29, 2011|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Sony Pictures executive Peter Schlessel runs FilmDistrict, an independent movie studio, and advises GK Films, a production and finance company.
Former Sony Pictures executive Peter Schlessel runs FilmDistrict, an… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Peter Schlessel is chief executive of FilmDistrict, an independent movie distribution company formed last year with the backing of producer Graham King and his business partner Tim Headington. FilmDistrict acquires and releases movies nationwide. Its first offering was the recent low-budget horror hit "Insidious."

Schlessel, 49, also serves as president of King and Headington's production and finance company GK Films, providing strategic advice while devoting most of his time to running FilmDistrict out of the same Santa Monica office.

Before his current jobs, he spent 18 of the prior 21 years working for Sony Pictures in an array of executive capacities.

Broken by the law: Schlessel's two loves growing up on Long Island, N.Y., were movies and sports. He was a big fan of the 1940 classic "The Philadelphia Story" and the action picture "The Terminator" as well as the New York Jets and Nets. But he ended up attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School instead of pursuing either passion.

"It never occurred to me to not go to law school. It was the normal career path that everyone from Long Island was following," says Schlessel, who still carries a strong accent from his hometown.

He quickly found he hated law, however, and in 1989 landed a job in business affairs at RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, which was co-owned by the studio that later became Sony.

Understanding movie economics: For most of the next decade, Schlessel had a singular focus: forging deals to acquire finished movies. He began his career working in a windowless office in New York on five or six contracts at a time. "It was like an assembly line," he recalls.

In the process, Schlessel came to understand the economics of movies — specifically how the estimated values of foreign rights, television licensing, and home video sales and rentals translate into the bottom line of what a film is worth.

"Some people in Hollywood end up focused only on the product, but starting where I did allowed me to see how it was distributed in the marketplace," he says.

Out of his element: After moving to Los Angeles when Sony Pictures took control of RCA/Columbia in 1992, Schlessel shifted into other executive posts, including co-founder of the studio's genre label Screen Gems. In 2000, many in Hollywood were surprised when he was chosen president of production for Columbia Pictures, Sony's main film unit, despite a lack of experience making movies.

Schlessel threw himself into the job, doing back-to-back lunches with agents and producers who wanted to meet him. But he left in 2004 for a three-year "sabbatical" during which he produced movies, consulted with DreamWorks Studios when it was bought by Paramount Pictures, and helped form socially conscious film financier and producer Participant Media.

Back home: Lured by the opportunity to work with a large group again and help with corporate strategy as well as acquisitions, Schlessel returned to Sony in 2007. During this three-year second round at the studio he engineered some of the deals he's most proud of, such as acquiring the footage that became the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It."

So much time spent at one studio has been, he says, a mixed blessing: "It would have been great to see how Fox or Warner Bros. do it, but I have been able to develop a real depth of relationships. Knowing your colleagues well means knowing how to structure deals for movies they will want to release."

An informed gut: As CEO of a burgeoning studio, Schlessel must balance hard business analysis with the classic "gut" that Hollywood professionals rely on when picking projects they hope will resonate with the public. But after more than 20 years in the business, he no longer sees a difference.

"When I viscerally feel something about a film, I'm bringing all my experiences to bear as to whether it's sellable and commercial," he says. "You think about it in a much fuller way than just whether it's creatively good."

Secret to success: Schlessel's advice for those starting in the film business is similar to his goal for his new company: Make yourself valuable. "If FilmDistrict is successful," he says, "someone will consider it a win when we distribute their movie."

Personal: Schlessel lives in Santa Monica with his wife of more than 20 years and their two teenage daughters.

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