ShowEast 2023: Searchlight Pictures’ Frank Rodriguez Receives the Bingham Ray Spirit Award

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

It’s been full circle for Frank Rodriguez of Searchlight Pictures. As a recent graduate from the University of California Santa Barbara, where he got a degree in Film Studies, Rodriguez kicked off his cinema career in 1982 at 20th Century Fox. A series of jobs at the storied studio took him from Los Angeles to New York, where in 1994, he was tapped to join Fox’s brand new specialty division, Fox Seachlight. Rodriguez remained at Searchlight for only a short while–two years–before moving to the newly formed DreamWorks; when DreamWorks was acquired by Paramount, Rodriguez went with it, eventually becoming Paramount’s senior vice president of Eastern sales. In 2012, nearly a decade and a half after leaving Fox Searchlight, Rodriguez returned–staying on board through 20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney, Fox Searchlight’s subsequent name change to Searchlight Pictures, and his own promotion to the position of head of distribution. 

Throughout his career, Rodriguez has remained a staunch supporter of the theatrical experience, in particular for specialty films. While recent years have seen other studios carve away at the theatrical exclusivity window, Searchlight has expanded it, going day-and-date with only two pandemic-era releases, both of which–Nomadland and Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)—still got substantial (for 2021) theatrical footprints, and both of which won big at the Oscars. For his work in the independent space, championing the importance of specialty films in the theatrical marketplace, Rodriguez receives the Bingham Ray Spirit Award at this year’s ShowEast.

Searchlight Pictures is an iconic brand in the independent/art house space. You were there at the very beginning–can you talk a bit about those early years?

I was there the first two years, basically at the inception. [20th Century Fox executive] Tom Rothman was given the task of putting together a team to start to release specialty films, which were going to be a big part of 20th Century Fox. I was with 20th Century Fox in New York, handling the New York territory, and they asked me to move over to Searchlight at its very, very beginning because I had a background in film criticism. I’d always been into film studies in college, and I really loved [independent] film. Obviously, with 20th Century Fox, I’d worked with the big films: Die Hard, Big, Speed, things like that.

During the late ’80s, there was a small segment of 20 Century Fox called TLC: Tender Loving Care. It was a division that concentrated on art films. We had a number of films, one of which was an incredible film called The Gods Must Be Crazy. I was given an opportunity to work on those types of films. I only mention that because it’s the prelude to [20th Century Fox leadership] saying: “We want you to move over to [Searchlight], and you can handle the East Coast.’ It worked well, because our first film, [Edward Burns’ 1995 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner] The Brothers McMullen, was a very, very East Coast-centric film. I needed to work on dates in Long Island, the Hamptons, Nassau County, Connecticut, Jersey—because that’s where that film took place.

Even in those days, with those early films, we concentrated on what we still concentrate on today: dealing with the very best filmmakers that we can. In recent history, we’ve gotten Guillermo del Toro, Wes Anderson, and Yorgos Lanthimos. In the early days, we did films by Spike Lee, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ang Lee. I want to say it was tougher, but it really wasn’t, in a way. Because now the specialty market seems to be so challenged [compared to] what it used to be. If you don’t mind me asking, where are you located right now?

I’m in Queens.

You still have theaters like the Jacob Burns [Film Center] in Pleasantville, [New York]. You have Cinema Arts [Centre] in Huntington, Long Island, and of course the Avon [Theatre Film Center in] Stamford, [Connecticut]. But we lost a whole bunch of great, great arthouses over the past three or four years. Maybe 30 percent. Some might even say 40 percent. There were a number in Jersey and Connecticut. When you open a film now in Queens, if you have an art film, you used to go to Kew Gardens [Cinemas]. You still might. But right now, we depend on a theater like the [Regal UA] Kaufman Astoria to really be the one that’s going to carry an art film. If I have a film that I really want to open, Queens is obviously an important part of any kind of break you have in New York.

Things have changed and evolved so much. Back in the mid-’90s, when we started, it might have even been easier to get that audience out to see your films. Nowadays, it’s just so difficult. There are so many different ways to release [art films]. Now it’s, “Well, maybe we’ll just go all at once, instead of doing the tried-and-true platform [release].” Platforming is what we excelled at over the past 10, 15 years. But now, there are any number of ways to do it. You can succeed platforming. You can succeed in a limited run. You can succeed in a moderate run. You can also succeed if you just decide: “Well, I’m going to go 1,500 runs all at once.” Now it’s all about marketing and targeting the right audience.

But there’s no question, and there’s no way around it, that the specialty market has been challenged. Hopefully, we’ll get people back into theaters. We’ll get people to say: “Well, I’m going to get up, and I’m gonna go to this theater in Bronxville or in Huntington, New York.” What’s really great about today is that Regal, AMC, Cinemark: they all have decided to carve out a piece of their auditoriums to have films like ours, to have films from A24 and Neon and Sony Classics and Focus. It’s interesting when you try to compare what it was like back then to what it is now. Like any other business, it evolves.

The more mature cinephile audience, I think what’s happened is that they found themselves being able to sit in their homes and find these films. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy when distributors decide: “You know what? They’re not going to come anyway, so let’s just put it on the streaming platform.” And that’s okay, because the platforms need to survive as well, and there’s a business there. My friends at Amazon and Netflix and Apple and all these companies–I can understand where they’re coming from. But, listen, my love has always been cinema in the theaters. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but if you sit in your home and watch a film, it’s great, but it’s not cinema. With cinema, you need to go into a building where there’s a lot of other people there, most of them strangers, [and there’s a communal] atmosphere. That’s cinema. 

How difficult is it nowadays to release a specialty film–something like last year’s The Menu–and have it catch on and find its audience?

With something like The Menu, it was a little bit different, because we went out all at once. The Menu was [Searchlight’s] widest release. We opened in 3,100 rooms. It’s the biggest release we’ve ever had of a film. We screened it at ShowEast, and the response was so great, from so many different avenues–from some of the more specialty houses, from AMC, Cinemark, and Regal, from people like Malco, or people from the south and the midwest, and the east and the west and the northeast and the northwest–they all loved it!

That one, we did go out all at once. We have another film coming in November that’s really the same kind of release: all at once. It’s a comedy from Taika Waititi called Next Goal Wins. We’ll be showing that one at ShowEast as well. I think it’s a little… I shouldn’t say easy, but it is easier just to go all out at once. You’re giving everybody an opportunity to play the picture, because you have that belief [in it]. But then, of course, you have to market it differently than you would with [something rolling out more gradually]. We have an upcoming film called Poor Things, by Yorgos Lanthimos.

We have an interview with the cinematographer in this issue, actually. Knowing Lanthimos’ movies, I imagine it’s a trickier one to market than The Menu.

With that one, we’re going to go [with a] platform [release]. New York, LA, San Francisco. Then the next week we’ll add a bunch of runs, and on the third week we’ll probably go wide. It’s never going to be 3,000 runs. It’s probably going to be 10 runs, then maybe 250, then maybe somewhere between 800 and 1,200 for the third week. It is a specialty film; it’s a bit narrower than something like The Menu and certainly more narrow than a film like Next Goal Wins–or really any other commercial film. While we hope that [Poor Things] is a commercial film, in the sense that it makes money, it’s really like a fine, fine wine.  It’s something to be appreciated, but it’s not going to be for everybody. 

Emma Stone is tremendous in the film. She does a great job. My colleagues would tell me, “Frank, don’t say this,” but I really do think that she could get a Best Actress nomination. You’re going to see Emma Stone like you have never seen her before, let’s put it that way. It’s beautiful to look at it, and it belongs on the big screen because it’s so visual. 

Well, Olivia Colman got the Oscar for Lanthimos’s The Favourite. The important thing is not to put it in theaters and then have it pop up on streaming two weeks later. You look at a film like Parasite, and it wouldn’t have had the Oscar success that it did had Neon not given it time to find its audience.

You’re exactly right. And I will tell you this: We at Searchlight a long time ago made a decision to let our films stay in theaters as long as we can. We were at 45 days throughout much of the later part of the pandemic. We had a film recently called Theater Camp, such a great little movie–and we’ve done $4 million. At $4 million, you’ve still reached a lot of people. And it was 62 days, in theaters only! That’s kind of late [compared to the current typical theatrical exclusivity window]. We’re going the other way on a lot of our films, [lenghtening the exclusivity window rather than shrinking it]. 

And, listen, Searchlight also makes films that go directly to Disney and to Hulu. We made a wonderful film called Flamin’ Hot that went directly to Hulu and Disney Plus. It was really great. We’ve done [2022 Hulu release] Fresh. But when we decide to go theatrical, we go. We go into theaters because we love going into theaters. I’m honestly of the belief that if an audience sees that a film is being held out, away from streaming services, that they believe, “Wow, the studios must really believe in this film.” And that’s true. That’s how we feel about our films. Poor Things– I’m really, really happy about that film. We’re really proud of that film. It’s a unique and [laughs] brave story. 

That chuckle just made me more curious about it.

Well, it’s kind of a strange take on the Frankenstein story. Willem Defoe is just incredible in it. So is Mark Ruffalo. You’d better have a liberal view of things because there are a lot of liberties taken in the film! He’s a filmmaker with a vision. This is how he wants to make the film, and far be it from us–you didn’t tell Picasso, when he started with his Cubist art, “Oh, you can’t do that! You have to make circles when you paint pictures of people.”

“You want to make a movie with sad sack Colin Farrell where people turn into animals?”

Exactly. By the way, this film is closer to The Lobster than [his] other films. The Favourite seems like a g-rated nursery rhyme compared to this. 

I can’t wait! At Boxoffice Pro, we always like to ask people: What was your hometown theater growing up?

I grew up in a little town in California called Santa Maria. And there was one first-run screen, called the Santa Maria Theatre. There was another theater, called the Studio [Theatre], that was the move-over house. I typically went to the move-over house, because they would have crazy films. The first film I remember seeing–boy, this is going to date me–is The Raven with Vincent Price. It was really crazy.  I remember being scared.

My mom always took me to the classic films [they’d screen] after school, like Salt of the Earth and Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of Two Cities. They would show these black-and-white films right after school. At two in the afternoon, my mother would pick me up from school and we’d walk right to the theater. I saw these really great stories. Of course, all those epic Biblical features: The Greatest Story Ever Told and stuff like that. I can remember seeing those and being impressed. But the one film that changed my view of films and what they could really do–when I was a very young age, I saw In Cold Blood. I don’t know how I happened to get in there. I snuck into some matinee, and I said, “Oh my God, look at this stuff!” It was creepy and effective. You lose yourself in movies, especially at that younger age. And then there were two drive-ins in our hometown that were very active and played a lot of first-runs. My parents would always take us to the drive-ins, as well.

It was your film school before film school.

Exactly. You know, it’s funny, because there was a distinct difference between what you were going to look at on television, at home, and what was going to happen at the cinema. Nowadays, my kids, they love going to the movies, but things [like] ”Grey’s Anatomy” or “The Gilmore Girls”—they’ll sit and binge. I don’t think they see the delineation, like I used to, between cinema and home. Everything is so available now. It used to take a year or so before you would ever see [a film]  on television, or even longer. Now, you could do a day-and-date [release]. You can see a film immediately, pretty much. Or at least after 50 or 60 days.

And the streamers also recognize that theatrical is important. They have all this original content, but with the top-tier stuff–like Netflix and The Irishman–they want it on the big screen.

Netflix did it with Roma the year before. People who went and saw that on the big screen had to be impressed. And although that story–it was a black and white film about a family, and you could understand everything you had to understand if you watched it on a TV screen. But the fact that [it screened in theaters] made it a bigger thing. They’ve done a very good job with their prestige films. They’ve gotten them out. They’ve shown audiences that these belong on the big screen. But their bread and butter is home viewing, so they’re also going to lean into that. 

It’s an interesting time when you think of all the different companies and what they’re doing. Some have a 14-day window, or a 17-day window. I’m proud that we decide to go, at minimum, 45 [days before hitting streaming]. 

We did do two films day-and-date. [2021’s] Summer of Soul, which won a documentary Oscar for us. We had it in theaters and on the small screen, and it was very successful for us. And Nomadland a few years ago. Nomadland won the Academy Award [for Best Picture] at the end of the day. Chloe Zhao, the director, won. Frances McDormand won Best Actress. You know how we opened that film? We opened it in seven Imax auditoriums in late January 2021. There were two reasons: We decided we wanted the cinematographer nominated, so we figured we’d better put it on the biggest screen [possible]. And the other part of it was, we knew that press and Academy members would want to see it on a bigger screen–but, more importantly, in those giant auditoriums. Audience members decided to come–in smaller numbers–because they could sit far away from each other. It really served to bring in a few of those people. Now, we didn’t have a huge financial success on that. We did OK internationally, but I think we only grossed 3.8 million.

Clearly it worked to amp up the prestige factor, though. 

We got six nominations and we won the three biggest: Director, Actress, and Best Picture. That’s the thing that Searchlight has always been most successful at. We have a credo over here: We want to make as much money as we can, and we’re very happy with our films’ [financial performance]. We have a few $100 million films in our vault. But the truth is, our business is winning awards. Over the past 12 years, business has been very, very good for us. I believe it’s 18 out of the last 20 years that we’ve had a Best Picture nomination, and we’ve won five times in the last 13 years: Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, The Shape of Water, and then Nomadland. 

That’s the main crux of our company, to work with the very best filmmakers we can, tell the best stories we can, and really lean into awards, which we do. And that starts with festivals and really, really good marketing and publicity teams. People say, “Frank, how do you get this done? How do you get [influential venues like Lincoln Square in New York] to commit to you?” I said, “It’s not me. There’s no magic formula.” Theaters look to us to have something that’s going to bring audiences in and win awards. It really is a combination of things, and they certainly help to make my job a lot easier.

Next Goal Wins and Poor Things look very different, to put it lightly. But whatever the content of a film, the Searchlight name being on it indicates to people that it’ll reach a certain level of quality.

We believe that. And I’m glad that people do recognize it. It’s like when they see an A24 logo, they know it’s going to be something interesting and quirky and hip. When they see Searchlight, they know, “There’s going to be a measure of quality here in the written word and the picture and the direction and everything else.” We do have a face. We have a brand that’s out there that people recognize. 

When I go home for the holidays, I tend to catch up on the year’s movies with my parents, and we’ll usually watch a Searchlight movie. Maybe not Poor Things this year. That might be a weird one to watch with your folks.

But you can always try Theater Camp!

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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