Cannes: Hollywood’s Married Film Chiefs on Teaming With Amazon and Discovering Jennifer Lawrence

Roadside Attractions founders and co-presidents, Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff, sat down with THR ahead of the French film festival to discuss their key demographic, why premium VOD is a dumping ground and how a dinner resulted in getting Lawrence cast in “Hunger Games.”

In August, Roadside Attractions will release “Southside With You,” a romantic yarn recounting how Barack and Michelle Obama met and fell in love. Roadside founders Howard COHEN and Eric D’ARBELOFF know all about being a first couple: They’re the rare Hollywood married duo daring to run a company together. COHEN, 56, and D’ARBELOFF, 50, launched their indie film distributor 13 years ago largely as a lifestyle choice: They wanted a child (their son, Lucas, is now 11), but their schedules would have made it difficult to be hands-on parents. COHEN was an agent at UTA (he helped sign an unknown Alejandro G. Inarritu), while D’ARBELOFF, a producer, spent months away from home on sets.

Roadside has survived and delivered solid results year after year, even as splashier indie players have flown higher and, for the most part, crashed and burned. Roadside will not spend more than $5 million on a film unless Lionsgate, a minority owner, or another partner chips in, and it operates with a lean staff of 25 tasked with releasing 10 to 12 titles a year.

COHEN and D’ARBELOFF are known for seeing potential in a film others might overlook. They bought Mud, the 2013 indie responsible for relaunching Matthew McConaughey’s career, and Winter’s Bone (2010), which rocketed Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. Other highlights include Mr. Holmes, one of 2015’s top-grossing indie films ($17.7 million domestic), the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy (with Lionsgate) and Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. In November, Roadside is set to release awards hopeful Manchester by the Sea on behalf of Amazon Studios.

The duo, who often finish each other’s sentences, sat down with THR in their Los Angeles office ahead of the Cannes Film Festival to discuss their key demographic, why premium VOD is a dumping ground and how they were responsible for Lawrence getting cast in The Hunger Games.

How did you meet?

D’ARBELOFF You really want to know? We met 21 years ago …

COHEN … through an ad in L.A. Weekly that Eric placed.

Really? Do you still have the ad?

D’ARBELOFF No — it’s conveniently lost to history.

COHEN The big thing for me was that he said he was from Boston. I’m also from Boston and still felt like an East Coast person, even though I’d been in L.A. for eight years. We still cele­brate the day we met at Caffe Luna on Melrose, which no longer exists. We have multiple anniversaries. We may have been together for 21 years, but we’re only married for two. We wanted it to be fully legal because of our son.

How has Roadside survived while so many indies have failed?

COHEN We’re focused on what we call “smart house,” not art house — and our strongest, most successful movies have started with what we call our core audience, the “Landmark Ladies.” We are not just talking about women who go to the Landmark theaters here in L.A. but go to Landmark-type theaters all over the country. Many of our movies are female-driven — such as Hello, My Name Is Doris, which is doing quite well at the box office ($12 million as of April 24) — and then find a larger audience from there. Not every movie is for the Landmark Ladies, of course: We’ve done faith-based films and a bit of genre.

Howard, you spent seven years at UTA. Why leave the agency fold?

COHEN It was the beginning of the agencies getting involved in packaging indie movies, so it was an exciting time. I packaged Igby Goes Down and Tim Blake Nelson’s O, a teenage version of Othello. I also was involved in signing directors, including Alejandro Inarritu, Nicole Holofcener and Kimberly Peirce. [But] you have to be a deal junkie — every day is 10 deals and a hundred phone calls. It was a little OCD for me, not a perfect fit for my personality.

How did you come to sign Inarritu?

COHEN John Lesher, also then an agent at UTA, and I flew to Mexico City twice to meet with Alejandro after seeing a screening of Amores Perros.

Why go into distribution, a risky proposition?

D’ARBELOFF I had produced several independent films at that point, including Lovely & Amazing and Trick, plus I had a lot of friends working in acquisitions.

COHEN I had done distribution at Samuel Goldwyn before UTA, so it felt like a logical conclusion to where my career was going. I had met about the Paramount Classics job and the Warner Independent job, but they didn’t happen, so I thought, “Let’s do this ourselves.”

How did you come to acquire Winter’s Bone out of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival?

COHEN We like to be very focused going into Sundance. We had seen director Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone and loved it, so were primed for Winter’s Bone — and our acquisitions head, Dusty Smith, told us the movie was going to be great. It was certainly unusual. The reason a smaller company like us was able to get it is we had a vision for what it could be. The other actors in the film were extraordinary.

Have you stayed in touch with Lawrence?

COHEN We’ve seen her at premieres.

D’ARBELOFF At the same time we were releasing Winter’s Bone, we also were releasing Biutiful for Alejandro and producer Jon Kilik, who was working on The Hunger Games. Jen got to know Jon because of us; they sat at our table at the Palm Springs [International] Film Festival awards show. So we like to take a little credit for that connection.

Margin Call (2011) was a success after premiering simultaneously on VOD and in several hundred theaters. Why aren’t you using that strategy for current releases?

COHEN What’s happened very quickly in those four or five years is that VOD has become a default setting for films that don’t have theatrical potential, and the audience figured it out. Many of these films aren’t high-quality; you hit the button and pay for a movie that’s advertised as being “in theaters,” and you’re disappointed. And you’re like, “Well, that’s the last time I’m going to do that.” Theatrical is the way a movie gets credibility.

You are teaming with Amazon to release several of its films in theaters. What’s in it for you?

D’ARBELOFF They are very ambitious and willing to spend more money because they know the aftermarket is themselves [Amazon Prime]. It’s interesting to see how they can cross-pollinate.

COHEN For Love & Friendship, they are going to utilize information about all their customers who love Jane Austen and buy the movies or books. They are sitting on a trove of information that is incredibly helpful when releasing a film.

What’s the worst thing a director or star has said to you?

COHEN I haven’t had a director say anything personally insulting, but the worst thing is probably after viewing a trailer, a director says, “You have no understanding of my movie.” Then we have to have the conversation explaining that the trailer isn’t the movie, it’s about the marketing.

How many years have you been attending the Cannes Film Festival?

COHEN The first time I went was in 1989 when I hand-carried the 35mm print for Breaking In, a Bill Forsyth movie starring Burt Reynolds. I was working for Samuel Goldwyn at the time, and it was a successful journey. I’ve missed a couple of festivals between then and now, but not many.

D’ARBELOFF I think for me it was probably 10 years later. I was the executive producer on The Shoe, a foreign-language film.

What are you looking for this year?

COHEN We’re on the hunt for a market project versus a finished film, along the lines of our bigger releases. Several years ago, Roadside and Lionsgate bought Philip Seymour Hoffman’s A Most Wanted Man out of the market. You can plan your release strategy much better if you buy a film at the script or preproduction stage.

Do you have a festival survival tip?

COHEN Drink a lot of coffee.