You may not know his name but you certainly know his claim to fame—Broderick Johnson along with Andrew Kosove, the dynamic duo, are Co-Presidents of Alcon Entertainment whose impressive and expanding list of successful movies include THE BLIND SIDE, THE BOOK OF ELI, P.S. I LOVE YOU, PRISONERS, and INSOMIA among others.
Their latest film project is TRANSCENDENCE, a mind-bending drama starring Johnny Depp (“Pirates of The Caribbean”), Morgan Freeman (“Dolphin Tale”), Paul Bettany (“Iron Man”) and Rebecca Hall (“The Town”).
Will and Evelyn Caster (Depp and Hall) are two exceptional scientists, both passionately in love with each other, equally ensconced in scientific research. Their quest to confirm factual evidence that supports artificial intelligence is completely absorbing. On the cliff of unprecedented breakthrough, Will is diagnosed with a terminal virus, given only a short time to live. Relentless, he convinces Evelyn that his brain must be preserved, uploaded and presented to conclude their thesis. The harrowing decisions that follow are beyond the boundaries of reason.
I sat down with Broderick Johnson in Los Angeles to discuss TRANSCENDENCE and Alcon’s visionary approach to filmmaking—
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: From all indications, given the films you’ve chosen to make, Alcon Entertainment has a flare for producing movies that seek to intrigue. Talk to me about your company’s scope and vision when you decide to green light a film project…
Broderick Johnson: I think there are multiple considerations when we decide to do a movie. We are not only creative producers, we are also financiers and by default, we have a lot of involvement in marketing; we have to check all three boxes in order to move forward with a film.
On the creative side we have to really be compelled by the screen play. We’re very filmmaker driven so it starts with the script and the screenplay; historically, we haven’t been genre specific at all. For us, it really is about the filmmaker’s vision and what the screenwriter is trying to accomplish. Once you move past that, you evaluate if a film we are considering is executed successfully, do we think it will get its money back and is it marketable?
Our company structure is to finance our movies and Warner Bros releases them–they are wide release studio movies. They are also sort of down the middle; we’re not doing super hero movies. We have to find other stories that we feel are compelling and that can compete in that environment. There have been times when we’ve felt things were interesting but we did not make them because of marketing issues or we don’t believe we can sell the story to a wide audience. At a threshold level, we have to believe the film is marketable; we have to believe that within reasonable parameters, nothing extraordinary, it has to break even. It doesn’t have to be the best movie of the year to get its money back. It really comes down to creative passion of the writers—us, as the filmmakers–and do we believe we can execute at a high level.
Talk2SV: Let’s talk about your portfolio…I’ll cite a few of the films, of course, the Oscar-winning Blindside starring industry darling Sandra Bullock. Who doesn’t love Sandra Bullock? I think she could read from the phone book and people would show up for it.
Johnson: She’s the biggest female star in the world right now, I think…
Talk2SV: Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and the power he packs as a brand with an aura that seems to go part and parcel with his name; when you say, Morgan Freeman, people don’t question anything he’s attached to.
Johnson: Yeah, Morgan is a film icon. When he acts he has credibility regardless of what he’s doing. I had a similar sort of feeling when we worked with Denzel Washington on Book of Eli. I mean, that’s an example of the type of film where we loved the screenplay but the truth is, unless you have an actor of Denzel’s credibility you can’t pull it off…in truth.
Talk2SV: You get no argument here, I covered that film’s release.
Johnson: There are so many actors who–on paper, as far as being a name or a star or whatever–could have tried to do that movie but I don’t think any of them would have done it as successfully as he did. Denzel Washington is just a credible actor and whatever he’s doing the audience goes on a ride with him. He is one of the few actors that people show up to watch actually act.
Talk2SV: Fundamentally, what makes an actor say “yes” to Alcon Entertainment?
Johnson: Well, let me say this, from the beginning, among Alcon’s fundamental core values and principles we established when we wrote the business plan fifteen plus years ago was that we were going to try to create an environment that was more reminiscent of what happens in the independent world as opposed to studio world. The core idea of Alcon Entertainment was to combine the best of the studio world– which we feel is their marketing, distribution, and their ability to push the movie out to its widest audience –with the best of the independent world which is creative autonomy. Small groups of people not making decisions by committee rather really focusing on a filmmaker’s vision; not having to service other things, generally–we thought that that combination would attract superior artists to the company.
Talk2SV: What does Johnny Depp do for this film that’s in keeping with Alcon’s blueprint?
Johnson: Johnny Depp is considered one of the great “star” actors of today; this is a sci-fi movie and that genre generally skews male…fan-boy males. For us, the reason we were so enthusiastic when he responded to the screenplay is that Johnny’s more of a broad audience appeal and like Denzel has a real core female audience. That segment feels if there is something for them in the movie they will come and see it.
Johnny also brings humanity to the character and that element plays on what he does best. I think people appreciate just seeing him as him but, he also has the ability to project a larger-than-life aura which you need for the scenes when his brain is computerized…all of the sci-fi stuff. He’s able to pull it off and be larger-than-life in that fantastical way that some actors aren’t able to pull off without losing their core audience.
Talk2SV: I was happy that Rebecca Hall is cast in this film particularly following her outstanding performance in THE TOWN (with Ben Affleck).
Johnson: Well, the big decision on casting that role was the need for someone who first and foremost ia a great actress who had chemistry with Johnny Depp. Another important goal that we were hoping to achieve–that is a bit more ambitious for this character—they had to be relatable enough that you felt you could go on this journey without losing the audience.
Her character progresses rapidly and goes through so much as it relates to where we are today versus where we may be fifty years from now; specifically, the character’s decision to upload her husband’s consciousness, you have to have an actress that you can connect with that’s believable. We felt Rebecca was grounded and down to earth enough to accomplish both.
Talk2SV: When you talk about having the right partner to go on the ride with you, clearly you and Andrew are extremely busy. Both
of you are also family men. What makes the family take the journey with you?
Johnson: It’s interesting, from the beginning of the company’s history, Andrew and I have tried to create a very close knit family environment, overall. We don’t have ostentatious offices and generally, we don’t do a lot of socializing outside of work; it’s not like we’re out all the time networking and such things that often times, I think, adds stress to the family situation. When we’re working, we’re working. We are very family friendly and typically bring our families to the sets. We include them in many different things and when we’re not working, we take the time to really have quality family time.
It’s just having a priority. One of the great mentors in both of our lives is Fred Smith, who is the chairman of FedEx and, our majority partner and financial backer. The three of own Alcon still. Fred founded FedEx from the ground up; he also has a massive family with ten kids. It’s following the example to some extent of knowing ultimately what is important.
Fred Smith is one of the most amazing men that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I mean, it’s rare that you get someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit and is willing to take risks; to have the big ideas and understand but also is a consummate manager. Many times those are two different people in a company: the idea guy and the guy who can run the nuts and bolts, have systems, be very organized, manage people and all the rest of it. To get it all in your founder and CEO– for us, our mentor– is a very unique and great thing.
Talk2SV: Conversely, what does Fred Smith get from you and Andrew?
Johnson: Well, he can answer that best but from the beginning, he said he saw a little bit of himself in us–at the end of the day we’re very analytical, straightforward, honest business partners. When the news is bad we give him the news; it’s even more important to give him the bad news than when it’s good, to some extent. We’re very communicative and keep him in the loop as much as he wants to be. He is quite proud of Alcon Entertainment and how we do business so I think there’s a very good alignment of interests and values that keeps it going. We were founded in 1997, and worked with Andrew a year before the company was formed so we’ve been together for quite a while.
Talk2SV: As we conclude this conversation, you described Alcon Entertainment as having a multi-pronged approach to this business, as much creative as financing and management. Your plates are full and heavy; when does it feel like fun and has it stopped feeling like work?
Johnson: Let me say this, at its core, you have to remember that you’re getting to make movies, TV or whatever the entertainment proposition is. In doing so, one has to say that you’re extremely blessed to be able to do this for a living. You’re not digging ditches, you’re not…so we are in a prime, blessed position. Having said that, this is an extremely difficult business where extraordinary amounts of money are being spent, up front. Then you wait for opening weekend to see if your film is embraced or rejected.
It is actually more akin to an election than it is a business. At the end of the campaign, it’s Friday night and you get the results; you’ve either won or you lost (at the box office). You spent all the money up front then you wait and see what happens. There’s no going back, no chance to say, ‘oh, let me, I’m sorry I should have fixed it, let me go back and make some changes.’ It’s like an election, you either won or you lost.
I can say there are aspects of this business that I love–the creativity, dealing with people, trying to reach their vision–some of these people are so appreciative to be given a chance. Then there are other aspects of the business that I really don’t like; when people feel privileged and forget the blessing of being in the business.