Lionsgate Film Chief Talks ‘Master Plan’ for ‘John Wick’: ‘We Made It an Absolute Priority to Expand the World’

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After a 2022 in which its presence at the box office was minimal, Lionsgate has roared back onto the charts this month. “John Wick: Chapter 4” earned a $73.5 million opening weekend, a franchise record and the studio’s best launch since November 2015. It’s the sort of success that Lionsgate motion picture group chairman Joe Drake thinks is going to keep building in the weeks ahead.

“It’s extremely rare that you see any franchise, four films in, get higher box office numbers with each new installment,” Drake told TheWrap. “We’ve been so floored by the reception for the film and we think we are in good shape to leg out for several weeks.”

But he’s not satisfied with just working the studio’s franchises, he told TheWrap in an interview. Drake wants to set the studio up for a prosperous box office future.

Drake, who served as co-COO of Lionsgate until 2012, returned to lead the studio’s film division in late 2017 alongside Nathan Kahane, with whom Drake had founded the production company Good Universe and who now serves as motion picture group president. The pair was tasked with guiding Lionsgate into a new chapter after the end of the studio’s lucrative “Hunger Games” saga, which grossed $2.95 billion worldwide.

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The new leaders’ initial box office results were mixed. The studio’s domestic annual total in 2018 cratered to $352 million, but that rough year was sandwiched by years where the studio released hits like “Wonder” and “Knives Out,” with 2019 annual grosses rising to $910 million.

But there has been no bigger post-“Hunger Games” success for Lionsgate than “John Wick,” which just saw its latest installment open to $137.5 million worldwide. With incredibly strong reception from critics and audiences and currently standing as a unique offering in theaters as an R-rated action thriller, “John Wick 4” has the chance of being the first film in the series to cross $400 million globally.

That’s not the only theatrical success Lionsgate has enjoyed this year. Earlier this month, Lionsgate’s faith-based film production partners Kingdom Story Company released “Jesus Revolution,” a $15 million true-story tale that has become Kingdom’s highest grossing film in its young history with $49 million.

After mostly day-and-date releases last year, “Jesus Revolution” and “John Wick 4” mark a significant return to theatrical releases for Lionsgate, with upcoming titles like “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” “White Bird: A Wonder Story” and the return of franchises like “The Expendables,” “Saw” and “The Hunger Games,” the latter of which will adapt the prequel novel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.”

All of this is part of Lionsgate’s plan to increase its box office footprint while adhering to the “multiplatform” strategy that steered it through the pandemic theater closures and rebuilding process of the past two years. Drake discussed that strategy in an interview with TheWrap where he also emphasized his belief in the “unlimited white space” that John Wick’s world provides, the grassroots success of Kingdom Story Company, and the studio’s plans to get audiences excited for “The Hunger Games” again.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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“John Wick: Chapter 4” is one of the last films to deal with production delays due to the pandemic, and it was pushed back to this slot to avoid competing with “Top Gun: Maverick.” What made Lionsgate settle on this March 2023 release slot?
Look, we had some work to do on the film, honestly, and we’ve always loved March when there’s a bit of a runway. We think any movie of this size, any brand of this size, can actually open anywhere in the year. Summer and Christmas have their advantages, but what we wanted to do was open it when we thought it could run for a long, long time, and late March gave us that with much of April being open ahead of the start of the summer season. And with people praising this movie, which Chad and Keanu did such an incredible job on, we think we’re in good shape.

These sequels have been building the world of the Continental to the point that it could continue past John’s own story, and you’re now turning the “Ballerina” script into a spinoff in this world and developing a Peacock series. At what point did Lionsgate realize that there was potential in the Continental beyond just John Wick?
I think we’ve seen it for a very long time. Ever since I came back in 2017, we made it an absolute priority to expand the world of “Wick.” It’s really extraordinary what Chad and [original “John Wick” screenwriter] Derek [Kolstad] and all these guys have done. At the point when I came, two films were out and a third was in the works, yet there wasn’t some master-plan world that they were writing towards. They had just written stories that established unlimited white space but that was the coolest white space in the world.

You have the High Table and these Continentals all over the world, but despite everything that these films have shown, the world is still largely unexplored. And so we worked with Chad and Keanu asking, “How can we expand this world?” And people are going to see the fruits of that with “Ballerina,” which Chad and Keanu will be a part of and with the “Continental” TV show. That’s the result of the mission we started five years ago, trying to satisfy this audience appetite for this world that continues to grow.

Keanu Reeves in “John Wick 2” (Lionsgate)

You’ve also had another strong box office hit recently with “Jesus Revolution.” Do you feel that Kingdom Story Company is starting to achieve brand recognition with Christian audiences?
I believe so. This is the first bit of good luck we’ve really had with Kingdom. We really believe in Jon and Andrew Erwin and think they really understand their audience, but the first film that we put out from our partnership with them, which was “I Still Believe,” came out right when COVID hit and shut down everything. Then we had Zachary Levi with “American Underdog,” which came out right when the omicron variant happened, so it just felt like we couldn’t catch a break.

But we got “Jesus Revolution” out at the right time, and the Erwins take a very grassroots approach with promoting Kingdom’s films. They sell group tickets, they promote within church groups and they do a whole host of different things that are really innovative for the film business and speak directly to that very connected audience. We were super happy to see with “Jesus Revolution” that that audience is there and we think that Kingdom is becoming a trusted seal of approval, so to say.

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This fall, Lionsgate is bringing back “Hunger Games” with a new prequel film, but it has been eight years since the last film came out. What is your plan to get audiences interested in something that has been so dormant for so long?
Well, right now Adam (Fogelson, Lionsgate motion picture group vice chair) is working on the marketing campaign so I can’t say too much about that, though I’ve seen a cut of the film from [director] Francis Lawrence and it’s truly extraordinary. But what we are also doing separate from “Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” to bring the “Hunger Games” back is to line up all of the original movies on Netflix.

When we did that, we found that the original books rose back to the top of the bestseller list and sales for the new book “Songbirds and Snakes” rose by 40% to 50%. What’s actually happened is that there’s a viral movement called “Hunger Games Renaissance” that has come up in the past couple of weeks that’s being driven by millions on TikTok, and while it started with people who grew up reading and watching the “Hunger Games,” we’re also seeing it being embraced by a whole new audience of teens who are discovering the films and books.

When the “Hunger Games” films first came out, the strategy that Lionsgate followed was “sell the books first,” and that’s pretty much what we’re doing here to reignite the appetite for this franchise.

Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Last year, the majority of Lionsgate films were day-and-date releases, and now in 2023 there’s a significant pivot back to theatrical. Was this always just part of the plan with the COVID-19 rebuilding process or were you testing the waters to see how the box office would perform in 2022 before committing bigger titles to theaters?
That has always been part of our multiplatform strategy. We put out 30 to 40 films a year between theatrical and [premium video on demand]. We’ve been doing it for 10 years and it enjoys 60% return on invested capital. It’s a really profitable business, but it also allows us to work on all kinds of movies with all kinds of creators.

Most of these movies are movies that when we acquire them, we expect them to have their largest audience in the home, but some of them get different types of theatrical releases to grow their potential on PVOD and on streaming. Some have a full theatrical window, others have a limited engagement at AMC or through Fathom Events. But this multiplatform strategy allowed us to continue selling films to streamers during the pandemic and in 2021 and 2022 find profit without serious theatrical risk through day-and-date releases that elevated the home revenue of several films like “Prey for the Devil.”

Now, with the box office recovering, we wanted to build a full theatrical slate for 2023 that would have some of our biggest tentpole franchises but also some original films that could become the next big franchise for us, like Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride” or Tim Story’s “The Blackening,” and even if they don’t, we still have a lot of optimism for them and other films like “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” because of how they are set up for us financially.

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While you were using that multiplatform strategy, the other major studios put out a lot of non-franchise films like “Ticket to Paradise” and “Smile.” Does the box office performance of titles from other studios help Lionsgate craft its 2023 theatrical strategy?
I wouldn’t say it comes from other studios. We get it from our relationships with customers and with our exhibition partners. There’s digital signals now that actually mean something as you put out content and see how the consumer interacts with it. There are activations that you can do directly with consumer that will give feedback and information that helps us target our audience and make our marketing much more efficient.

That efficiency has made the financial viability of mid-range budgeted movies very strong, contrary to what you may hear sometimes in the industry. Fine-tuning our marketing has allowed us to get more out of every box office dollar grossed, and internationally we license all our films rather than self-distribute and I can tell you that the value we get on a per title basis from most territories is up between 15% to 30%, on any given title.

That allows us to release a film like “Jesus Revolution” or take a chance on an R-rated comedy with an all-Asian cast like “Joy Ride,” a film that we really think can overperform this summer. But part of the reason we can release films like that so confidently beyond their quality is that the economics of releasing a film are actually more advantageous now than they were before COVID in terms of the risk/return. That we’re able to take these shots more conservatively, map out these movies, put them into the marketplace with better economics, all of that has us leaning into that mid-range movie because we know that’s where we’re going to find our next “John Wick.”

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