The most influential movie company you have never heard of

Mandeville Films produced Wonder, starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay (both above); and Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany (both left).
Mandeville Films produced Wonder, starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay (both above); and Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Mandeville Films produced Wonder, starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay (both above); and Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany (both left).
Mandeville Films produced Wonder, starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay; and Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany (both above).PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

LOS ANGELES • Chances are that you saw one of these highly rated movies - Stronger, Wonder and Beauty And The Beast - last year.

But they did not come from a major studio. Instead, they were nurtured by producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman at their Disney-based Mandeville Films.

In a Hollywood often portrayed as a faceless machine, Hoberman, 65, and Lieberman, 44, epitomise the very human, hands-on type of producers who can operate the gears. Their knack for versatility has helped them emerge as a surprisingly potent industry force.

Beauty began when Disney asked them to develop a long-gestating script, initially seen as an adventure-drama, as a musical instead.

A budget upwards of US$150 million (S$201 million) meant a new kind of gamble, for Hollywood and Mandeville. But the material was handled with just the right mix of verve and darkness by director Bill Condon and newly hired screenwriter Stephen Chbosky.

Boosted by the presence of Emma Watson, the bet paid off, to the tune of US$1.3 billion in global box-office sales.

Stronger, based on the story of Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman, was more organic. Lieberman and Hoberman heard about him from an agent - Bauman had yet to even write a book.

Mandeville worked with him on that. They then set up the project at Amazon Studios. Like most producers with studio deals, Mandeville can shop a project elsewhere if its home company does not want it.

Although Stronger has underperformed commercially, it gained raves for its candid look at the complexities of patriotism. Star Jake Gyllenhaal has also generated Oscar buzz for his portrayal.

But it is Wonder that may be the most surprising of the bunch - a feel-good charmer about a boy with facial differences, based on R.J. Palacio's bestseller.

Tipped off to the novel just as it was being published, Lieberman and Hoberman soon met with Palacio, who granted them the right to shop it more than five years ago. Then, the rejections came.

Mandeville struggled to crack the story too, with many top screenwriters suggesting gimmicks such as not showing the boy's face until the end.

Meanwhile, the book was gaining popularity among middle-schoolers. Soon, Julia Roberts, who had read the book, was calling Mandeville to be in it. Made for US$20 million, Wonder has just crossed US$115 million in the United States box office.

The film was passed on by Disney despite the family-friendly appeal. It ended up at Lionsgate, a mid-major studio that will still take swings on original films.

Mandeville began humbly. Hoberman founded it in the 1990s after a turn as president of Disney's motion-picture unit.

In 1999, he hired Lieberman, still in his mid-20s and fresh off an apprenticeship in the hustle-heavy part of the business known as foreign sales.

The pair moved to Hyde Park, another production company, then re-formed Mandeville in 2002.

The duo endured their share of early missteps (2004's drama-comedy Raising Helen). But they soon found their footing, and between 2009 and 2011, had the Muppets reboot, surprise smash romantic comedy The Proposal and seven-time Oscar nominee The Fighter.

In a movie-producing business populated by yin-and-yang partners, Hoberman and Lieberman are very similar.

Products of upper-middle-class Jewish upbringings, they have a knack for doing the heavy lifting on sets and a shared sensibility that might be described as quality-minded commercialism.

"Typically, in a partnership, you have skillsets that complement each other," said Lieberman.

"We have very similar skillsets, but very different outlooks - I lean optimistic and David leans realistic."

They have been able to punch above their weight with just a handful of staff. Looking ahead, Lieberman sees plenty of reason for optimism - for instance, that Disney's planned streaming service makes room for riskier projects.

Mandeville is also continuing with some bigger-budget branded fare - it is behind the development of Prince Charming, Disney's latest catalogue-mining effort.

But Mandeville is pushing its stack to the middle of the table with The Aeronauts, a 19th-century fact-based story of a rival scientist and hot-air balloonist that it will shoot this year. The studio tellingly making the film? Amazon.

Hoberman and Lieberman said all they can do is keep acting on what moves them and let the industry chips fall where they may.

"I once nearly called the company Fool On The Hill, after The Beatles song, because we're all trying to get something done and we're all fools to believe that we can."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2018, with the headline 'The most influential movie company you have never heard of'. Print Edition | Subscribe