BURBANK, Calif. — The mural in Todd Lieberman’s office captures the film producer’s uncanny year.
Taking up part of a wall in a room on the Disney lot, the artwork depicts a woman with a rose, a tattoo and an eye bearing the word “wonder.” It is meant to represent “Beauty and the Beast,” “Stronger” and “Wonder” — the three movies Lieberman and partner David Hoberman produced in 2017 at their Disney-based Mandeville Films.
As difficult as it is to get even one movie made in brand-driven Hollywood, Mandeville somehow finessed three, all very different: a blockbuster, a sleeper and a critical darling. Chances are, if you saw a hit movie this year, you partook of Mandeville’s handiwork.
“We didn’t orchestrate it this way,” Lieberman said recently, commenting on the mural he commissioned. “But someone pointed out to me that this year we had three pillars — beauty, strength and wonder. Those strike me as the necessary traits for a good life.”
In a Hollywood often portrayed as a faceless machine, Hoberman, 65, and Lieberman, 44, epitomize the very human, very hands-on type of producers who can operate the gears. The pair’s knack for versatility has helped them emerge as a surprisingly potent industry force.
But maintaining that relevance in a fickle business beset by great change may prove as tricky as the Beast’s effort to evade the jealous Gaston. In the months ahead, Mandeville’s success will depend on an increasingly fragile balance of personal taste and corporate imperative.
Certainly it would be hard to argue with its winning streak in 2017.
“Beauty” began when Disney executives asked Lieberman and Hoberman to develop a long-gestating script, initially conceived as an adventure-drama, as a musical instead.
A budget upward of $150 million meant a new kind of gamble, for both 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 heavily by the presence of Emma Watson, the bet paid off, to the tune of $1.3 billion in global box office.
“Stronger,” based on the real-life story of Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman, was more organic. Lieberman and Hoberman heard about the survivor from an agent — Bauman had yet to even write a book. Mandeville worked with him on that and then hired director David Gordon Green, the “Pineapple Express” filmmaker lately returning to his indie-drama roots. They then set up the project at Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. (Like most producers with studio deals, Mandeville can shop a project elsewhere if its home company doesn’t want it.)
And though “Stronger” 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’s “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.
Few in Hollywood had heard of the book, and no one thought a film adaptation could be a hit. Mandeville struggled to crack the story, too, with many top screenwriters saying the filmmakers should consider gimmicks such as not showing the boy’s face until the end.
But the demurrals helped, because in the meantime the book was gaining popularity among millions of middle-schoolers. Soon Julia Roberts, who’d read the book with her family, was calling Mandeville to be in it.
Made for $20 million, “Wonder” has crossed $115 million in U.S. box office, nearly as much as the latest Transformers installment. As an original piece of material without vampires, aliens or dystopian warriors, it’s the kind of movie studios don’t make much and the kind of hit the American film business rarely sees.
In fact, a studio didn’t make it.
Disney passed on the film despite the family-friendly appeal. Making movies for $20 million, no matter the word-of-mouth potential, just doesn’t ignite Burbank like it used to; the box office ceiling will never be as high as for a Marvel or Star Wars picture.
“Wonder” ended up at Lionsgate, a “midmajor” that will take swings on original films. (Disney still collects a percentage of revenue because of its overall deal with Mandeville.)
Lieberman did not address the Disney pass specifically but said that he “understands from a business perspective this was a tough risk; we’re thankful we found a place passionate enough to do it.”
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, who was in his mid-20s and fresh off an apprenticeship in the hustle-heavy part of the business known as foreign sales. The pair would soon move to Hyde Park, another production company, then reform Mandeville in 2002.
What began as a mentor-protege relationship between the two men eventually evolved into a more equal partnership. Lieberman and Hoberman found themselves bonded by the difficulty of their mission: create movies that could pack in audiences without sacrificing taste or critical favor.
The pair endured their share of early missteps (2004’s drama-comedy “Raising Helen,” for instance). But they soon found their footing and in a two-year span between 2009 and 2011 had the “Muppets” reboot, the surprise smash romantic comedy “The Proposal” and the seven-time Oscar nominee “The Fighter” — a precursor to the tentpole-crowd-pleaser-prestige trifecta of 2017.
In a movie-producing business populated by yin-and-yang partners, Hoberman and Lieberman are in fact very alike. Products of similar upper-middle-class Jewish upbringings, in Los Angeles and Cleveland, 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 skill sets that complement each other,” Lieberman said. “We have very similar skill sets but very different outlooks — I lean optimistic, and David leans realistic; I am asking ‘Why not,’ and David is giving a needed reality check.”
Hoberman characterizes the difference, well, differently.
“Todd has this curiosity, and he’s looking for meaning. He makes declarations — and then does them. If Todd wanted to be a banker tomorrow, he would do everything he needed to do and become a banker.” Hoberman laughed. “I never do that. I never know what I want in life; I just end up making the choices in front of me.”
Of course, similarities can pay dividends, too. Some rival producers have wondered how Mandeville pulls off its bursts of productivity, but its little secret is that, because of overlapping tastes, Hoberman and Lieberman are rarely in the same city at the same time. Each takes the lead where a film is shooting and tags out for the other when necessary.
All the while they try to balance their tastes with the needs of a studio — especially a highly purposeful one like Disney.
“One place we’re really harmonized,” said Sean Bailey, Disney’s head of production, “is with movies where you feel inspired — elevated and brighter — when you leave the theater. We like to look for that, and they’re very good at that.”
The Disney relationship could have gone a different way. Hoberman, a loyalist of former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, ended up with a producing deal on the lot after being pushed out by Katzenberg successor Joe Roth in 1995. Hoberman endured at Disney, and years later he has become one of the studio’s more important creative figures.
Collectively, he and Lieberman have been able to punch above their weight with just a handful of employees working out of a corner of Disney’s Old Animation Building, which Walt Disney once called home.
Chbosky chalks up their success to a light touch. “There are a lot of abusive people in our business who think being rough on an artist is the way to go,” he said. “I’m not that person. And Todd and David aren’t those people.”
Still, challenges abide. The future is generally uncertain for studio-based producers who follow their own taste; most major movie hits these days are highly calibrated, top-down affairs. Big film companies will certainly always need roll-up-their-sleeves types to execute brand visions such as “Beauty.” But will they embrace earthier entities that enjoy making throwbacks like “Wonder”?
Not lost on industry insiders is that two of Mandeville’s three 2017 movies weren’t made at Disney — a ratio that could widen even further once Disney acquires the vast pipeline of studio Twentieth Century Fox. Disney’s larger direction will strongly influence whether Mandeville reups with the studio when its current deal expires later in 2018.
Lieberman said he 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, with Chbosky writing and potentially directing. It is a darker story and not, at this point, definitively a musical tale, yet all parties hope it rekindles the “Beauty” spark.
But Mandeville is really pushing its stack to the middle of the table with “The Aeronauts,” a fact-based story of a 19th-century scientist and hot-air balloonist that it will shoot in 2018 — with a budget more on the Disney end of the spectrum but hardly its franchise appeal. 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,” Hoberman said. “But that’s what’s beautiful about Hollywood. There are no rules or reality.”
Lieberman spins the murky studio future as an advantage. “The main goal as I’ve always seen it,” he said, “is to find something you’re passionate about, then convince others they’re wrong.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article had incorrect ages for Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman. Also, “Stronger” was set up at Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, not Amazon Studios.