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Let No Great Story Go Untold - Matt Baer Pivots 'Unbroken' Toward A New Market

Posted By Rona Edwards, Monday, August 6, 2018

It’s easy to knock sequels, if you want to. There are no shortage of movie sequels that feel derivative and uninspired, rehashing the stories and characters of earlier (and frequently, better) films. Sequels tend to play it safe … even the well made ones can feel formulaic after a while, and the bad ones feel like films that nobody asked for.

Except that sometimes, there’s an audience that does ask for a sequel, explicitly and en masse. And if an audience wants a piece of content, a good producer will find a way to give it to them.

At first glance, the WWII prisoner-of-war drama Unbroken (2014), produced by Matthew Baer, Clayton Townsend and Angelina Jolie and directed by Jolie, does not seem a likely candidate for a follow-up. It doesn’t take place in a branded “cinematic universe.” It’s a straightforward true story of a man who goes to war, endures incredible hardships and survives against all odds. But Baer, who originally developed the material, knew there was more to the story and that there was a core audience for that story—just not the audience he typically made movies for. This fall’s Unbroken: Path to Redemption is the product of a unique and timely producing journey, with Baer mining his source material to deliver a vastly different kind of movie for a market outside the comfort zone of most Hollywood producers—turning to the faith-based audience to grab a precious second bite at the Unbroken apple.

The story of Unbroken and its iconic survivor Louis Zamperini is about as close as one gets to a real-life superhero tale: fighting villains, getting pummeled over and over again, and persevering against all odds. Baer was similarly relentless in trying to bring that story to the screen, enduring countless rejections over 15 years. It was 1998 when Baer, then head of motion pictures at Brillstein-Grey, watched a CBS documentary on Lou Zamperini. He felt like most of us do when we discover a story that simply demands to be made into a motion picture— and then discover, unbelievably, that no one’s made the movie yet!

Zamperini, an immigrant son in Torrance, California, lived a storied life. Through relentless drive and strength of character, he became an Olympic athlete and, during World War II, a heroic survivor of punishing prison camp ordeals. Universal had bought the rights to Lou’s book, Devil at My Heels, back in 1956, eyeing Tony Curtis to star. It never happened. Forty-two years later, CAA’s John Levin eyed it as a potential vehicle for the agency’s biggest names, including Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt. Brillstein-Grey repped both actors and had a deal at Universal at the time. Everything seemed to line up perfectly. Armed with the CBS documentary and attaching Nic Cage, they approached Universal, saving the perfect kicker for last: Their studio already controlled the rights to Zamperini’s story.

Producer Matthew Baer (left of center) chats on set with cast member Sam Hunt (center) and consultants
Cissy Zamperini and Luke Zamperini (right).

What seemed like a slam dunk, wasn’t. While Universal negotiated a new deal with Zamperini, Baer tells me, “At the time, the reality was that the movie would physically cost around $80 to $90 million. It was going to be expensive.” Universal insisted that in order to make it, Baer would have to attach an A-list director. Though plenty flirted with the property, none ultimately committed. “I was told ‘no’ so many times without understanding really why people said, ‘no.’” Baer recalls. “In my mind, the story was undeniable in its ability to be a compelling, inspirational movie.” Upon reflection, Baer surmises that the intensity of the story’s prison camp scenes may have scared away some directors. “Both movies say ‘a true story’ for a reason,” he points out. “Even with the intensity of scenes in Unbroken, they weren’t nearly as intense as they were in real life.”

The release of Laura Hillenbrand’s magnificent biography, from which the movies got their title, gave even more currency to Zamperini’s story. But looking at it through Hillenbrand’s lens, Baer came to realize that he had an unusual problem with his story: There was too much of it. “Arguably, the most emotionally compelling part of Lou Zamperini’s life occurred after he became a born-again Christian and was able to forgive the Japanese guards who had held him under captivity,” Baer explains. “This man’s life is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to film.”

In real life, this meant five different writers worked on Unbroken from 1998 to 2014, a gallery that included everyone from William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables) to the Coen brothers (Bridge of Spies, No Country for Old Men). Two of those five writers tackled the post-war story in addition to the wartime tribulations. With such a rich tale, they discovered an inherent problem. Zamperini came back from Japan, having made it home alive against all odds. But then the story grew a second beginning when he met his soon-to-be wife, Cynthia, who played an essential role in his life and recovery. The female lead couldn’t just show up two hours into the movie. On a purely structural level, it just didn’t work as a feature film.

Ultimately the director tough enough for those prison scenes proved to be Angelina Jolie—who has since only confirmed her growing reputation as an unflinching filmmaker and storyteller. She zeroed in on the wartime story of survival at the expense of the post-war story of redemption. “When we were making Unbroken,” Baer recounts, “it was on my mind that, hopefully, if this becomes successful, I’ll be able to do another film. And fortunately that happened.”

Fortunate it was. The movie did well, grossing $160 million worldwide and earning a trio of Oscar nominations. Baer —well aware that the faith-based audience had been disappointed that Zamperini’s conversion was not included in the movie—knew there could be a satisfying part two. He partnered with Bill Reeves from WTA (Working Title Agency), one of the leading faith-based marketing companies in the business. Conveniently Reeves, along with his colleague Dave Mecham, was seeking to expand into financing faith-based films. Baer and Reeves took it to Glenn Ross at 1440, the home entertainment division at Universal, pitching it as a sequel to Unbroken. Ross was interested; after all, 1440’s whole business was direct-to-video sequels of Universal films. With the blessing of Universal chief Donna Langley and motion picture head Jimmy Horowitz, Path to Redemption was going to be the first theatrical release financed by 1440. WTA brought in Pure Flix to handle the actual distribution, and the two companies provided Baer with a crash course in how the faith-based film business worked.

Audiences today are shifting, and the faith-based audience is no exception. The theatrical audience has dropped off, as recent big screen releases have been creative disappointments and the consumers have gravitated to premium content on Netflix and other platforms. “So as long as we didn’t veer from the story,” Baer relates, “I was confident the faith-based audience would show up for the story they wanted to see in the first Unbroken … ‘You asked for it, you got it.’”

Baer confided that the sequel’s budget is 10% of the first film’s cost. Unbroken was made for $65 million and shot in 63 days, while Unbroken: Path to Redemption was made for $6 million and shot in 20 days. Yes, you read that correctly: One- third of the days on one-tenth of the budget. Because they didn’t have a lot of time to make the movie, the script had to be as tight as possible. Within the year, Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and Ken Hixon (City by the Sea) had developed the screenplay.

Baer searched for a director who would be able to authentically handle the sequences featuring Billy Graham, given “their inherent spiritual uplift and their dramatizing the reality of a man who is at the end of his rope and communicating what it felt like when he finally found relief.” Harold Cronk, who had directed the box office hit God’s Not Dead, became instrumental in developing the screenplay, including many of the visual elements of Zamperini’s PTSD flashbacks. “As a producer, you want to find a director who you can truly collaborate with to bring both of your strengths to the same screenplay,” Baer continues. “Harold and I had the same goal. We knew we had major obstacles given the fiscal limitations, but I trusted him implicitly in getting the faith-based content right in a way that all audiences could find accessible.”

With the exception of Gary Cole and Bob Guntan, the sequel mostly features an unknown cast. For the part of Zamperini, Samuel Hunt replaces Jack O’Connell while Merritt Patterson plays his wife, Cynthia. The actors gained invaluable information about this chapter of Zamperini’s life from his children, Luke and Cynthia, who served as executive producers.

With the movie premiering September 14, Baer is involved in every aspect of the marketing. “I personally love working with writers and working with the marketing department more than anything on the films that I make,” Baer asserts, “because they’re both built around the same challenge—how are you communicating the story to your audience?” Faith-based distributors don’t have the financial resources that studios do in creating market awareness. They don’t spend millions on television advertising. Rather, they show the film early to a wide variety of pastors and faith-based audience influencers and get people talking about the movie. They work key Christian radio stations and utilize their communities’ support, as well as cover every kind of social media platform to spread the word. “If you have a movie that doesn’t work, no amount of word-spreading is going to make a major difference,” maintains Baer. “But if you have a movie that actually does work, then word of mouth spreads, the way that it used to when studios released movies in a limited way and then built out ... Faith-based marketing is the modern version of a limited release. It’s built around word of mouth, getting spiritual leaders to support the film, having church groups buy tickets in advance to go see it in the theater.” Likewise many of the same social media tools and platforms used in the indie production model are utilized in the faith-based space.

Thus if you have the Billy Graham organization supporting your film, as they have with Path to Redemption (the first time they’ve ever done so), it will influence a lot of people to see your film. It doesn’t hurt that Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, posted the trailer on his social media page and that family scion Will Graham plays his own grandfather in the film. “There’s no question that that targeted audience—which is a large audience—they know Unbroken: Path to Redemption exists,” Baer explains. “For 85% of independent movies that get made, most likely 85% of their potential audience doesn’t know it exists. So in the case of this movie, I’m thrilled the target audience is going to know it’s available.” The film is slated to release on 1,600 screens. Based on their research, they already have a good idea of what opening weekend is going to look like, thanks to advance bookings by church groups and other faith-based organizations.

Matthew Baer (center) oon location for Unbroken: Path to Redemption with cast member
Sam Hunt (left) and directior Harold Cronk (right). 

In his career, Matt Baer tries not to take on anything where he feels from the start that the odds are insurmountable. Like any good producer, he knows when to walk away. At the same time, “Lou Zamperini defies the odds for me,” he insists. “I just could never give up.” It’s clear the passion Baer felt the first time he saw that CBS documentary continues to animate his work on Path to Redemption. As always, that passion is tempered by pragmatism. “In the modern age of producing, you have to be aware of what kinds of movies have any chance of getting made in the studio or independent system. And for a producer, it’s primarily the independent system, because there’s only one Marvel.”

With all the turmoil in the world, this might be an ideal moment for Path to Redemption, not just for faithful believers who will turn out to see this film, but for all of us who want to see a hero triumph over his doubts and demons. We want possibility. “I’m confident with Path to Redemption that the audience will feel the same emotional uplift I felt the first time I saw that documentary in 1998, that emotional, spiritual, artistic connection that drew me to Lou’s remarkable life.”

But as any producer of sequels has to ask: Is it over? Is Zamperini’s story finally told?

“Some may consider me crazy­—but yes, indeed there is more story to tell about Lou’s life,” Baer boldly declares. “His story has given me so much. Every producer, when you start out, wants to be able to say: If I could do one movie that can make a difference, that can stand the test of time, that I’m proud of, then my passion was rewarded. So many producers never have that in their lives. I’ve had it. And I’m eternally grateful for being the person that Lou Zamperini believed in to tell his story.” And if there’s any further part of the story to tell, you can bet that Matt Baer will find the people who want to hear it.

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photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

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