PRINT | E-MAIL Interview: Lionsgate's Michael Burns
by Scott Holleran
April 23, 2008
Box Office Mojo: How did you move from Wall Street to Hollywood?
Michael Burns: I came out to L.A. with Shearson Lehman Brothers when I married and I ended up starting this company with a buddy named Max, a left-wing fanatic, which I say lovingly—a brilliant guy—when the Internet was taking off. It was the Hollywood Stock Exchange. It was basically a game that turned into a market research company of sorts with ideas about how independent films can be financed over the Net—which still hasn't been done—but we thought it was an interesting way to do a lot of great things. As that grew, and we were financed, we started making a few independent movies, so I made such classics as the lesbian comedy But I'm a Cheerleader, and a little movie called Six String Samurai. It was a sensation at Slamdance [Film Festival] that year and then Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81 by Tim McCanlies, who wrote The Iron Giant and Secondhand Lions, and Desert Blue, Morgan J. Freeman's follow-up to Hurricane Streets and then a movie called The Suburbans—boy, I'd like to have that movie back; I sold it to Sony—it had Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Amy Brenneman, Jennifer Love Hewitt. We had a real simple philosophy, which was [making] little movies on small budgets with recognizable casts and, hopefully, good stories. In 1999, I went on the board at Lionsgate because I've had a lot of entertainment banking [experience]. In 2000, I persuaded my old friend Jon Feltheimer to become [Lionsgate chief executive officer (CEO)] and I became vice chairman of Lionsgate, which was a small, tenuous company. We thought there was an opportunity to roll up a bunch of film libraries and make a name in independent film and television scripts.
Box Office Mojo: Have you done well?
Michael Burns: Yes. It's been a good run.
Box Office Mojo: Did you achieve that result by bringing down debt?
Michael Burns: I think that's true. Where everybody else wasn't concerned with interest rates, we hedged out our interest rates and started accumulating cash. Our bet was on content and that there would be all these [entertainment] platforms—we couldn't even visualize what they were—iPod, Pay-Per-View, Video on Demand, DVD, High-Def[inition] DVD, channels emerging everywhere, it was not betting on a specific platform but knowing that all the platforms would [need] content. That was the plan.
Box Office Mojo: Are you still involved with Hollywood Stock Exchange?
Michael Burns: No. It's a sad story. We didn't have the money to keep it going. We sold it to Cantor Fitzgerald, the company [based in the World Trade Center] that was decimated [in the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on America]. Just about everybody we were dealing with is dead.
Box Office Mojo: What's your prognosis for Atlas Shrugged?
Michael Burns: We believe this movie could be something great for the company—and maybe something great for the world.
Box Office Mojo: What do you see as the movie's theme?
Michael Burns: Think about it: the world's great minds and great contributors to society—which really are the entrepreneurs—are being taken advantage of—and they are; if you make money, you're giving up pretty close to half of your income, though the United States is still the greatest country in the world, and Ayn Rand would have said that as well—so, what would happen if these great minds went on strike? Would society move forward? It's a great [dramatic] scenario, like that P.D. James novel, Children of Men, which is about [what would happen] if, all of sudden, everyone is sterile. Atlas Shrugged is as pertinent today as it's ever been.
Box Office Mojo: Why should anyone care about the story in today's times?
Michael Burns: When it comes to altruism, there are a great deal of fatal flaws. It's like communism—it's a great concept, but it doesn't work. If people say, well, communism's working in China, that's not communism—that's communism [mixed with] capitalism in a convenient place and, hopefully, all society benefits. Atlas Shrugged does take exception with altruism, which is dead on, and it says that men shouldn't live for [the sake of] other men and that they should absolutely reap the rewards for that which society embraces [through] inventions and patents. And if we live in a society where that doesn't happen, where [businesses] like Rearden Metal are nationalized, like is happening in [the dictatorship of] Venezuela, you take a step backwards and end up with a corrupt regime. That is the greatest threat to free society. Ayn Rand spent a lot of time thinking about apathy—look at low voter turnout—and out of apathy rises a very dangerous situation. I'm a Republican, but how the Democrats could not defeat George Bush [during the 2004 presidential election] is shocking. I would argue that the reason George Bush won reelection is voter apathy—or, something else that Ayn Rand spent a lot of time talking about: fear. [Politicians] use fear to their advantage and that's what's happened in society—with devastating consequences. Would Ayn Rand appreciate George [W.] Bush? I think that she would deplore him. His administration is the pinnacle of cronyism, which she deplored. She stood for individualism and that the strong survive not at the expense of anyone else.
Box Office Mojo: When you imagine seeing Atlas Shrugged on screen, what images come to mind?
Michael Burns: I haven't read the book in a long time but I remember Ragnar throwing [solid] gold bars at Hank Rearden's feet saying "what are these?" And [Ragnar] says these are all the taxes that were stolen from you—or where Dagny's sitting in a diner watching the efficiency of this one short order cook as he's working and it turns out that he's one of the great minds and it made no sense to her that he didn't want to run the entire Taggart Transcontinental food service until later on—when she steals the train back—and I also like it when she's taking the train and she doesn't tell anyone who she is—and I love the scene with the bracelet [made of Rearden Metal] where [Dagny] swaps out the [bracelet] with his wife—this million dollar diamond bracelet—because Dagny thinks it's priceless.
Box Office Mojo: Any interesting casting planned?
Michael Burns: We'd love to cast the role of Hank Rearden with a man's man like Russell Crowe.
Box Office Mojo: Angelina Jolie hasn't exactly had a box office success and reviews of her performances have been mixed—
Michael Burns: Well, look, if you're going to play [video game figure] Lara Croft—I mean, I go back to Girl, Interrupted, or other pictures where I can't take my eyes off her. She's not only breathtakingly beautiful, she has an intensity and, if I could pick one movie star in the world to play Dagny Taggart, it would be Angelina Jolie, Angelina Jolie and Angelina Jolie. She's it. I don't want to speak for her and, like me, I'm sure she doesn't agree with everything Ayn Rand says, but she's a student of [Objectivism]. As far as box office, I think that Hollywood's lost sight of the fact that, if you have a great script or a great story, you're going to get a really talented filmmaker and a great cast. In this particular case, we have a great book [and] a talented actress, so my belief is that we have the goods. It's like [with] Crash—Crash was a great story, and that's the reason people showed up.
Box Office Mojo: Is that your favorite Lionsgate movie?
Michael Burns: I'm partial to it. I'm a big Marc Forster fan and it's between Monster's Ball and Crash. We did a movie called Confidence directed by Jamie Foley—it didn't do any real box office—but it had Eddie Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz and Andy Garcia and I thought it turned out wonderfully—and I'm so proud of a movie called Akeelah and the Bee, which did only $18 million at the box office. I love that movie.
Box Office Mojo: Did Starbucks drop the marketing ball on Akeelah and the Bee?
Michael Burns: I wouldn't say they dropped the ball. It was a learning experience. We tried something new. It has unbelievable performances—that Keke Palmer [the actress who portrayed Akeelah] is a revelation—and it has an unbelievable message.
Box Office Mojo: Is it true that Lionsgate held out for casting Palmer?
Michael Burns: Yes, we loved her. You know what it really came down to? She was believable. You believe that girl was going through all of that and we were looking for somebody the audience would root for and, boy, we got it with her. I think she's going to be a major movie star.
Box Office Mojo: Do you miss Wall Street?
Michael Burns: Wall Street is full of a lot of creative, energetic, smart, fun people and I miss that interaction—in cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong. But I don't miss the nonstop travel.
Box Office Mojo: Who in Hollywood would you invite to Galt's Gulch?
Michael Burns: Clint Eastwood for sure, my friend [director] Marc Forster—he's directing a James Bond movie right now—he's great human being and Angelina Jolie would already be there because she's Dagny Taggart.
Box Office Mojo: Anyone else?
Michael Burns: Maybe Steven Spielberg—he'd be fun to hang out with—–but Clint would be first. He's a throwback to the type of character that Ayn Rand created.
Box Office Mojo: Ayn Rand sought to portray "man as a heroic being." Isn't Clint Eastwood an anti-hero?
Michael Burns: No. He reminds me of [Atlas Shrugged oilman] Ellis Wyatt.
• Director Vadim Perelman on 'Atlas Shrugged'
• Writer and Director Tim McCanlies
• Walt Disney Pictures Chairman Dick Cook
• Index of Interviews by Scott Holleran
• Review: Akeelah and the Bee
• Scott Holleran: 'Akeelah and the Bee' on DVD
• 2003: 'Atlas Shrugged,' Take Five
• Scott Holleran: Gary Cooper and 'The Fountainhead'
• Scott Holleran: New Orleans Disaster and the Line on John Galt
• Scott Holleran: Thank You, Ayn Rand
• Hollywood Stock Exchange
• History of Atlas Shrugged, the Novel
• Atlas Shrugged, the Book and Its Ideas