LatinoBuzz: Duo Ben Odell and Eugenio Derbez of 3Pas Studios

My experience last November at Los Cabos International Film Festival was fabulous! Set up to promote film coproduction and financing among Mexico, U.S., and Canada, the festival allowed all of us to be very close and connected to our peers in the business – international sales agents, writers of all kinds, programmers and filmmakers. There we met the bright new talent, so idealistic and yet so knowledgeable and educated about film in the world. To be able to see films, concentrate on creating business and still have time to mingle -- this is what makes a festival a happy experience.

Among the many people I met there, was Ben Odell, partner at 3Pas Studios, the newly launched production company that he and Mexico’s most beloved and renowned comic star and director, Eugenio Derbez, founded on the strength and success of the $100 million dollar grossing comedy, "Instructions Not Included".

The success of this film also allowed the film’s producer Monica Lozano to establish Alebrije Distribución a new distribution company which will acquire distribution rights for the Latin and North American markets.

Monica has had her hand in 23 productions since her first film, "Amores Perros". Her most recent success was "Instructions Not Included", the Us$ 5.5 million film that became the highest grossing Spanish language film of all time in the U.S., and the second highest grossing film in any language in Mexico.

But to return to Ben and his new company, the subject of this blog: 3Pas in Spanish means three steps, but is also a play on words, something Mexicans like a lot. Tres Pas sounds like tripas, which in English means guts, or tripe. Personally, I too love tripas. Deliciosas!

I Finally met Ben at Los Cabos Film Festival. I say I "finally" met him, because we have so many friends in common and ever since I have been following Latino films and writing my book on Latin America and the film business, I had often heard of Ben as the head of production for Pantelion, U.S.'s only sustained and successful Latino film distributor.

Last September, when Strategic Partners’ Laura Mackenzie in Halifax invited me to moderate a panel on “The Games Maker”, an Argentinean-Canadian-Italian coproduction, Ben’s name was prominent as the one who made the match between Argentina’s Juan Pablo Buscarini and Canada’s Tina Pehme and Kim Roberts.

I always had him pictured as my other friend whose last name is Odell, a slight and wiry, dark haired type. How surprised I was to see this big, handsome blond who exuded warmth and a good-willed wit and storytelling skill. Love at first sight! And I am sure I am not the only one who is smitten with him.

I wish I could convey his spirit, humor and strength as he recounted his life and career(s) to me in the hour we spent together in his new spacious, airy and bright Santa Monica office where Ben Shalom-Martinez was the third person in the new company, manning a phone system not yet working.

I told Ben I had read his mini bio in IMDb, and it made me want to know how he had gotten into the Latino side of the business. I expected him to reveal that, in fact, and in spite of his name, he was Latino.

One year out of college, Ben said, "I worked in editing with the Maysles Brothers. I was a P.A. on the first film John Turturro directed called “Mac”, and I was a reader for Art Linson. And that was my degree in Liberal Arts in Film. I wanted to be a screenwriter but I didn’t feel I had enough life experience. A family friend offered me a job in commercial production in Colombia. It was 1992 and my dad said: “if you love all things Latino, go learn Spanish and become an expert in the Latino market. It’s going to need people that understand it. No one was really talking about its importance then but that piece of advice changed my life. I moved to Colombia to learn Spanish and start what would be a life long journey in all things Latino, from U.S. Latino to Latin America. It’s not a single market but there is a connectivity between all of it.”

Ben grew up in Pennsylvania and when he was six years old, neighbors, who had old friends from Colombia, did an exchange of one of their children with a Colombian child. “My father ended up basically adopting that child for the year he lived with our neighbors and from that grew a friendship with this Colombian family.”

When he was 12 years old the whole Colombian family moved to Philadelphia. “I wanted them to adopt me. They were crazy, emotional, passionate, loving. It was a warmth and lust for life I hadn’t really experienced in suburban white America. And then I realized there was a whole country full of them.” At 15 he went with a friend to Colombia and loved it.

His father eventually married someone from that family. So Ben's connection to Colombia, if not to all of Latin America was very organic. Colombia is not part of the "U.S. Latino market" per se, but Colombia and the rest of Latin America share certain characteristics and commonalities — views on life and death, family, spirituality -- that end up working their way into storytelling that are shared throughout the U.S. Latino market and Latin America along with a larger emotional scale in the tone of their storytelling.

Odell lived in Colombia from 1992 to 2000. He also worked as a freelance journalist before becoming a Spanish language television writer and screenwriter there.

When he was in Colombia working in commercials, he met Tom Quinn, a journalist Iiving there for 25 years, working for Time Magazine and running an English language rag called The Colombian Post. In his youth ,Tom had run with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson. He had lots of adventures and lots of stories of those days.

Ben asked Tom what was the most compelling story they could make into a movie that wasn’t about narcotrafficking, and Tom said one word: “Emeralds.” Colombia supplies 60% of the world's emeralds. The mines in the Emerald Zone have strong drug laundering connections as well, as one might guess. The land is leased by the government to the three or four mining companies and they control everything with no supervision by the government.

The society is totally feudal. Workers labor for the companies for 28 days of the month and on the last two days they are allowed to keep whatever they find. Victor Carranza ran everything. He was The Don, violent and scary. A small man, about 5'2". He died in prison worth over a billion dollars.

Ben thought this was a great story to develop into a movie, and so he went back to New York to the contacts he had made including an exec at Tribeca Films. “They all said the same thing, great story but you are not a writer. Go write the script and then we’ll talk.” Ben returned to Colombia to do research.

In the meanwhile he began writing for Colombian TV. He had never written a feature film script, nor did he speak Spanish. He had, however, taken a course in feature film screenwriting with Robert McKee. And he had a girlfriend who was bilingual. He knew about Colombian TV and he saw the potential for legitimizing the story first as a TV show and then making it into a feature later.

Tom Quinn was very well known in Colombia as he was the Time News correspondent there at a moment when the magazine had a lot of power; the drug wars were one of its most consistent cover stories. They pitched it to Rti TV, and structured it like "The Fugitive".

There is a drug, called Burandanga, scientifically known as Scopolamine. It comes from a plant that grows wild in Colombia. The drugged one loses control of his or her will. He once heard a story about a man in a bar who wakes up in jail accused of a murder he can’t remember. This became the basis of the story. The lead goes into the Emerald Zone and drugged by burundanga, he kills one on the wrong side in a war going on there. He wakes up with no recollection and a full on civil war going on around him. He can't get out of the Emerald Zone until he finds the man who drugged him. The title of this series that Tom and he pitched and in 1998 created was "Fuego verde", like the 1954 Hollywood movie, “ Green Fire” starring Grace Kelly and Stewart Grainger.

As a television writer, he eventually created and wrote over 300 hours of Spanish-language narrative television including “Fuego Verde” -- the first-ever action series. It was one of the highest rated series on Colombian television. He also co-wrote the Colombian political satire feature film, “ Golpe de estadio”, which was nominated for Spain's Academy Award, the Goya in 1999, and was Colombia's nomination to the Oscar in 2000. It is still one of the highest grossing Colombian films of all time.

In the film, "Golpe de estadio", (Golpe de Estado means “Coup d'état”but it also could mean “Coup d’ Stadium”), an oil company has set up a camp for geological research in a small village in Colombia that has been named New Texas. It becomes the target of the guerrillas who are constantly clashing with police in the area. The confrontation is put on hold however during the TV transmission of the world Cup qualifiers. The two sides declare a sort of truce so that they can all watch the match between Colombia and Argentina on the only working TV in the town. Colombia wins the game, 5 to 0, (a victory, in real life, infamous in the annals of world cup) and of course the Colombian police and guerrilla find themselves cheering for the same team.

"Golpe" was released in theaters in 1999 while the drug wars and war between the guerrillas and the government were moving into peace talks. It came out during the war, and Ben naively believed it could make tangible impact on the country. Instead they received death threats. It was a very volatile time.

He left Colombia and put together a business plan to make movies for Latino audiences. He was too green and he was way ahead of his time so instead he went to film school at Columbia University.

He went to film school thinking it was only to network and realized he knew nothing about film writing or production. "Going to film school's more valuable if a student already has some experience," Ben says.

"Confess", a feature length film he produced in his second year of film school (2005) was one of his thesis projects. It was made for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Ali Larter and Melissa Leo starred in it (way before she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Role in “The Fighter”). The movie was about a disgruntled computer hacker of mixed race, who struggles to adjust to life after a jaunt in prison. He takes his anger online forcing confessions out of those who slighted him. Eventually his focus becomes political. “It had all the trappings of a first time filmmaker. But conceptually it was scratching the surface of trends that wouldn’t appear online until years later. This was several years before YouTube took hold, which is a lifetime in human years.”

"For my second film, we had Scorsese as an executive producer. When we started preproduction we quickly discovered that one of our two investors really didn’t have the money. He signed a contract to invest while he was still trying to raise the funds“

At this point in our discussion Ben and I went off on a tangent...Money that falls out at the last minute is such a common story. Do these guys think the money will come just because they have "bet" on it, using the film as collateral?... Do they just want to go for the ride, as far as they can go?... are they sociopaths, liars, gamblers, on drugs or what? I remember when I worked at Ifa (until it became ICM); at the Motion Picture Division's meetings that Mike Medavoy held every week, agents would sometimes report on someone wanting to invest in film, and once Mike said "No. Not him. He has a very bad reputation, and his money is not good. We don't want that kind of money." But young producers know very little about vetting financial prospects.

This digression is only to illustrate the fact that that in this person-to-person business it is important to know who you are dealing with.

But Odell’s luck was going to change. Just a few weeks after the implosion of the film, he got an email from Jim McNamara. NBC had bought McNamara's Telemundo for Us$ 3 billion . McNamara had been CEO of New World, a position once held by Harry Sloan and Jon Feltheimer. Feltheimer went off to Sony TV which had a majority stake in Telemundo. McNamara, who had just been president of Universal TV worldwide, was brought in to run Telemundo

After leaving Telemundo, he went back to Feltheimer, in the early days of building Lionsgate, to discuss his new idea. At the time -- this was 2006 -- there were two Spanish language networks, 600 Spanish language radio stations, 2,000 Spanish language newspapers, and no one was making movies in Spanish. Felt liked it and they made a deal. Panamax was born.

McNamara knew of Odell when he was buying TV series for Telemundo. He bought a lot of the TV shows Odell had written.

Panamax’ made a six picture deal with Lionsgate. Odell became President of Production at Panamax Films and produced many feature films and TV movies both in Spanish and in English for the Hispanic market.

On one of their first scouting trips, Odell and McNamara went to see a play called “Latinologues” written by Rick Najera. In it, there was a Mexican actor named Eugenio Derbez. Derbez was known only for Spanish language TV at the time. He wrote, directed, produced and starred in his own shows for Televisa. These shows also played on Univision in the U.S. and were building a huge fan base in both countries as well as much of the Spanish-speaking world.

Latinologues was made up of multiple monologues from different actors playing roles as Latino archetypes. Derbez did three or four different characters. “When he came on stage,” recalls Odell, “He was electrifying, hilarious, magnetic. And then I met him afterwards. He was the humblest man, quiet, and a bit shy. I realized what an amazing talent he was, he had that ‘it factor’ – when he turned it on, it turned on the room.”

At the time Odell and McNamara were packaging a project called "Under the Same Moon" and suggested Derbez for a role. They flew the director, Patricia Riggen, to N.Y. to meet him. While Lionsgate ended up not financing the project, Derbez stayed in the picture. “Looking back, I think a significant part of why that movie did $20 million in box office between U.S. and Mexico, was Eugenio. He was already a mega star. No one really knew it in the general market because they weren’t paying attention to the success of his shows. Hollywood tends to ignore the Spanish speaking market, but the U.S. is the second biggest Spanish speaking country in the world and Eugenio has built a huge following there.”

Ben also made the art house Spanish language thriller, "Padre Nuestro" in 2007 which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. IFC changed the title to “Sangre de mi Sangre” for its U.S. release. It also played at New Directors/ New Films at Museum of Modern Art in New York in the Spring of 2007, received two Independent Spirit Awards nominations, for Best First Feature (for which Odell was nominated) and Best Screenplay. Odell also produced “Un Cuento Chino” aka “Chinese Take-Out” (a Spanish/ Argentinean co-production), starring Argentina’s most popular actor, Ricardo Darin (“El Secreto de los Ojos”), written and directed by Sebastián Borensztein. In Spanish, referring to a story as a cuento chino is equivalent to calling it a tall tale.

“Chino” was the top grossing Argentinean film of 2011 and one of the highest grossing Argentinean films of all times. In its international release it has broken box office records for Latin American films in both Latin America and Europe. It won the Argentinean Academy Award for best feature and the Goya, the Spanish Academy Award, for Best Latin American Film. It won numerous festivals including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Rome Film Festival.

When Odell was developing the script with Borensztein in 2009, he sent the script to Derbez, who immediately expressed interested in remaking it. “I loved the original story and movie,” Derbez said. “There is a heartfelt relationship that develops between these two very different people set around a whimsical, comical and magical world.”

Odell was also an executive producer on the English language 3D family thriller, “ The Games Maker”, starring Joseph Fiennes and Ed Asner. Made as a coproduction with Disney Latin America, the movie was produced in Argentina by Pampa Films and directed by Juan Pablo Buscarini, one of the producers of “Un Cuento Chino”. It was released widely across Latin America in the summer of 2014 and continues its theatrical release around the world.

Several years into Panamax’s deal with Lionsgate, a joint venture was created between Panamax, Televisa and Lionsgate called Pantelion Films. McNamara became chairman of Pantelion and Ben became President of Production.

Under the new deal he produced the 2012 coming of age comedy “Girl in Progress”, directed by “Under the Same Moon” director Patricia Riggen and staring Eva Mendes, Eugenio Derbez, Mathew Modine and Patricia Arquette

His most recent film was the inspirational true story, “Spare Parts”, starring George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis and Marisa Tomei which was released in January 2015.

While Eugenio was making his breakout film "Instructions not Included” neither he nor Ben had any idea it would be so big. “Instructions Not Included,” was released in 2013 by Pantelion and grossed $44.5 million, making it the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever released in the U.S. It grossed another $55 million overseas making it the number one Spanish language movie in the world.

The two realized, this was The One Time In A Career To Capitalize, and they decided to go together, to focus on brand-building, based on Eugenio's popularity and to go beyond his own work, in English and Spanish. Together they formed 3pas Studios which signed a first-look deal with Pantelion in August 2014.

They are in development on many feature films including “Un Cuento Chino”, a remake of the French comedy, “The Valet” and an untitled original script about an aging Latin lover from writers Chris Spain and Jon Zack (“The Perfect Storm”) which Derbez will star in and produce with Ben.

“We are developing multiple projects with an eye to shooting one at the end of 2015,” Odell said.

Meantime, Eugenio Derbez just filmed roles in Warner Brothers’ “Geostorm” with Gerard Butler and Sony Pictures “ Miracles from Heaven” with Jennifer Garner, and Queen Latifah. The latter was directed by Patricia Riggen who directed Derbez in both “Under the Same Moon” and “Girl in Progress”.

Ben is sure that his producing partner will go way beyond his current core Latino market “He is so lovable to watch. He has a magic about him that is undeniable and transcends language and culture.”

See full article on SydneysBuzz