Rob Friedman isn’t the type of person to look back. As co-chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, he is always looking forward. He sets goals on a daily and weekly basis. It’s a strategy that has served him well. Under the leadership of Friedman and Co-chairman Patrick Wachsberger, the Motion Picture Group of the fiercely independent studio has grossed more than $7B at the global box office over the past four years
It’s the latest milestone in a journey that began in a small town in North Carolina, continued in a theater in North Hollywood, and saw a pivotal plot twist on, of all places, a couch.
While Friedman has worked alongside the biggest stars of our day and some of the brightest executives in the film business, he is very accessible and down to earth—two of the qualities that have earned him respect from peers and loyalty from employees over the span of his four decade-long career. Even though he can be competitive, he is most concerned with his family and the world around him.
Friedman grew up in a small town outside Raleigh, now known as Fuquay-Varina, where he loved to be outside. “I was pretty much outdoors until somebody had to drag me in,” he recalls.
Exploring nature and wildlife, he was the son of a veterinarian, who decided after a family trip to Southern California for Christmas that they would join the rest of their extended family and make North Hollywood home. Friedman was just 11 years old at the time. He attended Walter Reed Middle School and loved going to the movies with his mother, later taking a job at what was then called the Lankershim Theater when he was 16. “It was a career opportunity I had an affinity for and as I started to get more and more immersed in it I grew to love it,” he says.
After graduating from North Hollywood High School, Friedman says he bounced from party school to party school over the course of 18 months. “I thought I was going to be a marine biologist. Then I realized you had to have chemistry and all sorts of stuff,” he says. It was that realization that brought Friedman’s life to a screeching halt. Not wanting to waste his parent’s money, he dropped out of college. Since he was no longer a student, and the Vietnam war was still underway, he submitted to the draft. A high draft number kept him from combat, so he decided to follow the path of other twenty-somethings seeking direction and headed to Europe for six months.
“I’ve always been a logical thinker and I’ve always been a problem solver. That’s kind of what I like and so that’s sort of how I grew. It just so happened that I have an affinity for people. I’m not intimidated very easily.”
Upon his return to Los Angeles, Friedman was dealing with a newfound fear. He didn’t have a college education and found he had very few job prospects. He spent the next six weeks on his parents’ couch worrying about his future. “I think it helped to understand that there was another part of my life that had to kick in. It wasn’t all about fun. It was about responsibility and planning for the future. With that in mind I became very career-oriented,” he says.
That same fear propelled Friedman to pester a cousin for a job at Warner Brothers. On September 8, 1970, Friedman began working in the mailroom. “One of those things I realized about myself is I was not a book learner. I was an observer and listener and so I learned everything from that,” Friedman says.
Over the next 27 years, Friedman held many posts, ultimately rising to become the studio’s President of Worldwide Advertising and Publicity where he was directly responsible for the release of more than 180 movies including Superman, Batman, Ace Ventura, and Oscar winners Chariots of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy, and Unforgiven. “I’ve always been a logical thinker and I’ve always been a problem solver. That’s kind of what I like and so that’s sort of how I grew. It just so happened that I have an affinity for people. I’m not intimidated very easily,” he confides.
Along the way, setting goals became an important way for Friedman to stay on track. He told his parents and friends that he wanted to be a Vice President by the time he was 30 and ultimately head a major studio – two goals that eventually became reality. In 1997, Friedman moved to Paramount Pictures as Vice Chairman of the Paramount Motion Pictures Group. In 2000, he added the role of Chief Operating Officer. In 2006, Friedman joined forces with Patrick Wachsberger to form what became the very successful studio Summit Entertainment. After several misfires, Summit found success with the release of Twilight. The Hurt Locker earned the production company its first Best Picture Oscar. Friedman’s partnership with his co-chair, Wachsberger, began as a friendship with informal chats that eventually evolved into their current long-term working relationship.
In 2012, Friedman began the next phase of his career when Lionsgate acquired Summit. Under Friedman and partner Wachsberger, the studio has grossed nearly $2 billion at the worldwide box office each of the past four years, including more than $1 billion at the international box office three years in a row, driven by The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Now You See Me films.
A Collaborative Business
Even though he never pursued a career as a marine biologist, Friedman has a Periodic Table of Elements embossed in the top of his coffee table at the headquarters of Lionsgate in Santa Monica. While he doesn’t have use for it, he does have a formula for success.
At Lionsgate, one aspect of that formula is collaboration. “I’m not one of those guys that could lock myself in a room and write a script or paint a painting. It’s just not who I am. But I love hearing ideas from other people and being able to sort of understand where the opportunities are with those ideas,” he says.
In addition to his partnership with Wachsberger, Friedman credits the rest of the Lionsgate team with helping him achieve success. That team includes Lionsgate Chief Executive Officer Jon Feltheimer, Vice Chairman Michael Burns, Chief Brand Officer Tim Palen, and Motion Picture Group Co-President Erik Feig. Friedman is a strong believer in that collaboration and relishes the support he gets from it, so much so, that he argues 2+2 = 7: “I love what I’m doing and I love the people I do it with.”
“I love hearing ideas from other people and being able to sort of understand where the opportunities are with those ideas.”
Another aspect of Friedman’s formula for success is his marketing background. He says he always asks himself a series of questions when he’s first exposed to projects. Who is the audience? Is this a big or small idea? How big is the opportunity? With a competitive zeal, Friedman uses these questions to tackle opportunities in the current marketplace for film.
The Internet, smartphones, and social media have provided new challenges for movie studios, but also new opportunities. “People consume film in a lot of different ways. The eyeballs are growing,” Friedman says, and it’s important for Lionsgate to create movies that will be exciting wherever they are viewed. He fully supports the evolution of Amazon and Netflix, who are both customers and competitors to Lionsgate, saying, “We all cross lines. We might be competitors on one project and partners on another.”
Of the advent of new technology, Friedman says, “Transformative media never ceases to amaze me.” Augmented Reality is a real world media environment like sports scores on television during a match. Virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one, like video games. While it’s an amazing process, Friedman doesn’t want these new technologies to be overpowering the future of the human race.
In China, Friedman sees opportunity. He cites statistics that predict it will be the largest single box office country in the world. Lionsgate works with Chinese investors and distribution partners as part of their filmmaking process. Lionsgate is hoping to eventually expand its GlobalGate consortium, which identifies intellectual property opportunities around the world, to China. As part of the program, the studio already produces and distributes local-language films in markets around
In Pursuit of Philanthropy and Politics
Friedman enjoys the simple pleasures of life. His standing desk at the office, taking his dog for a walk, and kissing his wife before bed. “I’m excited every day. I like to be a problem solver. No lack of problems in our industry or in the world. The fact that my eyes open every morning and I can get up is a good thing,” he says.
Friedman has contributed to a number of groups in Los Angeles. “The more committed we all are to others is I think the only way we are going to continue to survive in this world that is constantly moving faster and faster.”
An early supporter of President Barack Obama, Friedman is now supporting Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton. “I really like what Secretary Clinton has to say. I really like what she stands for. I think it is way overdue that we have a female President.” Friedman is impressed that Clinton has been a public servant since college, investing her entire life in public service. “One of the things I think this country needs is somebody who can maneuver the political morass and get something done. I think she has that ability more than most.”
Friedman believes there are important lessons to be learned in the candidacy of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Clinton’s Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, saying, “The one thing all of us should be learning from this is that the political landscape needs to change. The way that the political process is unfolding has to change.”
“It’s important to listen before you try to guide and direct. Shutting up is a way to improve. We’re in a fast-paced world and listening takes a little time.”
Friedman’s life has come a long way since his days in small town North Carolina, but his hobbies haven’t changed. Friedman enjoys fly fishing, golfing, scuba diving, bodysurfing, and skiing the slopes of a resort near his Idaho vacation home. “You can pretty much put me any place in the outdoors and I’m good.”
But that fear factor hasn’t gone away. It now propels Friedman in a different way. Among other things, he is primarily concerned with providing for his family. “It always drives me. There used to be fear that I couldn’t do that. Giving back to others. Having friends. Being surrounded by people that love you and you love them is critical,” he says.
While his four daughters might think he isn’t paying enough attention, Friedman said listening is the key to his success. “It’s important to listen before you try to guide and direct. Shutting up is a way to improve. We’re in a fast-paced world and listening takes a little time,” he states.
Friedman keeps his goals in sight. “There are issues on the horizon every time. Whether it’s a fundraising event for a charity or a movie that’s opening in three months, there are definitely horizon goals that are out there. Some are tomorrow, some are months away. I think it’s a constant for me,” he says.