Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

March 20, 2018

Interview with Blockers Producer Chris Fenton ’93

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Blockers, starring Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz and John Cena, is showing at Cornell Cinema tonight at 9pm for an exclusive prescreening. The film, a comedy about a group of parents who try to stop their daughters from having sex on prom night, premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival earlier this month and “did extremely well down there in front of a really enthusiastic audience,” according to producer Chris Fenton ‘93, a Cornell alumnus. In advance of his movie being screened on his alma mater’s campus, I had the pleasure of talking to Fenton about Blockers, his time at Cornell and his career as a whole:

 

The Sun: Is there anything about Blockers that you think works particularly well with a college audience?

CF: Well it’s a rated-R comedy, and rated-R comedies aren’t made as much as they used to be, so it’s exciting to have one that actually seems to be resonating and testing well with audiences, and in particular this movie has two generations that it focuses on. One is our parents that are essentially my age, mid 40s, and then the kids in the movie, who I think really steal the show, are high school age.

The greatest part about this movie is that we were really smart, and it wasn’t my decision, it was more Seth Rogen and a handful of others at the studio who came up with this brilliant idea of having Kay Cannon from the Pitch Perfect movies direct it, because what she did was bring a really strong female voice to what could have been more of a male-slanted comedy in regards to a bunch of parents wanting to keep their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night. But what she does is bring a really nice emotional touch to that universal story that helps you identify, whether you’re a man or a woman, to these characters, and see the ridiculousness of the double standard of men losing their virginity versus females, and really makes a film that allows you to see pure equality between both genders, which is something that’s very timely in this day and age.

Sun: What was it like working with Kay in her directorial debut?

CF: She is not only a tremendous talent, but she’s a tremendous person. When she comes on set she just sort of lights it all up. She’s always got a smile on her face and really ready to take the world by storm, and it really makes working with her that much more fun and constructive.

Sun: I’m curious how the movie got started. Who had the idea for it? How did it get off the ground?

CF: The original idea for the movie was generated by two screenwriters, Jim and Brian Kehoe, and the concept was definitely a scary one for studios. Even though people loved the script, no one wanted to pull the trigger on it because they felt maybe it was just a little too controversial.

What was funny is that when we were trying to get a studio or a financier to get on board, I was actually on the playground of my kids’ school. My daughter was in kindergarten and was friends with a studio exec’s daughter, and we both happened to be there, and we were talking about the script and how much he liked it, but all the different reasons why it might be tough to get the movie made, and he and I were watching our daughters and we essentially said, “Holy cow, those girls are gonna be in high school one day, and we might be those dads trying to keep them from losing their virginity,” and then that was sort of that “ah ha” moment when we were like, “Wow, this is a really universal theme and something we can relate to as dads,” and that’s sort of where he decided, “You know, let’s go try to make this movie,” and that was the start of what ended up being a six-year journey.

Sun: Is there anything that changed over the course of that six-year production?

CF: I think the biggest change was Leslie Mann’s role. You know, it was originally three dads trying to protect their daughters, and I think making one of them a really strong female mom role was extremely important because it made a gender universal theme where both males and females will identity with the stage of adulthood that both sons and daughters go through, and how at some point you want to helicopter parent to keep them from getting hurt or heartbroken, and other times you just gotta let them do what they need to do. So putting a strong female role in the mix there, so you have two dads and a mom, I think was super key.

Sun: What’s your favorite aspect of the movie, having seen it?

CF: You know, I always get nervous about hyping laughs, but if I go by South By Southwest, I think there were a variety of laugh out loud scenes where the audience is laughing so hard at the first joke that you can’t hear the second and third follow-up jokes because everybody’s laughing so hard. Those are great moments, although the best moments to me as a mid 40s dad are really the emotional moments between the fathers and daughters that I relate to. I’m a bit of a sap when it comes to movies, so those portions tend to hit me the best.

Courtesy of Variety

Courtesy of Variety

 

Sun: You were an engineering major here at Cornell. How did you end up shifting into the career you have now?

CF: When I graduated school in 1993, the economy was really bad, and I graduated and I didn’t have any job offers, so when I did graduate, the lack of opportunities I had gave me the opportunity to travel the country and spend time in different cities and actually sleep on couches and fraternity houses across the country at various schools — I think I hit 60 something colleges over the course of eight months. And a buddy of mine who was a hotelie was working in a hotel in Beverly Hills and he said, “Hey, I got a studio that’s really expensive. Would you be interested in crashing and seeing if you like LA?” and I said, “Yeah, let me check it out.” And I crashed on his couch for a couple days and never left, so that’s how I ended up in LA.

How I ended up in the movie business and the entertainment business was, at the time, it was what they called a recession-proof business, and it was really the only business in all of the LA that was actually doing well and growing, so I got into a basketball league with a bunch of guys who were in the business and I was like, “I gotta get in,” so I got a job as a temp at an agency called the William Morris agency, and then I worked my way from the mailroom and eventually got promoted as an agent.

Sun: So were you not really into film while you were at Cornell?

CF: When I went to high school, that was when the VCR and the VHS tapes really started to come alive, so I would say that the most influential part of my life in watching movies because we just devoured movies from Blockbuster, and then when I got to Cornell it was sort of the opposite. You know, you’re so busy with everything going on. I was a terrible football player for a year, so I had a sport, and then I was actually Army ROTC for a year, so I had that going on, and then I was an engineer, so I had to put a lot of time and effort into that, and then I was in a fraternity, and did all kinds of other stuff, and I didn’t find myself going to the theater all that much.

I saw maybe a handful of films at Cornell Cinema, and then after I graduated I got involved with Cornell on an alumni basis, and then obviously recently we heard about Cornell Cinema having budget issues, and that was something that sort of struck a chord, and then when I heard Blockers was going to play there I said, “Hey, I’d love to do whatever you guys want to make sure we take advantage of the fact that you have a Cornell alum produce the movie that’s playing there,” so we did a little intro on video that’s going to play today.

The bottom line is Cornell Cinema is an institution that I think really needs to be protected, and the few times that I actually went to films I was really appreciative of having it on campus, because you’re in upstate New York and sometimes you don’t get that kind of access, and now Cornell has various film programs and classes, so I think it just makes it that much more important.

Sun: I’m curious, since you recently ended your position at DMG Entertainment, what influenced that decision, and what do you see as the next step of your career?

CF: Well, you know, I was there 17 years, and I did a lot of really interesting and historic stuff between the U.S. and China when it came to the film business, but you do get an itching to want to try something different. So I’m still going to be very involved with the media and entertainment space, particularly movies, but maybe involved with helping other countries grow their film industries.

Sun: I did see a news article that you are in discussions to head a film initiative in Saudi Arabia. What interests you about that project?

CF: Yeah, there is a lot to be figured out with that. But what’s really interesting about that opportunity is that what Saudi Arabia wants to do is sort of akin to what we accomplished between the U.S. and China. It’s a twofold agenda where Saudi Arabia wants to create their own strong film industry infrastructure and abilities and talent to become excellent in that region of the world when it comes to filmmaking, and at the same time they want to learn that process and understand it at a big international level from Hollywood. So to me that was super exciting, because we did it with China, and I think Saudi Arabia is just as vibrant.

Sun: Do you have anything else to say to potential audiences of Blockers?

CF: I would just say I hope Cornellians enjoy the movie, and I’ve been involved with a lot of flops over the years, and I’ve been involved with a few successes, but this one I feel pretty good about. And I just want to give a shoutout to all Cornellians and tell them that myself and many, many others really look fondly back at that school and think of how awesome it was to be a part of it. And finally I would like to tell the hockey team to go out and win a national championship for us.

 

Lev Akabas is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lakabas@cornellsun.com.