State College

Penn State alumnus talks making movies under the Hollywood spotlight

The cast of the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” poses for a photo. Penn State alumnus Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films, screened the movie Tuesday at The State Theatre in State College.
The cast of the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” poses for a photo. Penn State alumnus Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films, screened the movie Tuesday at The State Theatre in State College. AP file photo

Tom Ortenberg thought it was important to include that the reporters had won a Pulitzer.

This was, of course, back before director Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” was released to critical acclaim or became the reigning Best Picture winner during last year’s Oscar ceremony.

At this point it was still just a movie — granted one that was based on the best script that Ortenberg had ever read in his career, let alone his tenure as the CEO of Open Road Films.

He envisioned it playing as an investigative thriller, a genre that seemed to be a natural mold for the real-life story of an intrepid team of reporters at the Boston Globe, the same unit that helped to uncover a wide-reaching child molestation scandal within the Catholic Archdiocese.

The film fades to black the morning after the story is published, and before the credits started to roll, Ortenberg wanted to add a quick line of text alluding to the Pulitzer Prize the Spotlight group received for its efforts.

McCarthy argued that this would cut against the spirit of the film.

For backup, Ortenberg turned to “All the President’s Men,” another prestigious picture about crusading journalists.

“Except when I went back and re-watched it, they didn’t do it,” Ortenberg said.

The moral of the story is that it takes a village to raise a movie — but try fitting an entire village onto the stage at The State Theatre.

Ortenberg — a Penn State alumnus, an Oscar-winning executive producer and one of the few people who can begin a story with the words “the first time I met Warren Beatty…” — was on hand Tuesday evening for a post-screening Q&A on “Spotlight.”

This isn’t the first film that Ortenberg has screened at The State Theatre. While an undergraduate at Penn State, he helped to arrange the non-theatrical distribution of movies, such as “Revenge of the Nerds,” on campus.

“It was through those contacts and relationships that I got my first job in the business,” Ortenberg said.

As impressionable youth, he was drawn to films like “Reds” or “Network” — tales of social activism with a touch of grand romance. “Spotlight” certainly fit that bill and so did “Snowden” director Oliver Stone’s take on one of the more controversial figures to step into the American consciousness in the past decade.

The tagline — “Soldier Traitor Spy Hero Hacker Patriot” — adequately sums up the mixed emotions facing the film when in opened in September. Of course, 10 years from now, it could be a completely different story. Pictures may lock, but history evolves.

“I think ‘Snowden’ is a movie with a long shelf-life,” Ortenberg said.

He personally reads about three new scripts a week. Ortenberg is looking for things like marketability, or cast appeal, but more than anything he just wants a compelling reason to keep turning the pages.

Like any other craftsman, he’s looking to build things that last. There’s a bottom line, sure, but there’s a shared tradition and heritage at stake.

“I think one of the great social activities in America is going to movies, seeing a compelling motion picture and talking about it afterward,” Ortenberg said

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

  Comments