Jason Janego, '99: Zero Feet from Oscar
By Amy Spooner
March 27, 2014
A white-gloved usher opened the car door and said, "Welcome to the Oscars," as Jason Janego, '99, stepped onto the red carpet. With that began "one of the most amazing 12-hour stretches of my life."
Janego is cofounder and co-president of RADiUS-TWC, the boutique arm of the Weinstein Company that is the first studio division dedicated to both multi-platform video on demand (VOD) and theatrical distribution. In February, its film 20 Feet from Stardom won the Oscar for best documentary (feature).
For Janego, the win and his subsequent ability to crash the infamous Vanity Fair post-Oscars party—"Holding an Oscar is the ultimate all-access pass," he noted—was the culmination of a career in the industry that began at the bottom. After graduating from Bucknell University, Janego spent a year in a graduate program in Prague, thinking he might become a professor. Instead, he found that he connected with the filmmakers, writers, and artists who inhabited the city in those years following the collapse of communism. So upon his return to the States, Janego decided to move to Los Angeles. "When you're 22, you just tell yourself to go for it, whether it makes sense or not," he said. But like many who move to L.A. with big dreams, Janego found the reality of working multiple menial jobs disillusioning. He had taken the LSAT in college with no clear idea of what he would ever do with a law degree, but with his career hitting a wall, he decided the time was right to attend Michigan Law.
"So many people come to law school with a plan, and I had no plan whatsoever," he said. "But I knew my time at Michigan would serve me well."
During his 2L summer, Janego interned in the legal department at NBC, and returned after graduation to work on legal issues related to Internet coverage of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He then moved into the music and film industries, eventually landing at Magnolia Pictures and Landmark Theaters as head of business development and legal affairs. His five years with the company provided the chance to work on a wide variety of legal issues—from deals for Magnolia releases like Food Inc. to real estate deals for new and existing theaters. So many things crossed his desk because he was "the lawyer," giving Janego the perfect opportunity to broaden his skills. "It was probably the best learning environment that you could have. There were so many things that were put on my plate that I hadn't had a lot of experience with, but jumping in like that is how you grow."
Janego was working as a consultant when he was contacted by his former Magnolia colleague Tom Quinn, who had been in conversations with Harvey and Bob Weinstein about launching a niche arm of the Weinstein Company. Janego and Quinn thought the opportunity was too good to pass up, and in September 2011, New York-based RADiUS-TWC was born. Their first hit was 2012's Bachelorette, starring Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher. The film grossed an impressive $10 million on VOD and solidified the Weinsteins' confidence in the burgeoning company. Since its inception, RADiUS has released 24 films, had a red-carpet premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival (for Only God Forgives), snagged two Oscar nominations (Cutie and the Boxer also received a best documentary nomination in 2014), and scored 20 Feet from Stardom's win.
With 20 Feet from Stardom, RADiUS also had a mainstream hit. The film grossed $5 million in theaters, which is huge for a documentary. "It is a beautifully constructed film about a compelling subject—background singers—that garnered incredible word-of-mouth from everyone who saw it," Janego said. "That helped us to reach an audience that doesn't normally watch documentaries."
Janego said audiences respond well to documentaries when they see them, but the hard part is getting them to do so—especially when the films are playing at local art houses instead of 20-screen megaplexes. "In this job, I'm always learning something new, whether it's why this trailer did better than that trailer, or this poster worked and that one didn't, or the fact that this service is working better than that one. We're always thinking about the best way to get these really outstanding films in front of a larger audience."
It's a challenge he loves as much as he loves the chance to distribute movies about which he is truly passionate. "The movies that we buy are movies that we want to do," Janego said. "We're able to curate our own slate and decide how best to release them. We are as entrepreneurial as you can be in this industry."
While RADiUS has enjoyed a rapid rise, Janego remembers the past when offering advice to other Hollywood hopefuls. "You really have to want to get in the industry for the right reasons. You also have to accept that there are no guarantees, there are some sacrifices you're probably going to have to make, and it's going to be hard." Walking back down the red carpet with a gold statue in hand, however, just might make it all worthwhile.
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