Lionsgate Proved To Be A Hard Sell When It Came To John Wick

With "John Wick: Chapter 4" smashing franchise box office records, the "John Wick" saga has completed its transformation from B-movie experiment to reliable blockbuster IP. But the journey hasn't been all that easy. In fact, establishing John Wick as an action hero was, at times, almost as much of an ordeal as the hitman-for-hire's blood-drenched quest for revenge.

Basil Iwanyk, producer and founder of Thunder Road Films, the company behind the "John Wick" movies, bought the original "John Wick" script from writer Derek Kolstad, before sending it over to Keanu Reeves. And as it turned out, Reeves was eager to play what he saw as a "full-blooded" role, with the star recalling how he initially made some notes on the script before suggesting his former stunt double from "The Matrix" Chad Stahelski and his business partner David Leitch as directors. The pair met with Iwanyk and the rest was action movie history ... kind of.

Even after assembling the all-star team that would eventually catapult "John Wick" into blockbuster franchise territory, things wouldn't necessarily be easy for Iwanyk. That was mainly because Thunder Road was financing the whole thing without the involvement of a major studio. And before John Wick could rampage across big screens around the world, someone had to buy the movie, which proved to be a challenge even Baba Yaga himself struggled to overcome.

John Wick almost never made it to the big screen

In an interview with Mulderville USA for "John Wick: Chapter 4," Basil Iwanyk reflected on the success of the first movie:

"It was a reminder to the audience of why Keanu is such a great movie star and a great action star. And people fell in love with him again, a whole new generation did. And it also coincided with all these 'Keanu's a great guy' memes and stories [...] so people were rooting for Keanu and they were rooting for John Wick."

That makes it sound like everything came together without a hitch. But in an interview with IndieWire Iwanyk recalled the difficulty he had in selling "John Wick" after it was shot. As the producer remembered it, he "screened [the film] for every studio in town," and every studio passed on it — a crazy revelation considering how successful the movies turned out to be.

Luckily, one studio said yes: Lionsgate. The company that recently announced that it's developing a fifth "John Wick" film apparently "genuinely loved the movie," back when Iwanyk was making the rounds with his self-financed actioner. And according to the producer, the company had another reason for backing "John Wick" as a wide release in the US:

"Lionsgate sold the foreign. In order to hold the foreign deals, there was a minimal screen commitment in the domestic distribution. A lot of the incentive for Lionsgate to release the movie was to keep the foreign deals."

That basically means Lionsgate made some money by selling the rights to distribute "John Wick" in foreign markets. But in order to keep those deals in place, the company had to give the film a fairly wide release in the States. Which it did, ultimately giving rise to the franchise that emerged.

'We thought we failed'

When "John Wick" debuted back in 2014, things weren't looking all that great. Keanu Reeves was coming off one of his biggest flops with 2013's "47 Ronin" and "John Wick," with its B-movie premise and relatively small budget, didn't seem like the movie that was going to re-establish his standing as an action movie star. Even Basil Iwanyk wasn't all that optimistic after finishing the movie, especially after every studio turned him down. As he recalled it, "We actually thought we failed. It wasn't the movie we thought it would be. The proof of concept was Keanu as a continuing action star, but the market spoke, and it said no."

But as it happened, all Iwanyk needed was one "yes," and he got it from Lionsgate. And while that "yes" may have stemmed from a desire to maintain foreign distribution deals, things certainly worked out for the studio, as the action movie triumph that was "John Wick: Chapter 4" proved. This is remarkable considering Iwanyk's comment that he, "never went into it thinking there would be a sequel."

With a fifth movie in early development and two spin-offs on the way, there'll be plenty more Wick-related media flooding our culture in the coming months and years. This could either take the franchise to even greater heights, or much like the current issues with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, prove to be the downfall of Baba Yaga. Even if it does, there's no doubt he'll have had one hell of a run.