Berlin Q&A: The Garmin Heir Behind Terrence Malick's New Movie

Christina Gandolfo
Ken Kao and Alex Walton

Bold new film financiers Ken Kao — son of billionaire GPS pioneer Min Kao — and Alex Walton, who launched their new company Bloom at Cannes last year, reveal plans for six to eight projects a year as Kao prepares to debut Malick's latest at Berlin.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Matthew McConaughey and Gus Van Sant generated headlines when they turned up beachside at 2014's Cannes Film Festival to plug The Sea of Trees, a $25 million drama they hadn't started shooting. But the real story was behind the scenes, where Ken Kao — son of billionaire GPS pioneer Min Kao — and Alex Walton were using the splashy event to launch Bloom, their new production, financing and sales outfit. The message was clear: The duo has the resources to put together high-caliber indie projects, just like Oracle heiress Megan Ellison has done. Nine months later, Kao, 37, and Walton, 39 — a respected sales agent formerly of Exclusive Media and Paramount Vantage — are settled into their art-filled offices in Beverly Hills with a staff of 10.

Sea of Trees, about a man who travels to a forest in Japan where people go to commit suicide, now is in post, while Shane Black's The Nice Guys — an even more ambitious, $60 million movie starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, to be released by Warner Bros. — is shooting. Teaming with the wry Walton, a married Brit and father of three who grew up near Wimbledon before climbing the indie-film ladder, Kao puts up the money for projects via his Waypoint Entertainment, while Bloom sells and distributes them overseas. The soft-spoken Kao, who splits his time between L.A. and Austin, has financed Terrence Malick's next two projects, including Knight of Cups, which stars Christian Bale and Natalie Portman and makes its world premiere Feb. 8 at the Berlin Film Festival (financed via Waypoint and FilmNation, not Bloom). Walton and Kao sat with THR for their first in-depth interview on plans for six to eight movies a year (comprised of their own films and titles they handle overseas) and how they can spend $60 million on a film.

As two of the few people who can cut a big check, you must get a lot of incoming calls, right?

KAO The cons are easy. A lot of people like to start out the conversation with, "What can you do for me?" or "I have this project; are you interested?" But [while] having the blessing of capital at our disposal opens up a lot of doors … most of the relationships we have that are strong aren't necessarily driven by finances as a conversation starter.

A set piece from Sea of Trees replicating a real sign with a suicide hotline number.

 

Ken, how did you decide to get into the movie business?

KAO I was a lawyer working in the sports industry and high-tech for about seven years and felt like I was shutting off half my brain. It was the recession, and I decided to quit my job and chase my dream, which is to be a creative individual. The first film I ended up producing was Rampart [in 2011], and that one was born from my relationship with WME.

Are you the main financier on Malick's Knight of Cups and his next film?

KAO Yes, I was the only financier on both. The Malick camp is very private. We sat down around the time of The Tree of Life and had a great conversation about life and filmmaking, and it grew into a trusted relationship and partnership that's endured now for over three years.

The movie has been shrouded in secrecy. What exactly is it about?

KAO Christian Bale plays Rick, who is a screenwriter and filmmaker living in California. From the outside, it looks like he has everything. Inside, he's empty in a lot of ways, and this is his journey of figuring out a way to fill the void.

WALTON I'm in.


Swag Walton collected from the Oscar bash for There Will Be Blood, which he handled at Paramount Vantage.

How did Bale and Malick get along?

KAO Bale was very professional. It was a tough time for him because [The Dark Knight Rises] was going on and the whole Aurora, Colo. [shooting] thing. You could see it really frayed him. And he's a total method actor, too. So it's a challenge for him. It's not easy to show up and stare off into the sky for five or six hours of the day.

Knight of Cups began shooting in 2012. Did you have to keep asking Malick when the film would be done?

KAO It's all about calibrating expectations. He was working on a stream-of-consciousness film that he was very frustrated by. So, very early on, I threw out the idea that he was going to deliver the film on time. What I did do was encourage Terry to ask for help. His process is to shoulder most of the load and feel very protective about what he's doing.


"The hat was a gift to me when I first moved to America. My wife wasn't interested in having it in the house," says Walton.

Alex, Exclusive Media imploded a year ago. How did you end up with Ken?

WALTON We first met maybe a year and a half ago. When Exclusive became quite rocky for a variety of reasons, it was a very good opportunity to come back to Ken and say, "Listen, my ambition is to try and set up my own company."

 

 

Your movie Elvis & Nixon, starring Kevin Spacey as the president and Michael Shannon as Presley, tells of the infamous meeting where Elvis asked if he could be an undercover FBI agent. Is it a difficult sell overseas?

WALTON No. You've got two historical characters, and it was an event that actually happened. It's like The Queen, which did huge business around the world. This movie has a lot of soul. When we sent the script to foreign distributors, we included links to Elvis songs.


A gift from cartoonist Jeffrey Brown that is displayed in Kao's office.

How did you get involved with Nice Guys? Not many indie companies would finance a $60 million film.

WALTON It has a real commercial reach that we weren't seeing in other material. I think Shane [Black] started working on the screenplay 10 years ago.

KAO Obviously, [producer] Joel [Silver] had a long, outstanding relationship with Warner Bros. that ended, and he was looking for a new partner. It fit well with our model, in terms of pedigree and appealing to foreign markets. It's a new era for us; it's not just about small independent films anymore. We can take on films of substantially bigger size that are usually released by the studios.

 

 

How many movies a year will Bloom be involved with and at what budgets?

WALTON Six to eight films a year is our general goal. It will probably be a 50-50 mix of films from Waypoint and prestige third-party titles like Elvis & Nixon that we handle overseas.

KAO Generally, I don't think we make decisions on whether to get involved in films based on budget. That being said, I'm proud to say that Bloom is one of the rare places that has the bandwidth and is equipped to produce films of almost any size.


Kao intends to make a movie with Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who gave him this antique film reel.

Do you intend to expand Bloom, or do you intend to remain small?

WALTON We are very comfortable where we are right now. We've deliberately focused on building a team that gives us the capacity to provide first-class sales and distribution services. But we don't have production staff yet, so it would only be natural for that area to start growing.

Ken, how did your father feel about you scrapping being a lawyer to go into the film business?

KAO He thought I was crazy. I said, "I'm doing this, and I don't want you to be asking me every week or every month about whether or not I've made it. I don't know the time frame, I don't know when I'll make it, but I'll know when I get there." He's become my champion.

Jan. 29 at 1 p.m. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Bale's working history with Malick.

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