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Cannes: Sierra/Affinity CEO Nick Meyer on 'Ender's Game' and Jon Stewart’s Directorial Debut (Q&A)

Cannes BIZ Exec Suite Nick Meyer - H 2013

The former studio exec hits the Croisette with Jake Gyllenhaal’s "Nightcrawler" and a fluency in international film (and five languages).

Growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y., Nick Meyer was half film geek, half hard-driven jock. He’s still fiercely competitive, which might explain why he’s in such a good mood these days. Sierra/Affinity, the L.A.-based venture he runs with Marc Schaberg, has emerged as one of the top financing, production and international sales outfits in only a few years. Sierra has formidable investors in Gigi Pritzker’s OddLot Entertainment (Pritzker’s family owns Hyatt hotels), Michel Litvak’s Bold Films and Incentive Filmed Entertainment and is the exclusive international sales agent for all three, plus Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. This gives the company a direct pipeline to plum projects like critical darling Drive and current indie hit The Place Beyond the Pines, both of which did substantial business overseas. Sierra co-sells some projects with Lakeshore and handles numerous third-party titles.

At this year’s Cannes Film Market, Meyer’s team will be pitching foreign distributors on high-profile projects including Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. On the eve of Cannes, Meyer, 44, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children, sat down with THR to talk about what’s ahead for Sierra — think Ender’s Game, the adaptation of the Orson Scott Card novel starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford — and why he likes working outside of the studio system.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get into the international sales business?

Nick Meyer: It was a combination of who I am culturally — my parents were both Swiss — my interest in other parts of the world and my love of movies. I would venture to say I was the only kid in high school who watched every Lina Wertmuller movie. At the same time, I was the captain of the soccer team. It was odd.

THR: How many times have you been to Cannes?

Meyer: I think it’s around 15 or 16. The first time was when I was studying in Paris for a year and getting my master’s degree through Middlebury College. I decided to write a thesis on independent film distribution in France and I wanted to get a job at the Cannes Film Festival, so I worked as an intern handing out VHS tapes of movie clips to foreign journalists.

THR: After running Lionsgate International, you were co-president of Paramount Vantage. Was it tough striking out on your own after you left Paramount in 2008?

Meyer: Yes. When people look at where we are now, they say, “Wow, that was fast.” It didn’t feel that way. I learned a very valuable lesson in that I thought everything was going to come to me because of every job that I had, and every relationship. It was a rude awakening to find out that unless I had projects that people wanted, it wasn’t going to happen. You have to put yourself on an equal playing field. And that took us longer than we thought.

THR: What was the turning point?

Meyer: Launching Ender’s Game to foreign buyers at Cannes in 2011 was a serious highlight. That same Cannes, we had also started selling The Place Beyond the Pines and Parker. That was a huge moment for the growth of our company. There have been many other successes, including The Call and the upcoming Steve Carell comedy The Way, Way Back. We also jointly sell some titles with Lakeshore, including I, Frankenstein, which opens in January.

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THR: There are high expectations for fall’s YA adaptation Ender’s Game. How did the movie come about?

Meyer: Gigi [Pritzker] was a partner in the company and we talked about how we could help with the foreign piece and arrange financing. OddLot and [director] Gavin Hood had developed an outstanding script, and we created a sizzle reel. We sold out in almost every foreign territory, while Summit struck a domestic deal.

THR: Do you think you can replicate the wild success of Twilight or The Hunger Games? Earlier this year, Beautiful Creatures failed to gain a foothold. 

Meyer:   Ender’s Game is a unique property with a legacy. It’s a book that’s been around for 20 years and it’s back on the New York Times best-seller list. Part of it is the fact that it is required reading in middle schools across the country. I don’t think people realize how well Drive, and now The Place Beyond the Pines, did internationally, where you consulted with foreign distributors on the marketing. Drive grossed $41.1 million overseas, compared with $35 million in the U.S. The Place Beyond the Pines has grossed $33.2 million globally, including nearly $15 million internationally.

THR: Why?

Meyer: While Pines may feel very American, because it’s a saga about fathers and sons in upstate New York, it has a very auteur feel that makes it a great play overseas. And Derek [Cianfrance] is a very well-respected director coming off of Blue Valentine. And there couldn’t be bigger stars than Ryan Gosling [also the star of Drive] and Bradley Cooper.

THR: OddLot is financing Rosewater, which marks Jon Stewart’s directorial debut. The film tells the real-life story of BBC journalist Maziar Bahari. Will you be selling it at Cannes this year?

Meyer: We are introducing the project to select buyers. It is a poignant, personal true story from a great creative team, which includes Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin, Emmy-winning creator Jon Stewart and our partners at OddLot. It’s a true story of family, faith and courage based on the acclaimed best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me. The project is a prestige film with thrills, emotion and tremendous power.

THR: With the international box office exploding, what does it mean for Sierra?

Meyer: The hunt for really good intellectual property is the driver. And rigor. You have to be rigorous and hardworking. And all the knowledge that I’ve been able to gather, all the jobs I’ve had, and all the learning, has given me the tools.

THR: You’re fluent in five languages. What are they?

Meyer: English and I picked up German because my parents spoke it amongst themselves. I learned the rest [French, Italian and Spanish] in high school and college. I just had the ear.

THR: Any plans to learn Chinese?

Meyer: Yes, with all my free time. (Laughs.)