Cannes: SquareOne Entertainment Founder on Biopics and the Rise of VOD (Q&A)
Quietly and without much fuss, Al Munteanu, 46, has built his Munich-based distributor, SquareOne Entertainment, into a force to be reckoned with. Once a straight-to-video shop, SquareOne has carved out a space in the crowded European theatrical market with an eclectic mix of broad entertainment (the StreetDance franchise, the British teen sex comedy The InBetweeners) and more high-brow fare (Oscar nominees Philomena and All Is Lost). SquareOne’s upcoming slate ranges from the 1980s-set musical Walking on Sunshine to the Cannes festival opener Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman in the title role (released with distribution partner Universum).
Munteanu, a married father of three and a born-and-bred Bavarian, spoke to THR about the dearth of strong projects coming out of the U.S., the appeal of the biopic and why SquareOne is starting to “throw money” at in-house productions.
What’s the story behind your company name?
I used to run a German film company called New Legend. It was supposed to go public on the Frankfurt stock exchange — then the German market bubble burst, and the company folded. I filed for insolvency [in 2002], used my savings to pay off the bank and there I was — back to “square one.”
What did that experience teach you?
Always trust yourself. New Legend was very much a construct — it was created by the merger of two companies [Munich-based ACC Entertainment and L.A.-based Legend Entertainment]. It grew at lightning speed. I learned that if you do it yourself, build your company brick by brick, then the foundation is solid enough and nothing can overwhelm you. Twelve years later, we have a large library and every movie in it I bought with my own two hands. When you build up a company yourself, you know it extremely well.
You seem to have a lot of biopics in your slate — Grace of Monaco, Yves Saint Laurent and the upcoming Jesse Owens biopic Race.
From a marketing perspective biopics make a lot of sense because they evoke an immediate, positive reaction. With Yves Saint Laurent, Jesse Owens or Alan Turing [Benedict Cumberbatch will play the British mathematician in The Imitation Game], you’ve got a leg up in marketing terms. It’s never a guarantee, but you have, at least, a sort of brand to work with. Also, in Germany the fastest-growing cinemagoing demographic is 50-plus. Biopics appeal to this demo: They are snapshots of history, something that an intelligent audience leans toward.
SquareOne now is moving into production — you are an executive producer on Race. Why this shift?
My last trip to L.A. really brought home to me that there is a real vacuum in great projects out there. Rather than waiting for the projects to come to us, I think we need to assume a more driver’s-seat approach to finding projects, developing projects or taking on an executive producer role, bringing on two or three distributors and pushing things forward. So we’ve begun to option scripts, to develop scripts with partners in the U.K. and the U.S., and to throw money at development.
Our approach is twofold: on the one hand, international productions, and on the other, local German comedies.
We’ve just hired Lars Wiebe, who used to be at film-financing group Millbrook, to be our new head of German productions. We want to ramp up our business where we can do one to two German comedies a year that we will produce and distribute in German-speaking Europe. We are currently looking at four to five remake rights that we have in our portfolio. True to the SquareOne philosophy, we want to build things from the ground up.
Why is there this vacuum in great projects out of the U.S.?
The headline answer is cast. The projects are there and the money is there. But the cast is fickle. They are either holding off to work in the studio field or TV. The world of TV has become a real alternative. If you wanted Matthew McConaughey a year ago, you couldn’t get him; he was blocked for True Detective.
What makes you think you’ll be more successful than the U.S. companies in securing talent for your productions?
Because I have Polaroids of every major star in compromising positions. (Laughs.) We always partner with a lead producer in the U.S. and they are in the same league as the others. Though with our U.K. productions, we are looking to do more concept-driven films where the cast isn’t as important a factor. We got involved early [as a distributor] on StreetDance, Walking on Sunshine and InBetweeners — films which were not reliant on big stars but have a broad appeal.
There have been some major shifts recently in the independent film market — last year with the restructuring at Focus Features and more recently with Nigel Sinclair and Guy East leaving Exclusive Media. Is this the sign of a broader trend?
You can take the Buddhist approach and say everything is cyclical and we’ll all come back as dogs. For every Exclusive Media that goes, another company will come around to take its place. I don’t think the sky is falling. There’s money in the marketplace; movies will get made. And if fewer movies get made, that’s not a bad thing. Everyone in this business has to get more disciplined about what is really a theatrical film that will support a marketing push and what isn’t. In this business, less can be more.
How is the rise of VOD changing your calculations? Until now, Germany, unlike many territories, has had a strong home-video market.
The rise of the electronic media is shifting everything. It’s changed the parameters on the rental market and it will change the parameters on the sell-through market. The cards are being reshuffled as we speak. You can come up with a bunch of algorithms to try and work it out or you can say, “F— it. It’s a good movie and we’ll do it.”