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Exclusive Media Exec Tobin Armbrust on Art vs. Science of Indie Filmmaking (Q&A)

Tobin Armbrust - H - 2013

He spoke with THR about closing the deal for "Can a Song Save Your Life?" and disappointment that "Parkland" and "Rush" didn’t do more business.

He may not have a major studio at his disposal, but Tobin Armbrust, 41, quickly has built an impressive production slate for Exclusive Media, the leading independent production, financing and sales company founded in 2008 by Guy East and Nigel Sinclair. Armbrust, who formerly ran Thunder Road with Basil Iwanyk (the two previously worked with Sinclair and East at Intermedia Films), has been with Exclusive from the start.

Armbrust and Exclusive enjoyed early success with George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011) and also oversaw 2012 horror hit The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and the critically acclaimed 2012 cop drama End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Exclusive’s upcoming lineup includes John Carney’s Can a Song Save Your Life?, which snagged the largest deal at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Other projects in the pipeline include the just-wrapped A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, horror pic The Quiet Ones and sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which has just begun production in England.

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Armbrust, the married father of two, recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in his Beverly Hills office to talk about staying up most of the night to close the deal for Can a Song Save Your Life? and his disappointment that Parkland and Rush didn’t do more business.

THR: How did you become involved with Can a Song Save Your Life?

It was coming out of turnaround from Sony and was brought to us by CAA and UTA with Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo attached. We did some work with John [Carney] on the script and took it to the Berlin Film Market. Then, midway through the market, we lost Scarlett. We really believed in the project, so we had to repackage it, which sometimes you are forced to do. We ended up with Keira Knightley, who is fantastic. The movie is amazing.

The film scored the biggest deal at Toronto, with The Weinstein Co. picking up U.S. rights for $7 million, plus a $20 million marketing commitment. What were the negotiations like?

They went until 4 a.m. I was at a postpremiere party with John. It came down to three buyers and they were all making their pitches to John. We wanted him to have a big say in it. We were in alleyways talking to different agents. These were all multimillion-dollar offers with really compelling marketing pitches. In the end, we wanted to go in this direction. No one in their 40s should stay up all night. … It’s like drinking more than three beers. (Laughs.)

When will Weinstein release the film in theaters?

Probably towards the end of next year.

Will it be an awards contender?

I think that there are parts of it that absolutely are.

Parkland, the ensemble drama about the day John F. Kennedy was shot, bombed at the box office this fall. What happened?

We’re not disappointed in the sense that we’re proud of the movie. You have to do your best and make the films you want to make for the right price. Parkland is a really finely made movie. It’s an adult movie about something and it breaks a lot of rules, including being an ensemble film. But that’s what makes it interesting. It doesn’t have one giant, big movie star. It was definitely a marketing challenge.

How much were you involved in Formula One drama Rush?

Very. We came onboard because we have a relationship with Brian Oliver at Cross Creek Pictures. The heavens opened up and Ron Howard came aboard to direct. This was one of the biggest movies we have ever done, and I am proud of the fact that we made it for a price that no one can imagine [$50 million]. As borne out from the test scores and the reviews, it’s a widely admired film.

Is it frustrating that it really didn’t catch on in North America, where it has grossed $26.6 million?

It’s done better overseas, with north of $70 million to date. Yes, incredibly frustrating. But again, that’s what I was saying. You can make a good movie and it still doesn’t work. There are obvious reasons why it didn’t connect in the U.S. It’s about Formula One racing, for one. It also got swallowed up because it opened between Prisoners and Gravity, both of which did really well with adult audiences.

The Woman in Black was a sleeper hit, grossing more than $127 million worldwide and becoming the top-grossing horror film of all time in the U.K. What was the most surprising thing about working with Daniel Radcliffe?

Sometimes you meet an actor and they are a total asshole. This guy is the antithesis of that. He might just be the sweetest person on the planet. On the face of it, this wasn’t a role you thought Harry Potter could pull off. But Daniel has an amazing depth to him. And the interesting thing about Daniel — leaving aside how famous he is because of Harry Potter — is he will actually say, “I’m working on my craft.” He likes to challenge himself, because I think he sees himself as someone who’s developing into a better and better actor each time out. Who else says that? What other famous actor would say that?

George Clooney doesn’t say that?

I think George probably has perfected his craft. (Laughs.)

What was the biggest surprise about working with Clooney?

There were two. He and Grant [Heslov], his producing partner, were definitely open to notes and ideas, which surprised me, frankly. The other thing is, they know how to make a movie. They came in under budget and even finished early. They have it down to a science. I respect that, especially in the independent space where you are always fighting about money and the length of the shoot. It becomes a conflict of art versus science, and you get into these battles you don’t really want to be in. I’d rather make every decision based on art, but you can’t. They seem to understand that. They don’t price things the wrong way, they don’t fire their crew, they stick with their team and they are very loyal. I was surprised by how tight of an operation they had.