New Films Turns 30
After humble beginnings in Turkey, Nesim Hason has transformed his production-distribution shingle into a major force on the global scene.
In 2008, the global economic recession slammed much of the movie business. But what was a disaster for many independents created an opportunity for New Films International, the L.A.-based production and distribution outfit which has been growing steadily since a predecessor company was launched 30 years ago in Turkey by founder Nesim Hason.
By '08, Hason already had in place long-term output deals for theatrical, television, video and other rights in regions from Eastern Europe to Asia to Latin America that paid off even in hard times. More importantly, he had financed his operations from his profits, so New Films wasn't dependent on outside investors or banks like most competitors.
"I didn't owe any money to anyone," Hason says. "Nobody came knocking on my door, not the banks or anyone else. No one squeezed me out. I survived with my own money. I took it a little easier. I cut all my expenses, but I had all my cash flow."
With that cash, Hason found he could bid on better movies because the studio specialty arms that had driven up prices were backing off. That allowed New Films to accelerate investing in, producing and acquiring independent movies.
"Our strategy is we have consistently acquired cast-driven, director-driven, festival-driven films as well as genre films," says Ron Gell, New Films' chief content officer. "For instance, we had Julianne Moore in her independent film Marie and Bruce and Joan Allen in her indie film Off the Map. We had Michael Keaton in a Michael Hoffman film (2005's Game 6) while he was also doing a studio film. As a result of doing that for 10 years and consistently delivering high-caliber, cast-driven films, we have established output deals all over the world."
New Films has done its own distribution in some territories and made output deals elsewhere with strong partners including Warners in Japan, MGM in Latin America, Nordisk in Scandinavia, Monolith in Poland and Quality Films in Mexico.
The recession also provided an opening for New Films to move into North American distribution. "We saw the obliteration of many U.S. distributors at that time as indies folded, like Miramax, New Line and Paramount Classics," Gell says. "It made sense for us from a business standpoint to get into domestic as they were exiting."
The results of New Films' initial efforts in domestic distribution have been a mixed bag as films like The Lightkeepers and Chain Letter have underperformed but planted its flag. Now Hason has plans for future growth: He expects to release seven or eight movies annually, beginning in 2012. His next domestic release will be Saving Grace B. Jones in September. The thriller, which stars Tatum O'Neal and Michael Biehn, is the directing debut of singer-actress Connie Stevens.
"Nesim is very fresh and insightful in developing new business strategies for new trends to complement the strong classical-business instincts," says veteran sales executive Peter Elson, a consultant to New Films last year. "He often rejects the tried-and-true methods as he tries to reinvent film marketing and distribution to create a solid and viable independent theatrical alternative."
More importantly, Hason says, he makes money on every movie through output deals and foreign sales -- even if it takes a while, as with Chain Letter. Hason says on the 3,000-plus movies to which New Films owns all or some rights, his typical return is 50 percent-300 percent. "There are no movies where I am not going to get my money back," he says.
Says veteran producer Straw Weisman, now a production executive at New Films: "Nesim is smart, aggressive and charming all at the same time. He's a really good judge of productions he believes can make money."
Hason, who turned 49 in January, began his career in Istanbul at 13 selling audiotapes, mostly of music mixes. By age 14, he was a DJ in clubs throughout Turkey. After dropping out of school at 17, Hason began selling videotapes of music, movies and documentaries. When he was 18, a company he worked with sent him to Belgium (on his first plane trip) to sell tapes internationally.
In 1980, Hason, then 18, shrewdly worked with the Turkish government to pass laws initiating copyright enforcement, which allowed for deals with international distributors. That was when he founded his own company.
By 1989, Hason controlled 42% of Turkey's video market. International distributors including Warners and Columbia approached him to sell in other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, where there was a problem because of a lack of copyright laws -- and in getting paid.
Hason would buy movies for, say, $1,000 a title, then resell them to TV stations in Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia and elsewhere for flat fees of $100 or more.
As communism was replaced by capitalism, prices soared to $1,000 or more -- though Hason often had to be clever about how to get his money out. Sometimes he was paid in local currency and other times through barter deals. On one occasion, he was promised payment in caviar.
By 1995, Hason's business had grown, but so had the paperwork in Turkey. So he moved to New York, and New Films International was born.
During the mid-1990s, there was an explosion of private international TV channels, which increased competition and drove prices up significantly.
In 2000, Hason expanded into Latin America, where he again bought rights for the entire region on a long-term basis. As the market matured, he was able to charge more for movies he already owned.
By 2001, Hason decided it was time to move to Los Angeles to enter production. "I wanted to be the producer so instead of paying $1 million a title, I could pay a little more but own many more rights," Hason says.
These days, New Films can be found at nearly 20 markets a year, from Cannes and AFM to regional gatherings in Asia and Latin America. Hason invests in a half-dozen movies a year and picks up another four to eight titles annually for international sales. He is also expanding into new media.
His goal not only is to expand in distribution but also to move into more production. He is looking to buy or build a studio where he can do business his way -- smartly but inexpensively.
As means of electronic distribution grow, New Films intends to meet the demand for more and better movies. Says Hason: "We know owning content will be the most important thing, which
is why we will continue to make and release more and more movies."
CASTING TRICKS: Placing international stars in key roles boots New Films' global sales
When New Films International became an investor and partner in the 2007 crime thriller Living & Dying, which starred Edward Furlong and Michael Madsen, there was something Nesim Hason wanted aside from an executive producer credit and certain territorial rights. He also asked for changes in the casting of some characters.
Those changes were anything but minor for New Films. By having China's Bai Ling in a key role, as well as Turkish actress-model Deniz Akkaya and Monica Barladeanu of Romania in smaller roles, the company was able to greatly enhance the film's prospects for sale and the price it got for rights in those three territories.
"So when I go to those territories, the usual $5,000 that distributors there paid became $50,000 because of those changes," Hason says.
New Films has continued that practice on every movie in which it becomes an investor -- even when the film already has been shot, in some cases. For instance, on an upcoming genre movie titled Trophy, the company agreed to pay for five additional days of shooting to improve the low-budget picture -- but only if several roles were recast to include more international actors.
"We've been doing that for 10 years," says Ron Gell, New Films' chief content officer, noting that it is invisible to U.S. audiences. "We do that on all films we produce, and it is unique. It's something that has been very successful for us."