XYZ Films Co-Founders Talk Benefits of Netflix, Ignorance and Nontraditional Hires (Q&A)

Brian Guido
From left: Nick Spicer, Nate Bolotin and Aram Tertzakian

Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer and Aram Tertzakian are selling Gareth Evans' latest 'Apostle' with Dan Stevens and the graphic-novel adaptation 'I Kill Giants' starring Zoe Saldana and Imogen Poots.

Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer and Aram Tertzakian were just wide-eyed UCLA grad-school students when they first met, and, after spending a couple years working independently, they launched their own production and sales banner, XYZ Films, when they were all just 25 years old.

The company, founded in 2008, had its first success with the 2011 Indonesian martial arts action movie The Raid, directed by Gareth Evans. "It was an outside-the-box film that nobody really saw coming," says Tertzakian.

The outfit, which moved into its sleek Culver City offices two years ago, has carved out a name for itself by making projects with rising directors with global appeal. Among its recent hits are Karyn Kusama’s buzzy horror-thriller The Invitation and Sundance breakout Under the Shadow.

Selling at AFM, they’ve got Baltasar Kormakur’s thriller The Oath and Anders Walter’s graphic-novel adaptation I Kill Giants, starring Zoe Saldana and Imogen Poots. Plus, they’re reteaming with Evans on his latest, Apostle, which will star Dan Stevens.

While managing their own tasks at the outfit (Tertzakian focuses on development and content, Bolotin runs sales and distribution, and Spicer heads company business and project finance), the trio, now all 34, oversee a staff of 14 in their dog-friendly offices.

Why did the three of you think you could start your own company at 25?

NICK SPICER I would say one huge part was ignorance. We had no idea how difficult it was to make a movie or be a production company. I think we just had an independent spirit. We were young enough to feel as if we could take a risk without being so far down the line in our careers that it would have been a make or break. We felt like we might as well give it our best shot and see if we could do it on our own.

Your staff is relatively young too. How does that shape XYZ’s culture? And is it ever a hindrance?

SPICER We have very few traditional hires. We have a lot of people who started as interns who we trained and who worked with us from the time they graduated school, and we have people that came from outside the industry. So, a lot of them we just pulled from different places in our lives. The nice part about that is it feels more like a family and it feels as if everybody is truly an individual working for the same cause.

Sure, the downside to that is as nontraditional hires, people aren’t coming in with a built-in set of relationships or network, but we get to invent our own way of doing things. This is such a crazy time in the entertainment business, where all the old rules are not really applicable anymore, and so you have to go do it your own way.

ARAM TERTZAKIAN The film landscape and the consumption styles are changing so much, and because we are younger, our habits of how we watch movies and TV are a lot closer to that of the next generation. We aren’t tied to a certain model that may not be around in a few years. We are doing a lot more with Netflix than a lot of other companies out there, and it’s because we watch Netflix.

How are the streaming giants affecting your business?

SPICER It affects everything. One of the things that we talk about a lot is that we are still financing movies on a traditional and kind of antiquated basis. The traditional model of presales and soft money and equity against the U.S. piece has been around for decades. We still do it and this is how we greenlight most of our movies, but it’s not really well-designed for the newer modes of distribution. We are constantly thinking and discussing how we break that model and do it in a new way that’s going to be more efficient and more effective.

Does that mean foreign sales markets are losing their value?

TERTZAKIAN One of our biggest moments as a business was getting into foreign sales; it took us from just being a production company to becoming a production company that could finance its own projects. But it’s getting tougher and tougher in the foreign market. I think we’re well-positioned because there is so much noise out there. There are so many people trying to compete to do the same old thing with the same old talent. Having fresh voices stands out.

What’s your strategy when you’re told no or have trouble getting a riskier project off the ground?

SPICER You can’t accept the no, but you also just can’t go asking more people. You’ve got to modify what you are doing. We’re really fortunate in that the filmmakers who we have worked with also have been really flexible — if you think a movie is $10 million, you have to be open to making it for $5 million, and that means making adjustments to the movie you set out to make. But the restrictions that you end up with also are a great way to flex creative muscle.

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