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Over the years, Matt Brodlie and Jonathan Kier have racked up the frequent flyer miles.
Brodlie, as senior vp of international content for Disney+ helped build a development slate of series for the streamer across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America. Before that, Brodlie managed the local-language film department at Paramount Vantage, oversaw local-language production in Spain, France and Italy for Sony, and, at the start of his career, snatched up non-English-language titles, such as Hero, Amélie and City Of God for U.S. release by Miramax.
Kier has been on the other side of the business, selling mostly English-language films to the world. First overseeing the international roll-out of such films as The King’s Speech, The Reader, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Alex Aja’s Piranha 3D for The Weinstein Company and Dimension, then at Sierra/Affinity where he ran worldwide sales and distribution of such high-profile titles as Oscar-winners Spotlight, I, Tonya, Whiplash and Manchester by the Sea.
Long-time fans of foreign cinema — “one of the reasons both Jonathan and I got into this business was by seeing foreign films when we were teenagers” says Brodlie — the pair have now decided to turn their passion into a business. Ahead of this year’s American Film Market, they launched Upgrade Productions, a L.A.-based production and sales company that will focus on making non-English-language films and TV series for a global audience.
The timing is opportune. The global expansion of streaming services is driving a boom in demand for local-language content worldwide. Call it the “Squid Game effect.” On the theatrical side, homegrown films, whether German, Japanese, Korean, Danish or Chinese, are often out-performing U.S. imports.
Upgrade Productions has the backing of German powerhouse Constantin Film (Resident Evil, Downfall), which has come on board as an equity investor and strategic partner, and Canadian production and financing group Bron (Joker, Candyman), which will work with the company on the sales side of the business. On Monday, Upgrade Productions and Bron set up the joint venture Bron Releasing, appointing Kier president of sales, marketing and distribution. The division will oversee sales activities for Bron’s feature slate, the Upgrade Productions film and TV titles as well as third-party content.
Upgrade is bulking up its C-suite, adding former Sierra Affinity executive Max Kondziolka as manager of international sales and production and Clara Bartlett, an ex-Netflix and Disney+ executive, as content manager.
Brodlie and Kier spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Upgrade’s AFM debut to explain why now is the time to move into international production and where they see untapped potential in the global market.
First, let me ask about the name of your company. Do you see this as a strategic upgrade on production and sales operations out there or more a personal one, upgrading to becoming your own bosses?
Matt Brodlie It’s an upgrade on both counts. We both we’ve been working in this corner of the business for quite some time, now, the international and non-English-language film and series business. It used to be a small corner of Hollywood but now it’s become center stage with the success of many different non-English language series and films and with the advent of all these new buyers, the new streaming companies, as well as the with traditional theatrical buyers and traditional broadcasters who are clamoring for really high-quality local-language content.
Jonathan Kier Basically, we were talking towards the end of last year about an expansion into this space. We’ve always been interested in it so it just felt like the right time.
Where did the name Upgrade come from?
Kier Well, this is an upgrade for us, we’re excited to start this company together with our team. But the name really came from our favorite thing that happens when you travel. When you’re given your boarding pass, and they say: “Oh no sir, you’re getting an upgrade!” It’s a word that always puts a smile on our face and probably on everyone else’s. Maybe we should have picked the name Executive Business Lounge.
International and non-English-language productions are going to be your focus. Are you looking at specific languages, specific territories?
Kier We are. I mean, we’ve kind of been overwhelmed by the response to the idea and the company. In a good way. The more interesting angle is seeing what works in the different language groups. Ideally, we’d like to be working everywhere. That’s where we see ourselves heading. We’ll be talking about more specific projects soon. But to give you an idea: we have two series in Japan, a film that just wrapped in Latin America. We have a series and separate film projects in Poland, one in France.
What was really important for us was to work with producers we know. Before we officially launched the company we had been making discreet calls to the people we’ve known and worked with over the years. But we’ve been getting submissions from everywhere.
Will you be producers or co-producers on all the projects you’re involved with or will you be acting as a sales company only for certain productions?
Kier There are going to be different setups for different projects. I hate the word opportunistic, but the structure will depend on the project. Some will come fully baked and lend themselves to us coming on board in more of an executive producer role. Some projects will need development, and we have development funds. We’ll do financing, developing and producing. I hesitate to say anything we aren’t going to do because the moment I say it, that’s what we’ll end up doing. It’s really going to depend on the project and the partners.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities at the moment?
Kier That’s a very good question. Right now, our first slate is shaping up to be about 70 to 75 percent series and the rest feature films. That has more to do with the projects that we’ve seen, and to a certain extent, the demand from the buyers and the audience. In terms of territorial opportunities, we really see Poland and Eastern Europe as an opportunity. Japan and Latin America. By March, Latin America going to have something like seven global streamers operating there.
We should be very clear though that the streamers are not going to be our only buyers. Not by any stretch, because the broadcasters that we’ve spoken to are also quite hungry for content. We will work with them. We’ll be working with different kinds of existing and new players.
What size of projects, what size of budgets are we talking about?
Brodlie The films are going to be scaled according to what makes sense for the territory from which they’re coming. That’s fairly standard. On the film front, we have the ability to not only just go to a streamer directly but to put together a traditional theatrical release, which means pre-sales are possible if the project makes sense.
There will be a sales component to Upgrade Productions. Given Jonathan’s history — he knows every single theatrical buyer in the world — we wanted to use that to our advantage. We think this is a great opportunity for us.
Kier I’m sure you’ve seen the numbers too that show that local language films are what’s lighting up the box office around the world. Matt and I come from complementary backgrounds. I’ve been a seller for my whole career and Matt’s been a buyer. Matt’s been bringing a lot of non-English films into the United States and I’ve been selling primarily English-language titles overseas. We’ve both been noticing that the big hits you see in territories worldwide are more and more local-language films.
Brodlie When it comes to financing, every project is going to be different. There are some projects where we are jumping into development right from the beginning. We are working with a local producer to develop the book, like with one of the producers in Japan, where we are co-financing the development and we’ll help decide if it makes sense to sell this to a streamer or studio or should we get Jonathan to do some pre-sales on this and try to get some of the budget that way
Some projects are coming to us with a broadcaster already involved or with somebody else already involved. Every project is going to be financially constructed a little bit differently. But having a sales component to the company gives us more options. We don’t have to go out and sell the whole thing right away to a buyer.
Constantin Film is an equity investor in Upgrade. How did that partnership come about and what will their role be?
Brodlie It came about pretty naturally because I’ve done two movies with them: one at Netflix (Jonas Akerlund’s Polar) and Jonathan has been selling to them for years. So we know them quite well.
Kier They were one of the first [companies] we’ve talked to because we know they really understand this business. And they got it immediately. Aside from any financial arrangement, this is a real strategic partnership with Constantin. They have a lot of projects that they want us to look at, and possibly come on board. We have a lot of projects we’d like to bring to them. They have great resources across Europe, as well as in Los Angeles. So it is a really good fit strategically.
And they got the idea behind Upgrade Productions right away. They’ve been very active in this space over the years. They have their really big German-language films and series, as well a reality-TV business, and they have been working for decades in English and other languages. They get the international scope of what we’re trying to do.
What about Bron? What will their involvement be with Upgrade?
Kier Well the easiest way to describe it is we will set up a joint venture with them specifically related to feature and documentary sales. A lot of the infrastructure is going to be housed with them, and the sales component will be housed with us. It’s really that simple. There are certain logistical advantages to doing this but Bron is also just a great partner for us. They’ve made some great features and TV series over the last few years, so we’re excited to work with them on those, and we think the partnership will be a great tool to use to take Upgrade-generated projects and go out and sell them in the marketplace.
Will all your projects be non-English language?
Kier Well, again, as soon as I say we won’t do English-language projects, we’ll end up announcing an English-language project. To the extent that English is spoken in the U.K., Canada and Australia, it will be part of our purview as “local-language.” What we are, what our goal is, is to do local language, to work primarily overseas, outside the U.S..
Brodlie That’s our area of expertise, those are our contacts and our taste generally has been with non-English-speaking content. It’s just what’s interesting to us. In terms of being a producer in Hollywood, there are many, many, many producers in Hollywood doing English-language productions. We think there is an interesting opportunity out there, with all this local-language content emerging front-and-center in the business right now.
Kier If you take the view from 30,000 feet or what, 11,000 meters, or whatever, what we are seeing isn’t just the overwhelming success recently of local-language content but a real openness and desire to see authentically-situated stories. It isn’t enough to have a true story, people want an authentic story. They don’t necessarily want to see American actors doing accents. The so-called language barrier is not a barrier anymore.
Brodlie One of the reasons both Jonathan and I got into this business was by seeing foreign films when we were teenagers. It’s a personal thing with us. That’s why I sought out Miramax and became an assistant there. I think a lot of what we are putting into development now reflects aspects of our personal tastes. But we are not intending to be an arthouse company. We think there are a lot of great filmmakers and a lot of great stories out there that can be told well. But they can be thrillers, they can be genre movies.
What about co-productions, cross-border projects?
Kier If they make sense, absolutely. But they have to feel organic to the story. You have to be careful. I only just heard this expression “Euro Pudding” [referring to a clunky pan-European film or series] and that’s definitely not what we want to do.
Brodlie “Euro Pudding” denotes something that is trying to be everything to everyone, and therefore, is set nowhere in particular. Upgrade Productions will be about making authentically-situated stories that people around the world want to see.
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