After 13 years at British sales titan HanWay, of which five were spent in the top seat, Thorsten Schumacher stepped down last summer to take the plunge on his own. His upstart Rocket Science made an immediate impact, opening business with the buzzy Saoirse Ronan-starring On Chesil Beach, which scored stellar reviews in Toronto in September and was quickly snapped up by Bleecker Street. The company now boasts an enviable slate of prestige projects, including The Beach Bum, from Spring Breakers’ Harmony Korine and starring Matthew McConaughey (Neon already has U.S. rights); Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, in which Willem Dafoe will play Vincent van Gogh; and Netflix’s sounds-too-good-to-be-true Michael Jackson stop-motion monkey pic Bubbles, which man of the moment Taika Waititi is co-directing.
Celebrating Rocket Science’s busy first year on the eve of AFM (where it’s opening sales of the Nicole Kidman-starring L.A. cop thriller Destroyer), Schumacher serves up some handy advice for anyone else seeking to launch in an already crowded and hugely competitive marketplace.
What made you decide to go out on your own?
Basically, I was highly motivated and more than ready. If you’re a sales agent, you develop a sixth sense about timing and opportunities, so you know when and where to strike, and I just felt that this was the right time. But I left HanWay the same month of Brexit and when our third child was born, so the stakes were high!
How difficult is it to launch a sales company in today’s crowded market?
To launch any new business is a challenge. And, though we shouldn’t really go down that rabbit hole, to launch any new business in the U.K. right now is a challenge. There are all these changes in the industry — but I find that’s always very exciting. I always look for the opportunity in chaos or disruption. The sales company market is obviously very crowded, but what’s really in demand is good taste and reliability, and if you have the right people on your team and you have the right taste, there’s opportunity.
You seem to have very much the same taste for prestige projects as HanWay. Is there a major difference between the two?
We actually feel it’s quite a departure. I think we’re always looking for a strong script and a strong director, just like everyone else, but we really want to expand more in the U.S. and have a closer relationship with producers there.
So will you be competing with your former company for projects?
I think in today’s world, everybody is competing. We’ll probably compete with everybody and everything. We’re also launching a TV side to the business in spring of next year. But that’ll be less in a sales capacity, more in financing and packaging.
And you’re working with the likes of Number 9 Films, with which HanWay had a long relationship on such films as Carol and Their Finest.
When I talked to people about setting up this business, there were obviously a few producers and agents whom I have worked with in the past and had great relationships with, and they were really supportive.
Any advice for others seeking to set up by themselves?
I guess you have to really figure out the gap in the market you’re going to fill. We’re going to be positioned a lot broader than just a sales company — we’re ready [to get into] financing and development. Our focus is more like an L.A. entity, which I think you have to be. For us, the idea was to start as a sales company, use that as a catalyst because it really allows you to build the brand and reputation quickly, and then expand from there, because the pure sales agency model is probably not competitive anymore.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 4 daily issue at the American Film Market.