25 Film Finance Insiders Who Can Actually Get Movies Made

6:50 AM 5/10/2019

by Scott Roxborough

Want to make a film not starring an Avenger? These financial superheroes are willing to do the impossible: back smaller projects based on original ideas.

Jamie Coe

For anyone putting money into independent film these days, the question is: How do you compete with the Avengers?

In a global film landscape dominated by tentpoles, the need for risk takers in the indie space has never been greater. "The risk to us if we miss the mark is higher than ever," says Glen Basner of FilmNation. "So we spend more and more time nurturing, curating and evaluating projects to decide what is a proper theatrical film for the current market." The 25 players on THR's annual list of leading indie film financiers each has his or her own strategy for dealing with such high stakes. A few are copying the studios, backing big-budget features — like Men in Black: International or The Joker — for the majors to market and release worldwide. Others act as curators, looking to pick the next Green Book or The Favourite. Many take a portfolio strategy, rolling the dice on a slate of mid-budget features and counting on one big winner to cover the losses of the rest.

All are united in their focus on making the right movie for the right price. As the global market tightens — and even the Chinese box office has been rocky of late — a budget of just $5 million to $10 million can be a questionable proposition. For the projects that have what it takes to stand out from the crowd, these are the folks who can get those movies made.

Ashley Cullins, Mia Galuppo, Natalie Jarvey and Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.

  • Byron Allen

    Chairman and CEO, Entertainment Studios/Freestyle Digital Media

    Michael Bezjian/Getty Images

    After Entertainment Studios' first feature release, the shark thriller 47 Meters Down, became 2017's most successful indie with $44 million domestic, Allen expanded into prestige fare with the Christian Bale Western Hostiles and historical drama Chappaquiddick. The onetime comic and TV host, who built his fortune in television, is moving forward in 2019 with a 47 Meters Down sequel, the surfing documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable and animated feature Arctic Dogs. In addition to his company's own films, Allen's Freestyle Releasing banner provides distribution for licensers with their own P&A, a model that saw the Christian drama God's Not Dead collect more than $60 million at the domestic box office.

  • Gary Barber

    CEO, Spyglass Media Group

    Courtesy of Spyglass Entertainment

    Barber had a busy few months. In March, the former MGM Studios chief's Spyglass Media partnered with Lantern Entertainment, taking control of the film and TV assets that were acquired in the 2018 Weinstein Company bankruptcy, forming Spyglass Media Group. In April, the newly minted outfit secured investment from Warner Bros., as well as a first-look arrangement. "The global marketplace is rapidly evolving with commercially appealing premium content in high demand," notes Barber. The Century City production company just announced a reboot of horror feature Hellraiser with David S. Goyer attached to write and produce. Additionally, Spyglass is heading into Cannes armed with the TWC library and Lantern, Warners, foreign distributor Eagle Pictures and exhibition chain Cineworld Group as investors.

     

     

  • Glen Basner

    CEO, FilmNation

    Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

    For Focus Features and Weinstein Co. veteran Basner, negotiating the rapidly shifting indie film market as a producer-financier, it's all about matching projects to budgets to distribution partners. In recent months, FilmNation inked a $13 million deal with Amazon for Mindy Kaling's Late Night, signed a pact with Warner Bros. for the upcoming sci-fi thriller Reminiscence and delighted international buyers with Three Thousand Years of Longing, Mad Max director George Miller's return to indie filmmaking. "It's not about what budget works — a $50 million film like Reminiscence or an under-$10 million project like [Carey Mulligan-starring thriller] Promising Young Woman each sold well," says Basner. "But it's become a riskier business."

  • Nicolas Chartier

    CEO, Voltage Pictures

    Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

    Nearly 15 years after launching Voltage, with more than 180 films under his belt (including this year's indie success After, which has grossed $50 million to date worldwide), Chartier still doesn't believe in finance plans. "I go with my gut instinct," says the France-born exec, whose backing comes from private investors. "I roll the dice. As long as we still have money, we're going to keep rolling the dice."

  • Jeff Colvin and Adam Korn

    Comerica Bank, Comerica Entertainment Group

    Jeff Colvin, Adam Korn
    Jeff Colvin, Adam Korn
    Chelsea Lauren/WireImage; Courtesy of Subject

    Colvin and Korn head Comerica's Hollywood lending arm, which financed Roland Emmerich's Midway for Stuart Ford's AGC Studios and funds some of the independent film industry's biggest players, including A24 and Avi Lerner's Millennium Films. In 2017, Comerica boosted its relationship with Bold Films (Whiplash, Nightcrawler) to the tune of a $50 million debt facility that would fund four to six films a year for three years.

  • Megan Ellison

    CEO, Annapurna Pictures

    Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

    Annapurna's plans to become a true mini-studio have been downgraded following the underperformance of promising titles such as The Sisters Brothers and animated feature Missing Link, but billionaire Ellison, daughter of Oracle founder Larry, added to Annapurna's awards cred with Regina King's best supporting actress Oscar win for If Beale Street Could Talk.

  • Stuart Ford

    Chairman and CEO, AGC Studios

    Mike Coppola/Getty Images

    A sampling of AGC's projects — Neil Berger's sci-fi thriller Voyagers starring Colin Farrell; Emmerich's Midway and Tate Taylor's noir comedy Breaking News in Yuba County with Allison Janney and Laura Dern — show the breadth of AGC's ambition. Flush with a new $150 million co-financing pact struck with Brit-based Ingenious Media — which will cover 50 percent of equity investments in AGC titles, along with additional debt financing — Ford continues to expand. "There's no budget cap on our projects, it's all about market demand."

  • Neil Forster and Peter Touche

    CEO; senior investment director, Ingenious Media

    Neil Forster, Peter  Touche
    Neil Forster, Peter  Touche
    Courtesy of Subject; Rick Kern/Getty Images

    London-based Ingenious has a track record of more than $10 billion invested in over 200 films, from Avatar and the X-Men franchise to Sundance hit Blinded by the Light. But some of their funds, backed by cash from celebrity investors including David Beckham and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, have been controversial, with lawsuits pending from hundreds of wealthy complainants who allege that the tax relief they were promised never emerged.

  • Dan Friedkin, Micah Green

    Chairman; CEO, 30West

    Dan Friedkin, Micah  Green
    Dan Friedkin, Micah  Green
    Amanda Edwards/WireImage; AP Images

    Karyn Kusama's Destroyer and Peter Hedges' Ben Is Back had disappointing box office performances ($5.6 million and $3.7 million, respectively), but the 2-year-old company, a division of the Friedkin Group, is still ramping up and plans to expand beyond sub-$20 million titles. In addition to owning a majority stake in marketing and distribution company Neon, one of the production companies with which 30West works most closely is Friedkin's Imperative, which will soon begin filming on Martin Scorsese's Leonardo DiCaprio starrer Killers of the Flower Moon.

  • Thomas Garry, Bennett Pozil

    SVP & managing director; executive vp, East West Bank

    Thomas Garry, Bennett  Pozil
    Thomas Garry, Bennett  Pozil
    Ringo Chiu/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Richard Shotwell/Invision for IFTA/AP Images

    East West Bank is known for its work building financial bridges across the Pacific. The team, led by Pozil and Garry, put up capital for Bona Film to invest in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and also backed M. Night Shyamalan's superhero flick Glass. While they've funded projects ranging from $2 million to $100 million for clients including Lionsgate and Perfect World, Garry says the sweet spot is $10 million to $25 million — and because of their bank's lack of bureaucracy they're able to be flexible. "All of these things come with a bag of issues," says Garry. "And it's really just being able to figure out solutions and get the deal done that separates you."

  • Aaron Gilbert, Brenda Gilbert, Jason Cloth

    CEO; president; member of board of directors, Bron Studios

    Aaron Gilbert, Brenda Gilbert, Jay Cloth
    Aaron Gilbert, Brenda Gilbert, Jay Cloth
    Michael Loccisano/Getty Images (2); Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

    Canada's Bron Studios has emerged as the 800-pound gorilla on the indie finance scene. Bron plans to invest at least $750 million in institutional investor cash (most of it from Canadian pension funds) in film and TV in the next 12 to 14 months. In late 2018, Bron signed a $100 million co-financing deal with Warner Bros. for a slate of six films, including the hotly anticipated Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix. Says Cloth: "The only real way to commercialize your film in this current market is to get it into theaters and market it properly, and the studios are still the only ones who can do that at scale."

  • David Glasser

    CEO, 101 Studios

    C Flanigan/FilmMagic

    In January, the former Weinstein Co. exec launched a $300 million indie studio with backing from Ron Burkle, Bob Yari and other investors, with an eye toward releasing four movies in 2019 and six to eight in 2020. "We're looking for those super high-quality, commercial kinds of movies that we know in our DNA how to do," Glasser says, citing TWC projects like Silver Linings Playbook, The Iron Lady and The Butler.

  • Martha Henderson

    Executive vp, City National Bank

    Rich Fury/Getty Images

    Henderson heads City National Bank's entertainment division, which has been lending to Hollywood players for more than 65 years. When it comes to financing films, like 2017's Molly's Game, CNB has seen mid-range projects fall to the wayside. "We see pressure to shorten the theatrical window," Henderson says of other recent trends. "Established entertainment companies seek to diversify their revenue streams and OTT players continue to move aggressively into feature films."

  • Ken Kao

    Partner, Bloom; CEO, Waypoint Entertainment

    Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

    The son of billionaire Garmin co-founder Min Kao had a strong 2018 with Yorgos Lanthimos' $15 million period piece The Favourite, which grossed nearly $96 million worldwide. His influence doesn't stop at financing, however. He also co-founded sales agency Bloom, which is now majority owned by Endeavor Content, and is a partner in a production company with Ryan Gosling. Solstice Studios has acquired the rights to Waypoint's next project, supernatural thriller Possession: A Love Story from Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra.

  • Bryan LaCour

    Head of entertainment finance, MUFG Union Bank

    Thos Robinson/Getty Images for AFM

    The Century City-based moneyman generally targets loans at or above $10 million for projects, which include a growing slate of TV series such as HBO's upcoming His Dark Materials. "Feature film project volume is down, while TV production financing opportunities have grown over the past five years," says LaCour, noting that this sometimes means higher risk for banks. "Lending against unsold TV distribution rights is less proven than film unsold rights lending."

  • Avi Lerner, Jeffrey Greenstein

    Chairman; president, Millennium Films

    Avi Lerner, Jeffrey Greenstein
    Avi Lerner, Jeffrey Greenstein
    JB Lacroix/WireImage; Michael Kovac/WireImage

    Like the heroes of its hugely successful Expendables franchise ($500 million global box office), age has not slowed down this 20-year veteran of the indie film business. Millennium's planned reboot of '80s fantasy actioner Red Sonja is on ice after buyers balked at sexual abuse allegations leveled at director Bryan Singer, but the company is going ahead with high-profile sequels including The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, and Rambo V. "We see ourselves more as engineers than producers," says Millennium president Greenstein. "We know how to build these movies, and financial discipline is in our DNA."

  • Alphonse Lordo

    Managing director, sports and entertainment, SunTrust Robinson Humphrey

    Courtesy of Subject

    Led by Lordo, SunTrust's film and TV division represents clients across the indie space like Legendary, STX and Gary Barber's new Spyglass Media Group, which joined forces with Lantern Entertainment after it bought The Weinstein Company's assets, including Bryan Cranston-Kevin Hart two-hander The Upside. Lordo says SunTrust is highly selective in choosing its partners and focuses more on character than calculus. "We're here to help build enterprises," says Lordo. "If a producer continuously makes high-quality but expensive product that doesn't make money at the box office, that's not a sustainable business model."

  • Vincent Maraval

    Founder, Wild Bunch

    Dominique Charriau/WireImage

    Things looked pretty hairy for Wild Bunch last year, but shortly after Cannes 2018, the Paris-based outfit successfully restructured its debt, sealing a $130 million plan with its creditors. Bullish about the opportunities provided by digital distribution, Maraval sees his biggest challenges closer to home: "France is an anachronistic market where the combination of a declining [pay-TV network] Canal+, the exhibitors' monopoly and the windowing of media is a deadly cocktail for independent distributors."

  • Brian Oliver

    CEO, New Republic

    David Livingston/Getty Images

    Producer Oliver set up New Republic in 2018 after leaving his previous financing firm, Cross Creek Pictures, in 2017. The production company and financier, which invests out of a $150 million fund, will soon lift the curtain on its first release, the Elton John biopic Rocketman, in Cannes. The $40 million film sits in Oliver's sweet spot, which he describes as studio films in the $25 million to $60 million range. "The studios have to be focused on big tentpole franchises," says Oliver, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 for Black Swan. "There's a huge void in the market and a huge opportunity to be the provider of these [mid-budget] movies."

  • Gigi Pritzker

    CEO, MWM

    George Pimentel/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

    The cross-media operation created by billionaire Pritzker (her family created the Hyatt Hotel chain) and former Legendary exec Clint Kisker operates across both film — upcoming projects include the Edward Norton-directed crime drama Motherless Brooklyn, which Warner Bros. is releasing; and the Chadwick Boseman-starrer 21 Bridges and Dave Bautista family vehicle My Spy, both with STX Entertainment — television (Nat Geo's Genius, Netflix's animated series The Dragon Prince) and much more. Pritzker prides herself on MWM's flexibility. "We do film, TV, live theater, podcasts, comic books, all types of content," says Pritzker. "And we're entirely agnostic about when and how we get involved. We are just here at the service of the storytellers."

  • Matthew Rhodes, Judd Payne

    President; head of production & development, Hideaway Entertainment

    Matthew Rhodes, Judd Payne
    Matthew Rhodes, Judd Payne
    Roy Rochlin/Getty Images; Rich Fury/Getty Images

    The Hideaway Entertainment is only entering its second year of operations but has already secured a splashy slate that includes Sony's Men in Black spinoff, International, starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, the Vin Diesel-fronted Bloodshot, an adaptation of the popular Valiant Comics series, and last year’s Mile 22 starring Mark Wahlberg. Both Rhodes and Payne are veterans of independent financing and producing — alumni of Bold Films and Wind Dancer Films, respectively — but their work at The Hideaway shows a bend toward bigger budgets and higher concepts.

  • Thorsten Schumacher

    CEO, Rocket Science

    Steve Schofield/Contour by Getty Images

    Two and a half years since blasting off from his job as head of Brit sales giant HanWay Films to launch bespoke film finance and sales outfit Rocket Science, Schumacher has moved away from handling global sales on the likes of Harmony Korine's The Beach Bum and Aaron Sorkin's upcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7. With money from private investors, he's now focusing on more full-service financing, packaging and production on such upcoming projects as Resistance, starring Jesse Eisenberg, and horror pic The Queen Mary.

  • Jeff Skoll, David Linde

    Founder; CEO, Participant Media

     Jeff Skoll, David Linde
    Jeff Skoll, David Linde

    Participant's socially-conscious approach to film production —ex eBay president (and billionaire) Skoll and former Univeral chairman Linde only back "woke" titles with progressive themes — has proven spectacularly good for the bottom line. Green Book netted Participant its second best picture Oscar in four years (after 2015's Spotlight), and went on to gross some $315 million worldwide. Even its "little" documentary, RGB, on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, earned more than $14 million at the U.S. box office.

  • Molly Smith

    Partner, Black Label Media

    Rich Fury/Getty Images

    Ever since she discovered the Blind Side script while an intern at Alcon, Smith, daughter of FedEx founder Fred Smith, has circled what she calls "commercially viable prestige" projects, such as Sicario and La La Land. In the past year, she and her partners at Black Label Media, Trent and Thad Luckinbill, sold their first movie to Netflix, the teen comedy Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, and released a Sicario sequel.

  • Yu Dong

    Chairman, Bona Film Group

    VCG/VCG via Getty Images

    Since 2017, the free-flowing Chinese cash that once buoyed Hollywood production budgets has been vexingly scarce, as Beijing regulators continue to block most overseas investments. Yu is one of the few Chinese execs still making big moves. With its investment said to be as high as $80 million, Bona is the lead financier of Emmerich's Midway, due out this fall. The company also has stakes in two Brad Pitt movies, Quentin Tarantino's Cannes competition entry Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and James Gray's space adventure Ad Astra. While much of the Chinese industry is hunkering down at home lately, Yu has been pursuing international projects of varying scales to get Bona a bigger piece of the global box office pie.

    This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.