Meet the 25 Players Who Can Actually Get an Independent Movie Made

6:30 AM 5/3/2018

by Scott Roxborough

These key financiers, from Megan Ellison to Len Blavatnik to Charles D. King, have the taste, savvy and, most important, the money to say yes to a film project — and really mean it.

Cannes Money Illo_splash - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Stephen Collins

Even before scandal brought down Harvey Weinstein, the days when he ruled the Croisette — and by extension the independent film business — were long gone. The Weinstein Co. chief (and before that, co-founder of Miramax Films) pioneered a business model for buying and selling films that prevailed for decades, largely consisting of offloading foreign rights in presales that would help guarantee bank loans for movies, many driven by a host of stars who had more sway abroad than in North America.

But shifts in the market — the rise of studio-sized franchises; the digital disruption by Netflix and Amazon; the dominance of superhero tentpoles to the exclusion of character-driven dramas; and the collapse of the home entertainment business — all meant that Weinstein's crown had begun to teeter even before he was ejected from the kingdom he once ruled. The models he created "are still around," says Gabrielle Stewart, managing director of British sales outfit HanWay. But they aren't "new and avant-garde."

The kings of Cannes have very different strategies today. Flush with capital from Silicon Valley, China or Abu Dhabi, they're less focused on packaging and more on fully financing projects in-house, less on the individual sale and more on long-term relationships with international distributors. If, not too long ago, they were entirely oriented toward signing a domestic distribution pact, they're now increasingly aware that burgeoning markets — especially China — are fast catching up with the U.S. as a leading source of revenue. But they still see a gap in the indie market, and they're determined to fill it.

What follows is a guide to the top 25 players in the indie finance scene of 2018, people who have the money to back movies they believe in.

  • Glen Basner

    In the decade since former Focus and Weinstein Co. exec Basner struck out on his own, his company has gone from sales agent to well-heeled producer-financier, helped by a recent $120 million investment arranged by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. With credits including ArrivalThe Big Sick and Room, Basner has proved his eye for material, which includes upcoming films such as the Tom Hanks World War II drama Greyhound and Armando Iannucci's The Personal Story of David Copperfield. "The biggest challenge we find is limited availability of high-quality, theatrical content to invest in," says Basner.

  • Len Blavatnik

    Blavatnik has deep pockets, so deep that he's now one of the wealthiest men in the U.K. (and owner of Warner Music Group). He's had hits with I, TonyaHacksaw Ridge and Lee Daniels' The Butler as well as flops like Martin Scorsese's Silence, all financed through his AI Film. But another Blavatnik label, the 2-year-old Access Entertainment, could prove more impactful; in addition to buying into RatPac Entertainment (which recently ended its deal with Warners) and Bad Wolf, Access plans to spend hundreds of millions on film, TV and theater projects, overseen by recent hire Danny Cohen.

  • Nic Crawley

    Veteran Paramount exec Crawley has wasted little time making a name for the finance, production, marketing and distribution company he took over in mid-2017. He quickly acquired the rights to the xXx action franchise, with Vin Diesel back for a fourth outing, and in mid-April pacted with Sony to release up to four H Collective films globally per year. Upcoming projects include an untitled horror-thriller with Elizabeth Banks and writer-director Christopher Cantwell's The Parts You Lose. While H Collective has kept quiet about its financing, it is believed to come from Chinese brothers Kenny and Kent Huang, whose Huahua Media earlier explored a $1 billion investment in Paramount.

  • Megan Ellison

    The Oracle heiress established her company by backing auteurs such as David O. Russell (American Hustle) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread). Last year, Annapurna set up its own domestic distribution apparatus and secured a $350 million credit line, though there've been questions as to whether it can deliver enough hits to make up for flops like Detroit. Upcoming bets: If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins' follow-up to Moonlight; and Adam McKay's Backseat, with Christian Bale as Dick Cheney.

  • David Fenkel and Daniel Katz

    Five-year-old A24 — founded by Guggenheim Partners' Katz with film industry veterans Fenkel and John Hodges (who left this year) — continues its stellar run with art house films such as MoonlightLady Bird and The Florida Project. It's been rumored as an acquisition target by the likes of Apple (which A24 has denied), a sign of how well it has done. Upcoming pictures from the label, which has a $125 million credit line arranged by Bank of America and others (THR's parent company is also an investor), include Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse and the Safdie brothers' Uncut Gems, to star Adam Sandler.

  • Stuart Ford

    In February, former IM Global boss Ford (page 50) unveiled his deep-pocketed production-finance-sales venture, with backing from MediaNet Partners, entrepreneur Greg Clark and Image Nation Abu Dhabi. AGC is looking to fund scripted and nonscripted projects. First offering at Cannes: Film Five (working title), an animated movie from ParaNorman producer Laika. With his own global sales operation, Ford says, "The challenge is successfully navigating a complex global distribution landscape."

  • Neil Forster and Peter Touche

    Since its creation in 1998, Ingenious has plowed more than $10 billion into some 200 films, mixing studio fare such as Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes with indie hits like Brooklyn and Carol — along the way weathering a number of lawsuits about its controversial investment efforts. In addition to funding from some 5,000 investors (ranging from banks to Spice Girl Geri Halliwell), Ingenious recently struck a $200 million pact with China's Hejing Culture. The London outfit may not have a red carpet moment this year, but Judy (its Judy Garland biopic) should make some noise in the Cannes market.

  • Dan Friedkin and Micah Green

    Entrepreneur- producer Friedkin made waves when he gave Ridley Scott $10 million for reshoots on All the Money in the World. That cash came through Imperative Entertainment, which Friedkin founded in 2014 with producer Bradley Thomas. Now the businessman (who heads the Friedkin Group, a consortium with automotive, golf and entertainment interests) has a second label: the year-old 30West, which he founded with Green, formerly head of CAA's finance and sales group. One of 30West's first moves was to snap up I, Tonya; in January it acquired indie distributor Neon. It's currently financing Nisha Ganatra's Late Night, with Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson; Peter Hedges' Ben Is Back, with Julia Roberts; and Karyn Kusama's Destroyer, with Nicole Kidman. Friedkin remains busy at Imperative, with upcoming titles including Killers of the Flower Moon, directed by Martin Scorsese.

  • Rob Friedman and Donald Tang

    When former investment banker Tang acquired indie sales company IM Global and distributor Open Road, he merged them into a new mini-major, Global Road Entertainment, under Friedman. Now Friedman is looking to replicate the commercial magic he found in exec posts at Paramount and Lionsgate (think Twilight and The Hunger Games), and Tang has given him $1 billion to spend on film production over the next three years, aimed to fund some 15 releases per year. Says Friedman: "We are confident in our ability to finance quality content that will resonate not just in the U.S. and China but every corner of the world."

  • Aaron and Brenda Gilbert

    With film, TV and animation divisions, Vancouver-based Bron Studios has surged since its creation in 2010 by former animation exec Aaron L. Gilbert and his wife, Brenda. Backed by Creative Wealth Media, with a $50 million line of credit from Comerica Bank, Bron has produced or financed $300 million worth of movies over the past year alone, with budgets from $12 million to $30 million. The company had four films at Sundance, including Jason Reitman's Tully. Upcoming titles: Fonzo, an Al Capone drama starring Tom Hardy; and the Tom Hanks starrer Greyhound. "The studio's goal is to give the auteur filmmakers it courts commercial clout," says Aaron Gilbert.

  • Wayne Marc Godfrey and Robert Jones

    Four years after Friends star David Schwimmer introduced Godfrey to Jones, the two movie execs joined forces in 2010 to found London-based Fyzz Facility, which has placed some $280 million in films. "We're now probably one of the largest bespoke lenders in the world," says Godfrey, pointing to the 60 titles his company backed in 2017, including Ralph Fiennes' The White Crow and the Daisy Ridley starrer Ophelia. After several years of being primarily in the loan business, Fyzz is now fully financing some of its projects and had a success with the shark thriller 47 Meters Down. In Cannes, it will have the market title The Last Thing He Wanted from Mudbound director Dee Rees.

  • Edward Hamm Jr., Raymond Mansfield and Sean McKittrick

    Since Hamm and McKittrick left Darko Entertainment to form QC Entertainment (teaming with Mansfield), they've moved further along the path of producing films by artists with original voices. That was their goal in developing Get Out with Jordan Peele, who won an Oscar for his script. The QC partners aim to follow this vision in movies such as Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman; Ike Barinholtz's satirical thriller The Oath, about a man who must make it through Thanksgiving; and Ellen Burstyn's feature directing debut, Bathing Flo.

  • Ken Kao

    Kao was a lawyer working in sports and high tech when he left both to become a producer and film financier, forming Waypoint in 2010. The son of billionaire Min Kao, he has since collaborated with some of Hollywood's biggest names, co-financing Silence and fully backing the $60 million Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling (Kao's partner in the production company Arcana, whose first film is The Favourite). Silence and Nice Guys both lost substantial sums, as did the $25 million Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey, which was financed in part by sales handled by Bloom, a company Kao created in 2014 with veteran exec Alex Walton. (WME-IMG is now its majority stakeholder.) More recent Waypoint movies include Hostiles, while its upcoming slate includes Mid '90s.

  • Andrew Karpen

    The 4-year-old distribution company headed by former Focus Features CEO Karpen (with backing from 5-Hour Energy drink founder Manoj Bhargava) may still be waiting for that massive breakout hit, but it's done solid business with such releases as the Helen Mirren thriller Eye in the Sky and Steven Soderbergh's Lucky Logan. Along the way it has accumulated a string of titles that have earned it kudos, from the Viggo Mortensen starrer Captain Fantastic to the Bryan Cranston-starring biopic Trumbo. This year it has a new version of Papillon, with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek; Keira Knightley in Colette; and the Jesse Eisenberg starrer The Art of Self-Defense.

  • Charles D. King

    Since leaving WME in early 2015, King has gone from agent to prolific producer, helped by funding from Laurene Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective. That's allowed him to be a developer and funder, particularly of product initiated by African-Americans and other minorities. His projects run the media gamut, including movies like Mudbound and Roman J. Israel. Esq. as well as TV and web series such as Gente-fied. The company plans to back four to six films each year with budgets up to $35 million.

  • Nick Meyer

    Former Paramount Vantage and Lionsgate International president Meyer couldn't have chosen a worse time to launch his sales/financing label Sierra Pictures than 2009 — the height of the recession, when the company got off to a rocky start with the thriller Mother's Day. But since merging with Affinity International in 2011, Meyer's firm has surged thanks to titles like Atomic BlondeWhiplashNightcrawlerManchester by the Sea, Molly's Game and I, Tonya. With backing from eOne, Sierra now handles sales and distribution for most territories for that company's movies as well as sales for pictures from Bold Films and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. It's also ramping up internal production, with the horror film Haunt and the Forest Whitaker thriller How It Ends. "We've always been able to pivot and adapt to challenges," says Meyer, who works closely with his president/COO Marc Schaberg.

  • Pierre Omidyar

    Question: What do a billionaire entrepreneur and two muckraking journalists have in common? Answer: a 5-year-old company with $250 million to support films, new media technology and cutting-edge publications. In 2013, eBay founder Omidyar joined Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras (the team behind Citizenfour) to create First Look, which started with a splash by backing Oscar winner Spotlight and Poitras' Julian Assange doc Risk, though it's since been dinged by some high-profile staff exits. Currently its president Michael Bloom is building its film slate, which since 2017, is produced under the Topic Studios banner, with projects like On the Other Side, with Carey Mulligan as a Vietnam War correspondent; and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's Bastard.

  • Gigi Pritzker

    A scion of the family that created the Hyatt Hotel chain, Pritzker (who also has a stake in STX Entertainment) entered film financing in 2001 with the creation of Oddlot Entertainment. After its share of ups (Hell or High Water) and downs (Ender's Game), Pritzker merged Oddlot into a new entity, MWM (previously known as Madison Wells), co-founded with former Legendary exec Clint Kisker. MWM Studios, the TV and film division of the 3-year-old sales and financing venture, has invested small screen projects including National Geographic's Genius series, and film, with upcoming projects including Motherless Brooklyn, a 1950s detective tale directed by Edward Norton, which has been overshadowed by the devastating fire that occurred during the shoot, in which a New York City fireman died.  

  • Steven M. Rales

    Rales, the chairman of Danaher Corp., a global conglomerate based in Washington, D.C., is also the owner of the production company that has consistently backed idiosyncratic auteur Wes Anderson, from 2007's The Darjeeling Limited through 2014's Grand Budapest Hotel and the current, animated Isle of Dogs.

  • Jeff Robinov

    Despite deep funding from China's Fosun Group (and a splashy new partnership with TV exec Steve Mosko), the Sony-based Studio 8 has been slow to greenlight movies, and its one release (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk) was a flop. Four years since the company was founded by former Warner Bros. exec Robinov, that's about to change with the September release of White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey, and Alpha, directed by Albert Hughes and due out in August. Robinov is looking at 2018 to move into high gear, hopefully with $200 million in new funding via investment bank Raine Group, and maybe a new base: his Sony deal ends in October.

  • Teddy Schwarzman

    Launched in 2011 by Schwarzman (son of Blackstone billionaire Stephen Schwarzman), the company proved its chops when it bet on a script Warners had put in turnaround: the Oscar-winning Imitation Game. Since then, Schwarzman, a lawyer who turned his back on real estate and corporate restructuring, has funded such movies as George Clooney's Suburbicon and the Robert Redford ocean drama All Is Lost, along with buying indie distributor Elevation Pictures. Upcoming releases: The Happytime Murders, about a private-eye puppet; and Casey Affleck's Light of My Life.

  • Jeff Skoll

    Can Hollywood success coexist with inspiring social change? Skoll, the first president of eBay, set out to prove it could when he founded Participant in 2004; more than 80 movies later, he's been proved right more often than not. While the company (whose CEO is former Universal chairman David Linde) may be known for Oscar-winning docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Citizenfour, it's also had a stake in dramatic Oscar winners such as 2015's Spotlight and Chile's A Fantastic Woman, and just had a break-out success with Wonder. Upcoming: Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, and another possible awards entry, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

  • Molly Smith

    It doesn't hurt when your dad (and one of your investors) is Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx. But that doesn't help, either, when it comes to choosing movies. So far, Smith — who started as an intern at Alcon, where she discovered the Blind Side script — has picked impressively, notably with Sicario and La La Land, though she has done less well with The Good Lie and Rebel in the Rye. Her future (and that of partners Thad and Trent Luckinbill) in backing "prestige" pictures rests on a slate that includes Scott Cooper's Martin Luther King Jr. assassination drama Hellhound on His Trail and Steve Conrad's Garo.

  • Kimberly Steward

    In 2017, Manchester by the Sea financier and producer Steward became only the second black female producer ever to be nominated for an Oscar. Manchester was one of the first projects backed by Steward's upstart K Period Media, which she, Lauren Beck and Josh Godfrey launched in 2013 with the goal of bringing edgy stories to the screen (Beck has since left the company). Now this daughter of tech billionaire David Steward is reteaming with her fellow Manchester producer Matt Damon on Charlatan, about a rogue doctor who claimed to have a cure for impotence. Upcoming projects the company is funding (mainly in the $5 million to $15 million range) include Luca Gaudagnino's Suspiria and an untitled Keira Knightley spy pic. "For me, the biggest challenge is learning how to balance the creative side and financing," says Steward.

  • Darren Throop

    Since joining ROW Entertainment (eOne's forerunner) in 2001, Throop has transformed the Toronto-based retail music distributor into an international distribution powerhouse, embracing film, TV and music with $1.3 billion revenue for fiscal 2017. Now eOne has jumped into production, taking a $133 million stake in Mark Gordon Prods., which produced Molly's Game, and a minority interest in Amblin Partners, as well as backing Brad Weston's Makeready Prods. and investing in Sierra/Affinity. The company has also financed projects like Gavin Hood's upcoming spy thriller Official Secrets. Throop's pitch? "We know the international marketplace and the domestic marketplace very well, so we can help guide those projects into the hands of the right distribution outlet."

    This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.