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Before its premiere at Sundance in February 2020, the documentary Welcome to Chechnya — about the persecution of the LGBTQ community in the Russian republic and the activists who attempt to provide a safe haven for its victims — was shown to the staff at The Exchange’s conference room in Hollywood. Brian O’Shea, the company’s founder and CEO, describes the experience as “a teachable moment.
“We were blown away,” recalls the sales agent of 30 years. “We knew that it was going to be hard to sell, and [a documentary] wasn’t our core business, but it affected us in such a deeply emotional way, we became completely and utterly engaged with the property.” The Exchange ended up handling international sales for the doc that went on to be nominated for an Emmy, while the company that introduced it to them, Submarine Entertainment, handled domestic.
But Welcome to Chechnya also acted as a sort of weather vane for a company known mostly as a sales agent and financier, as it wades deeper into production.
The new direction serves two strategic purposes: to more closely monitor and influence the product it’s taking to market and to shepherd projects that O’Shea and his staff are passionate about.
“When we develop and produce, we’re taking on not only the knowledge that we’re getting from our own experience going to markets and talking to individual buyers,” says O’Shea, “the information [also] comes from agents, other sales companies, financiers and producers, and then we’re feeding it back to our production company run by Caddy to make the best possible project.”
“Caddy” is Caddy Vanasirikul, vp acquisitions and production. She’s taking the lead in a new venture formed by The Exchange and capital investor Orogen Entertainment called NEXT Productions, with the goal of developing at least 15 new projects in the next three years. The aim, says Vanasirikul, is to be closer to talent and to get in on the ground floor of the content they’re selling.
“We were trying to expand the business,” explains Vanasirikul. “As a sales agent, you are always on the hunt for new packages. And instead of waiting for the right thing to fall into our lap, and knowing that content is king, we decided to get in at the development stage to engineer the film. Consequently, we are now making more of the movies we want to see and better nurturing our relationships with talent.”
If the movies that The Exchange has sold in the past decade have tended to be high-concept — often with stars in comeback roles (several Bruce Willis action films line its slate) or who have been repositioned on the genre radar (Emile Hirsch in the mob movie Legitimate Wise Guy, Thomas Jane in the revenge thriller Vendetta) — as the firm pivots more into production, it intends to become more involved with recruiting talent behind the camera. As Vanasirikul points out, “We’re not competing for the 10 filmmakers that the [top] streamers want to work with, and that’s why we’re called NEXT Productions, because we’re looking for the next generation of talent.”
The Exchange handled sales for Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground (2011), and execs are excited about the Nov. 5 release of Justine Bateman’s maiden voyage as a director, Violet, starring Olivia Munn as an indie production exec plagued by the voice in her head that causes her to doubt her best instincts. It’s an internal conflict — art versus commerce — to which many in The Exchange’s ranks can relate.
“Our genre films fill the coffers and let us take chances,” says Danny Gusman, vp marketing and distribution. “For me, the mission of The Exchange is to challenge people and take risks on films that might otherwise be ignored by an international audience.”
O’Shea takes pains to point out that the company gives equal priority to the commercial and the artistically daring, whether The Exchange acts as sales agent, financier, production partner or all of the above, such as with 2020’s The Stand In, with Drew Barrymore, as well as the upcoming The Independent, a presidential conspiracy thriller with Succession‘s Brian Cox attached.
Moving forward, the company is looking into self-distribution and making forays into the TV space, having picked up its first foreign-language series, The Frog, which is in Farsi. “Some of the best stories are being told in a serialized form,” says Gusman. “If we want to keep working with top talent, we have to pivot into that world, and that’s a big push.”
With a name that suggests Wall Street and creative collaboration, The Exchange is exploring all options. “We kept the name of the company open,” says O’Shea, “so that we can explore different opportunities and go where the business goes.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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