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It’s been a crazy year for Fernando Sulichin. But then crazy is kind of Sulichin’s wheelhouse.
The 56-year-old head of production at finance group New Element Media — born in Argentina, based in London — has built his career in the independent film business backing the movies and directors that don’t fit the mainstream models. His first big break came with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which he joined as an associate producer, helping secure the first-ever film shoot in Mecca for the project.
Sulichin’s eclectic tastes have led him to work with auteur outsiders Larry Clark (Bully), Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), Jonas Akerlund (Spun), Julian Schnabel (At Eternity’s Gate), Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me) and, repeatedly, Oliver Stone, whose collaborations with Sulichin include the features Alexander, Savages and Snowden, as well as documentaries Comandante (with Fidel Castro), The Putin Interviews (with Vladimir Putin) and JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, in which Stone revisits the declassified files related to President Kennedy’s assassination, the basis of his 1991 blockbuster JFK.
JFK Revisited premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year, alongside competition title Flag Day, a thriller directed by Sean Penn, who starred, alongside his daughter Dylan. MGM pounced on Flag Day ahead of the festival, picking it up for North America. But, like so many recent indie titles, the film failed to deliver at the box office, a fact Sulichin attributes to an older audience base that is still “scared to go back to theaters” amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID, he says, has increased costs across the board for independent film, with new insurance requirements, complicated hygienic safety protocols and shooting delays a further burden to already-strained budgets. For financiers, doing business over Zoom, pitching new projects to investors as Sulichin will be doing at the online-only American Film Market this week, is an added challenge. “I feel like a televangelist,” he quips.
But speaking (via Zoom) to The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough ahead of AFM, Sulichin said he was still optimistic, and excited, about the future of indie cinema. “It’s been a rough time for people in the business but one positive thing is that creative people have had a lot of time to think, to write, and to create. So I think we are going to see a huge number of fantastic scripts coming out very soon.”
Because of COVID, both Flag Day and Oliver Stone’s new JFK documentary spent a lot more time in post-production than was originally planned. How did that impact the final version of the films that we saw in Cannes?
Well in both cases. I think Sean and Oliver had more time to think about the movies, to digest the ideas in them. You know, sometimes when you make films to a deadline, whether it’s a festival deadline or a release deadline, you wish you had a little more time, and, looking back, you’d have made changes. Take Oliver Stone’s Alexander. He made a final cut, an ultimate cut and a director’s cut. Because the longer he had to digest the film the closer he got to his real intentions in the movie. In this case, for both films, the directors had the time to sit with the film longer and do the version of it they wanted to see.
Cannes itself, as an in-person festival, was seen by many as a watershed moment, the start of a return to normalcy. Theaters have reopened most places but the business hasn’t fully come back. Do you think it will?
Yes, but slowly, slowly, because this pandemic is going to continue. I’m a big movie fan. I’ve missed the smell of the popcorn, being in a theater with the cell phones off and nothing to disturb the experience. Watching the next James Bond or Mission Impossible on cable or online is not the same as seeing them in the cinema. If you take your kid to the movie, it’s an experience you can’t have sitting at home watching the same film. Hopefully, we’re going to soon get back to the normal situation with theaters because if we don’t, it will affect the quality of the movies being made. Because watching a film at home always feels a bit like watching a TV series. It’s a different experience.
Does that also apply to the film business? Is it a different experience pitching projects to investors over Zoom than in person at a physical market?
A physical festival like Cannes is about the people. I went to meet people that started my career, like Spike Lee, who was president of the jury. There is a space there for creativity, for meeting with actors, directors, producers to discuss future projects. You cannot do the same in Zoom. You don’t get the same creative synergies. If you are miles away on your computer, you are distracted. When I try and pitch a film to potential investors or partners over Zoom, I feel like a televangelist.
When the pandemic first hit, it was a major problem to get insurance to cover COVID costs, which caused a bottleneck when it came to bonding independent films. Has that problem been solved?
It’s not that difficult now to insure and bond a film. It’s just expensive. And you need to have it. If a major actor gets COVID, it can mean 10 weeks of hiatus, it can completely screw up your schedule. But there is still a need for films, for work to be done.
You are known for working with eclectic directors and on risky projects. How do you pick what films you want to be involved in?
Well, look at Oliver. This documentary now is a continuation of his obsession with JFK, something that started back with his film 30 years ago. When I watched it back then, it blew my mind. It was one of the films that I really wanted to get into this business. I was living in New York at the time and working with Spike Lee. I remember going to a public library to listen to Oliver Stone. I became a groupie. Now, 30 years later, I’m working with him on a regular basis. I see my job as supporting his vision, as supporting the visions of mind-blowing directors.
I made a film with Jim Jarmusch on Iggy Pop and The Stooges [the 2016 documentary Gimme Danger]. Now before that, I’d never heard a record by The Stooges, and I’m not a fan of the music, I don’t listen to Iggy Pop in my car and it’s not on my playlist. But I thought it was a great story and I’m supporting the filmmaker. I didn’t need to be a member of the Cuban Communist Party to help make a great film [Stone’s Comandante] about Fidel Castro.
What’s your next project?
I’m reading a lot of scripts now and I’m watching a lot of films and I’m ready to go when something that really inspires me comes across my table. I just want to make something great and not make something because I have to do it or because the market wants it. I’m not just going to finance something because there’s a star in it and I could recoup the money. I’m not into that. I’m looking for films that can make a difference in my life and or in other people’s lives. My very first film was with Spike Lee: Malcolm X. That was mind-blowing. When I watch it now, I still have tears in my eyes. I’m looking for something like that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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