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When Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley stepped down as co-chairmen of Searchlight Pictures in April, it was the end of one of the most enduring and successful double acts in independent film history. For more than two decades, the pair have shaped cinema history and set the gold standard for independent production, distribution, and awards campaigning.
“Just a few numbers for you: $5.3 billion in global box office, 43 Academy Awards, 47 BAFTAs…and four of the last eight best picture Oscars: 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, The Shape of Water, and Nomadland,” was how Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival, introduced the pair on Thursday in the live video chat that marked the opening session for TIFF’s Visionaries, part of the film festival’s industry conference. The Hollywood Reporter is the official media partner of the Visionaries discussions.
As Bailey rattled off Searchlight’s successes over the years — Boys Don’t Cry, Black Swan, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire — it was hard not to see the pair’s exit from the Disney-owned specialty studio as a changing of the guard, both at Walt Disney and for the independent film industry as a whole.
Born out of the indie film boom of the early 1990s, when low-budget arthouse films could rake in huge multiples at the box office — Searchlight’s The Full Monty (1997) cost $3.5 million to make and grossed more than $250 million worldwide — the Fox subsidiary survived the cull of the late 2000s when production financing dried up, marketing costs skyrocketed, and other “super indies” competitors like Rogue Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse, and Miramax folded.
Utley, an expert marketer, and Gilula, a distribution guru who co-founded the Landmark Theaters chain in 1974, combined excellent cinematic taste with an eye on the bottom line and a “gut instinct” for when to take a risk on a new director or out-there concept.
“[Director] Guillermo [del Toro] pitched The Shape of Water to us without a script or treatment. It was about this fish-like creature in a romance story and there was sci-fi and danger,” recalled Utley. “But Guillermo is just about the most charismatic and persuasive person in the world. When we left his house, I remember saying: ‘I think we just greenlit this movie’ without really knowing anything about it. We made bets on these filmmakers, believing in them even some of their ideas sounded wacky.”
Unlike some of the other studio-backed indies at the time, Gilula recalled, Searchlight was given great autonomy over what films it bought and how it chose to market them.
“Expectations were low so we could be very independent and find our way,” he said, recounting how he picked up Bend it Like Beckham after catching the film at a theater in London. “The film had been at AFM and everyone passed on it, no one thought anyone in America would go to a girls’ soccer movie. But when I saw it with an audience, I realized it wasn’t a soccer movie, it was a girls’ friendship movie and a family movie.”
Believing in Gilula’s gut instinct, Utley and other Searchlight executives went to the first market screening of Bend It Like Beckham in Cannes. Searchlight picked up North American rights and the film grossed $35 million in the United States. “More than the rest of the world combined,” noted Gilula.
Such unexpected success stories — Gilula mentions British crime drama Sexy Beast (“Fox thought it was un-releasable”) and dark comedy Napoleon Dynamite (“They had no idea what we were doing with that one”) — earned Searchlight the right to take bigger swings on future projects.
“Nancy and I have done 167 films together, and there are 18 best pictures nominations among those,” Gilulasaid. “Out track record builds a certain degree of credibility.”
But, they both agreed, times have changed. And the main reason, they said, is streaming.
“Streaming has basically turned the independent business, and the awards business, on its head,” said Gilula, “because the streamers can pay wild amounts of money that just don’t make financial sense [for independent distributors].
The new streaming-era economics could mean an end to that most hallowed of indie film traditions: the all-night festival bidding war. Utley reminisced about securing Little Miss Sunshine in Sundance in 2006 or securing Brooklyn after its Park City debut in 2015.
“Brooklyn was one of the very last real break-out hits [from the festival scene],” noted Gilula. “Now the filmmakers can wait for the giant check that comes in from Netflix and Amazon, who will pay $20 million – $30 million for a film they think has awards potential. The values are completely distorted and irrational. [But it means] our model is completely obsolete now.”
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