Branded to Sell

Myriad Pictures unveils a 'Hybrid' strategy at Cannes this year

Related: D'Amico, Devine in Motion
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Conventional wisdom at Cannes this year is that if you're hoping to presell a film without bankable stars, you might as well stay home.

Kirk D'Amico, president and CEO of privately held Myriad Pictures will be bringing his share of movies with stars -- including Ewan McGregor in "The Electric Slide" and Donald Sutherland in "The Con Artist" -- but he also will introduce "Hybrid," a classic monster movie without stars that signals a shift for the company, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year.

"People think of Myriad in association with the quality of the movies -- 'The Good Girl,' 'Kinsey,' 'Factory Girl,' 'Copying Beethoven,' 'Little Fish,' " D'Amico says. "These are films which, for better or worse, we are known for. Quality is not a bad thing but there are certain buyers for genre films that just won't come to see us, so we want to be able to brand these films for them."

By branding, D'Amico means that, even though the films will have capable casts, he wants to sell the concept and genre first. The first big test of the new strategy comes in the form of "Hybrid," the initial film produced under a first-look deal signed last year with Alex Leung, managing director of high tech Studio 407 in Bangkok.

The screenplay is by Peter Kwong, who also wrote the hot selling comic book that introduced Hybrid, a character that is part man/part marine beast. If "Hybrid" succeeds, Studio 407 has several more comic characters ready to translate to the big screen for Myriad.

Amanda Blue, Myriad's vp production and development, says "Hybrid" is part of a new "focus on things that are more branded -- thrillers, action stuff -- that has really strong concepts that can be pre-sold without a lot of big stars attached."

D'Amico says "Hybrid," with a budget of less than $10 million, will also be the first movie for a new genre division called Myrror Pictures that he plans to announce this year. As with most of its past films, Myriad is not only the foreign sales agent, but also has played a role in arranging financing and setting up aftermarket sales in home video and online.

Overture Films COO Danny Rosett, who has known and worked with D'Amico for years, praises his ability to adapt to changing conditions.

"It's obviously important to have an effective foreign sales operation and be able to get deals done internationally, but there's a whole other skill set involved in actually putting a movie together, finding the soft money and having the relationships not just overseas but also in Los Angeles," Rosett says. "That's why they have survived, because they have been really practical and come up with different ways of getting movies up and running at times when it's been incredibly tough. ... (D'Amico) is unique in that way."

Raising money to make movies has increasingly depended on finding private equity investors and new banking partners, according to consultant Patrick Murray, who has worked closely with D'Amico during the global financial crisis to keep finding sources of money.

Murray says D'Amico, who has a background in law and business affairs, is especially good at finding "soft money" funds. He says there is a real "emphasis on maximizing equity production incentive programs, tax related incentives, rebates, tax credits all over the world."

In recent years, those have included productions in Canada, the U.K., Germany and Australia. "We've got projects in New Mexico, New York, Louisiana," Murray adds, "and we're looking at doing something in Iowa."

They won't make a movie without that kind of "soft money," but it isn't always as simple as it seems. "Just because there are tax credits or tax rebates out there doesn't mean you can qualify for them and package them so they can be cash-flowed into a production," D'Amico explains. "It takes a lot of work."

Working hard is something D'Amico has done his whole life. A native of Salem, Ore., he attended Holy Cross College and got a law degree from Antioch in Washington, D.C. He began his career in movies as a business affairs executive and doing documentaries on Aretha Franklin, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dietrich and others. He became vp international sales at the Samuel Goldwyn Co. in 1994 and then executive vp at Village Roadshow Pictures in 1996, overseeing worldwide sales and co-productions for both film and television.

An avid surfer and wine connoisseur, D'Amico also pursued some outside interests while at Goldwyn and Village Roadshow, with the full knowledge of his bosses there. D'Amico had a separate enterprise that sold his documentaries and a handful of other movies for which he had the rights. That side enterprise became Myriad in 1998 when he left Roadshow and was operational in 1999.

What began as mainly a television sales company evolved into a movie packager and foreign sales agent for independent features. D'Amico says he had a partner for a time who was German and opened the door to financing sources there. After that, the company's growth was "deal driven" as he built up a library of about 50 movies.

D'Amico also showed a knack for dealing with filmmakers. He says the key is to not just be "a lawyer, or a banker, or just a finance guy, but to be passionate about movies and to share the passion of making a film with the people actually making the movie."

"Kirk is incredibly passionate about movies," agrees his wife and business partner Zanne Devine (see sidebar). "Because he started as a filmmaker, he has a facility with the language of filmmakers and can discuss the core truths, the challenges of making movies. He brings to the party an infinite knowledge about the business side but he can also speak to somebody about why a certain scene is worth fighting for, whether that is for the purpose of creating a budget, or in the editing room."

"His greatest strength is the diversity of his abilities," agrees Ariel Veneziano, a native of France who worked in sales for Alliance Atlantic, Green Street and Icon before joining Myriad as an executive consultant. "The answer to what (D'Amico) does is 'everything.' He's involved in every aspect of the business and he doesn't get sucked into the minutiae and details. He has a bird's eye view and enormous perspective on where the company is going."

The 2007 Myriad film "Death Defying Acts," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, is an example of how D'Amico will patiently develop a movie before he does the financing and distribution. Myriad spent five years developing the script and raising the $20 million budget from BBC Films, the Australian Film Finance Corp. and others. They hired Gillian Armstrong to direct, did the foreign sales and arranged for domestic distribution with the Weinstein Co.

"Those films where we are on the hook for a portion of the financing," says D'Amico, "we really try to get involved with in the production itself so we can oversee it."

By "we," he really means everyone. Every employee, from the receptionist to the vps, attend weekly staff meetings and are encouraged to learn about the company and share their own thoughts.

Says Blue: "He likes us all to be involved in the problem solving process. ... It's open communications, an open door policy. You can always go talk to him about anything."

"Kirk shares with you the context of how the company works and makes you feel a part of it," says Pamela Rodi, Myriad's exec vp marketing and publicity. "At a studio you feel more like you are in a silo. You are more detached from other departments. Here, you really have a chance to understand how the entire business works, which makes a big difference for someone in a department that spends money across divisions. It allows me to know much more about how I can contribute, whether it's updating the Web site or sending out our own e-mail blasts."

At a time that many banks have shut down financing films, Myriad has been able to keep the pipeline flowing by bringing in additional private investors and seeking out new banking relationships.

"It's not easy but we do still have places to go and I thank Kirk for that and Pat (Murray)," says Kevin Forester, Myriad's vp finance. "The two of them have been through enough industry change that they know how to connect the dots and put all the puzzle pieces together to make things work."

Nicholas Chartier, now president of Voltage Pictures, began his career at Myriad before leaving eight years ago. He says D'Amico is trusted by the buyers, filmmakers and others because he has always kept his word. "He knows every buyer and every film in the business," Chartier says. "He's one of the good guys."

"Kirk is someone who lays it on the line," Rosett says. "He says what he means and means what he says. You can agree or not but at least there is a mutual respect which goes a long way, especially for people on the buying side of the business."

Next up, D'Amico plans to start a branded label for the home video release of movies in the U.S. through a major studio, which will provide a more predictable cash flow. He says negotiations for the label are well along but not concluded.

He also is looking to expand in domestic TV, including developing series and telefilms, which would be a return to his early roots in show business. He also wants Myriad to expand its domestic theatrical distribution, building on the last year's platform release for "Mother of Tears." And D'Amico is spending a lot of time studying new media, and how to split up rights among VOD, downloads and online media.

He has the luxury of time to figure it out because Myriad, unlike many competitors, hasn't run up a big debt, done pricey acquisitions or bet the company on any one movie.

"Somebody recently said that surviving is the new winning," D'Amico jokes, pointing out a silver lining in the economic crisis. "What happens is that there are not that many left in terms of sales companies that banks and investors want to do business with," he adds. "Fortunately, we're one of those companies right now."