Co-Founders of Aussie Startup The Reset Collective on Why Launching Amid Pandemic "Made Sense"

Lisa Garner and Mark Gooder-Split-Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of The Reset Collective/ Cornerstone Films

The Sydney, Los Angeles and London-based venture brings together a team of indie industry veterans who are determined to help shape the film distribution model of the future.

Blighted by cinema closures and production freezes, film studios the world over have been pushed into survival mode by the unprecedented strains of the novel coronavirus crisis. Australian film company The Reset Collective would appear to be on an opposite trajectory: The startup production and distribution banner officially began business on May 6, right in the midst of the pandemic.

The Reset Collective is based in Sydney but brings together a group of film industry veterans from around the world. Mark Gooder, co-founder of Cornerstone Films and pioneering indie distributor Icon Film Distribution, serves as the company's executive director, based in Los Angeles. Lisa Garner, a former marketing exec for Warner Brothers and Icon in Australia, is Reset's managing director down under. Julian Gleek and Debbie Gray, chairman and managing director of the U.K.'s Genesius Pictures, respectively, are among the new company's collection of directors based in London. Alison Thompson, co-president of Cornerstone Films, is also a partner.

As the group's target launch date approached, the globally dispersed team members were all grappling with the challenges of lockdown in their respective locales. 

"We had been preparing to announce, but then it became, 'Oh, gosh, maybe this just isn't such a good time,' says Gooder. "But then we thought, 'Well, hang on, actually, it really makes sense to the whole perspective we've been thinking about for this company,' — the idea of 'resetting'."

In their early discussions about the new venture, Gooder and Garner had seized on the idea that technological and generational changes had left the film distribution business in desperate need of "a structural reset." 

Now, thanks to the interregnum of pandemic, the whole global film industry was in need of resetting. The Reset Collective decided to stick to its scheduled launch plan. Says Gooder: "It suddenly felt like we had both a lot and nothing at all to live up to." 

At the Virtual Cannes Market, The Reset Collective, already familiar faces to international industry players, will be introducing their new venture as an acquirer of Australian film rights. Full-scale original film and television production — primarily in Australia and New Zealand, but with U.K. and other international co-production partners — is "probably about one year away" for the company, says Gardner. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke via Zoom with Gooder and Garner — in Santa Monica and Sydney, respectively — shortly before Cannes to discuss the strategy behind The Reset Collective, and why the changes brought on by COVID-19 have only enhanced their belief in their vision. 

To start with, how have you been holding up amid the pandemic? 

Gooder: Trying to hang in there, like everyone. It is a strange time. I always remind people that we are in the business of dreams, ideas and aspirations — which always has existed in its bubble, inside a world that is active and real. It's a difficult journey, in the best of times, yet here we are: We don't know whether anything that we're doing is going to turn into anything real. The uncertainty is much more profound than usual. When will production come back? Will people go back to the cinemas? What stories do they care about now? It's all very scary but also fascinating, because within that uncertainty is the opportunity.

The Reset Collective is the only new distribution and production company of note to start up during COVID-19. How did you decide that now was the time to launch?

Gooder: It really came from noticing, pre-COVID-19, that there was a fundamental change going on in the distribution model in Australia. When Lisa and I had worked together in distribution in the past [at Icon Film], Australia was often the territory that kick started pre-sales on a lot of the major independent films that were being brought to the marketplace. There were 20 odd years where Australia and its companies were very sophisticated as a distribution territory: They had a strong point of view, there were growing audiences, and there was booming growth in upmarket cinemas. All of this created a sophisticated point of view about content and storytelling. 

But through our own business models, Lisa and I had both noticed the decline of the Australian market. Home entertainment had been immune for a long time, but it was suddenly hit hard a couple of years ago. Australian distributors were much more shy and reticent to pre-buy, because their business models no longer supported it. The kinds of films that were successful in cinema now had to hit the bullseye — all of the changes we are seeing everywhere had arrived. 

Garner: From those changes, we saw the opportunity to streamline. 

How so? 

Gooder: Pricing had come down so low that there was an opportunity for a streamlined operation to step back into the distribution business and build from the ground up in a way that better matches the new landscape — because we could see that all of the existing business models had actually become about unstitching everything. Pricing for a key English-language territory like Australia and New Zealand — for high-quality pieces of material — had come down to the point where there was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and rebalance the model for digital and theatrical. 

All of this distilled down to us saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be great to work together again?" But all of this was pre-COVID. 

Did COVID-19 change any of that? 

Garner: I think COVID has actually even given us more confidence in our approach, because the idea behind Reset was always about rebuilding. Now we will be rebuilding as the whole industry rebuilds. Everything we do will always be in partnership with the key players already established here in Australia — who are friends and colleagues we've been working with for years. But now there is a feeling that we will be doing it alongside them, even though we are technically a startup. Our industry in Australia is like a small town compared to the U.S., so we all have to work together. 

Gooder: In some ways, you could argue that this moment is like the mid-80s or early 90s, when the independent film business started to take off. There were new rules that were being written, and there were new voices, and how could they be heard? Who would support them and how would the models work? 

The idea of calling it Reset was ahead of COVID. It felt key to the moment — both micro and macro — that the whole world has to reset itself. We don't know how that's going to happen, but we can feel it in all of the political, social and economic models — that they are outdated. It applies to our industry, and everyone faces the same challenges: the content model has experienced dramatic change because of technology, and habits have profoundly changed generationally. These factors have accelerated now that Coronavirus has come along and pushed the big pause button on theatrical releasing. 

Do you have any theories of what the mechanics of the new distribution model will be? 

Gooder: I don't think anyone knows yet, because we're in between models, and the old model had been so enormously successful. We had the best old business model in the world. Essentially, we made content and brought it to you, but we controlled when you saw it throughout that content's entire lifecycle, so we clicked the ticket at every point along the way, maximizing the amount of money we could make. 

Of course, now, distribution is in a very different place. We've got fewer, smaller windows. We have a more finite amount of time within which to create value. Therefore, value proposition for an audience becomes the key thing. What does it take, as a value proposition, for you to decide to leave your house to go to the movies? And even inside your house, what does it take for you to pay for premium digital viewing versus waiting for it? In a lot of ways, I feel like at Reset we're starting with the fundamental principles of the content business, but we just work in a very different environment. When there are tens of thousands of hours of digital programming, both in elevated television and in original movies, the one thing that still counts is what gets my attention. What makes something extraordinary? It's not fundamentally different from the original independent cinema — you're still going after the old idea of a core interest group, but you're reaching them digitally, instead of through the huge expense of P&A. And you have to be more creative and precise than ever before — but that's a fun challenge. 

Do you think there will be differences in how Australia's theatrical business emerges from lockdown compared to other major markets? 

Garner: Well, I do think Australia and New Zealand have had a unique experience with COVID compared to much of the rest of the world. As you probably know, we have only had 100 deaths in Australia. The big questions everyone is asking are, "What will it take to get people back into cinemas?" and "Will they be too scared to go into cinemas?" In Australia, I don't really think they will be, because there isn't the same level of fear, thanks to the much less severe experience we have had. A lot of it probably has come down to how far away Australia and New Zealand are. That's not a particularly good thing when you have to travel frequently, but it's been very helpful to our countries during COVID-19. 

Gooder: The other thing about COVID is that, it does create such an interesting pause and a space between what we liked before, and what we're going to be interested in after. With Reset, that's something that we're very focused on. What kind of story is going to be relevant as we come out of this? Is it more horror and scares? Are the kinds of scares going to change? I personally love what we've seen with the recent wave of films like Midsommar and Get Out, with a social thematic about who are we as a people, which ties into the genre. They're stimulating and they're about something. Will people want more of that, or will they want pure escape? Are they going to want to laugh more? We're going to find out together very soon. 

Where do you think all of this leaves prestige drama?

Gooder: Drama has been under attack when it comes to the cinema experience. They've never been easy, but you can say the hardest films to finance right now are dramas. It used to be that you could line them up, and you might get two out of five of them that reach the heights of being nominated and win awards. But it's an even harder proposition now.

Garner: I think part of the challenge for drama is that people really want to be told what they're watching, and feel confident that what it says on the tin is what it is, you know? There is so much content available to people. I see myself at nighttime scrolling through stuff, looking for something to stand out to me. Until you have the awards, standing out in a vivid way can be a difficult proposition for some drama. 

You're focusing on acquiring in the early phases of the business and will later move into production. What are you most looking for at this stage? 

Gooder: In the first instance, we're looking for good titles that hit our price point. We're genre agnostic, because Reset may end up having a couple of labels — one that's more hard-edged and genre focused and another that's more prestige, older, female, whatever you want to call it. We look at A24 and Neon as having a very smart model. They have done what you would want to do with an independent distribution company, which is pursue and put forward singular propositions, whatever that might mean, whether it's a documentary, a foreign-language film, an older-skewing drama, a biopic or any other category. The singular proposition is the thing that stands out, where we know the angles and know we can bring it to market as an event. 

As you're entering the market now as an acquirer, are you seeing an impact from COVID-19 on the volume of product that's available and the competition for that product? There's been production delays for some time now, and the streamers are trying to make hay while they can...

Garner: There's a good amount of older, finished films still hanging around. As we're just starting out, we're looking for projects that are completed and high-quality enough that they have a ready audience. I've actually been surprised thus far with the projects I have seen ahead of the Cannes virtual market — there's been some really good stuff. 

Gooder: The other thing is, we get to be an observer for a little while. We have very low overhead and we can watch and see how the market is developing and feel it out. We don't have the expectation of hitting the ground running, building it up really quickly and selling the whole thing off. We're not in that space and that's not our ambition. 

Can you give us a preview of the second phase of your business, what you'll be pursuing when you move into production? 

Gooder: We always wanted to take advantage of building a business where we had a kind of internal engine that could fuel the overhead, and that was still distribution, because it made the most sense. Then outside of that, as a dominant part of the business, was to look at generating our own content in television and film. That will be about maximizing the relationships that we have with producers down in Australia and New Zealand, and then looking at co-production financing models.

We have a partner, Debbie Gray at Genesius, who has some content that would be perfectly suited as U.K.-Australia co-productions, for example. Coproductions between the U.K., Australia and New Zealand are fairly common, because often the stories make sense and you can easily pull the components together. So, that's the second phase, owning more content and creating IP, but building it around the core distribution model.

Garner: Story will always comes first for us. They have to be really great stories that are emotional and move people, because let's be honest, audiences are spoiled these days. The projects will need to be justified by great stories that can be successful in their home local market. If they also have the capacity to travel, great. 

I suppose Australia and New Zealand offer advantages as a production base amid the current environment too. 

Gooder: Yes, we should be able to focus on the bubble that's been created between the two countries' governments. In the current climate and moving forward over the next six to twelve months, you could argue that it's going to be countries like Australia and New Zealand that will kick start production again. You can make film and television down there that looks like it was made in the U.S. You can create story ideas down there where you might at some point go, "You know what, maybe we should actually take this to a network in the U.S." And the infrastructure is second to none. 

On the whole, you sound refreshingly optimistic considering that you're launching a new company amid a calamity — and a company that is taking on a very challenged sector of the business, no less. 

Gooder: There are always opportunities, and we are absolute optimists. I think anyone who works in this business is an optimist — you have to be to be a creator of content and storytelling. We are optimistic because we feel that we're entering into a new phase, where audiences are going to behave differently than they ever have before. But that only means that there will be new solutions, because there have to be new solutions. And there is no reason we can't be the ones to help discover them. 

Garner: It's going to be fascinating to watch the next three to six months, particularly in this scope — to see where audiences go and what connects.