Cannes: eOne's Harold van Lier Talks Upcoming Bryan Cranston, Colin Firth Projects (Q&A)

Harold van Lier

The Belgian launching eOne’s new international arm shares how he plans to thrive in a down market (on five hours of sleep a night).

Harold van Lier is a man of routine. At Cannes, he hasn’t just stayed in the same hotel, the Gray d’Albion, for the past 12 years — he’s stayed in the same room. But van Lier, 40, recently disrupted his personal world order in a major way by leaving StudioCanal to head up eOne International, the new financing and sales venture launched by giant Toronto-based studio eOne. Armed with a $100 million credit facility, eOne International, which is making its market debut in Cannes, will bring in projects to finance, produce and sell, as well as represent third-party titles. Sweetening the pot, van Lier can promise distribution in a raft of eOne territories, including the U.K. and Canada, where the company is the largest independent distributor. Van Lier spent seven years overseeing StudioCanal’s international sales division, handling titles including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Inside Llewyn Davis and Non-Stop. In his new gig, he’ll continue to be based in London — where he lives with his wife, Emily, a fundraising consultant, and two small children — but will spend one week a month in Los Angeles. The affable Belgian recently spoke with THR about his ambitions for eOne International and the two high-profile presale projects he’s bringing to the Croisette: director Gavin Hood’s drone thriller Eye in the Sky, which actor Colin Firth is producing (and eOne is financing), and Trumbo (a third-party title), which will star Bryan Cranston as legendary blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper.

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How many films a year will eOne International take on? And at what budget level?

The sweet spot is between $10 million and $12 million. In terms of how many films, maybe we would do five productions to start with in the first year or so, and take on two or three third-party titles. We want to slowly establish our reputation and let people know what eOne is doing. The more we do, the more we’ll be able to jump in. 

Eye in the Sky is Firth’s first feature as a producer. What attracted him to this project?

This film asks important questions and, at the same time, it is a very gripping thriller. This is clearly a passion project for everyone involved and the goal is to make a commercial, quality and thought-provoking film.

Do you think audiences are ready for a movie about the ethics of drone strikes?

Now is the perfect time as the debate on drone warfare is rapidly growing around the world and polarizing opinion.

Will Firth ultimately star in the film?

Colin is producing along with Ged Doherty, and he wants to play a significant role. We are working out the days to see if this is feasible, but regardless, the beauty of this script is that it is quite flexible in that regard.

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How did eOne become involved with the project?

Colin and Ged brought the film with Gavin Hood attached to Xavier [Marchand], who runs production on our end. Xavier read and loved it and then we all jumped on it. Gavin’s vision was absolutely in tune with the film we all wanted to make, and we have immense faith in him.

Why did Trumbo appeal to you?

It is a fascinating story of epic proportion that transcends period and location with a larger-than-life character at its core, but also with real present-day relevance.

Will we see more highbrow fare like this from you?

Whatever the genre, quality conquers all. Our first two films certainly deliver on that front and there is a huge appetite for that level of quality across all territories and media.

Many sales agents are complaining about how hard it is to put packages together. What’s your take?

The real challenge has been casting, and casting in time for us to bring a project to market. But we’re excited. We’re sort of the new kid on the block, but within a very established company. If we bring one or two new films, that’s already a revolution for us and we will do great business on them. But the market seems very meager overall.

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How is your new venture picking up the slack left by the closure of Focus Features’ London-based international sales operation and the wind-down of Exclusive in Los Angeles?

I’ve gone from a team of two in four months to a team of 12. And four of those hires are from Focus International. And just as Focus was director-driven and could promise distribution in select territories via Universal, we aspire to establish the same model. We have a lot more power than a traditional sales agency because of the distribution component.

Was it difficult leaving StudioCanal?

I accomplished what I set out to do. When I arrived there, they only had French-speaking films on their slate. By the end, we had films like Non-Stop, Tinker Tailor and Inside Llewyn Davis. I covered 70 percent to 75 percent of the financing of these films from the international side. I was commuting from London to Paris, and living out of a hotel. eOne is a perfect new home, and my role is certainly broader and I’m much more involved in sourcing projects than I was at StudioCanal.

What is your routine in Cannes?

At my advanced age, I try to get at least five hours of sleep a night. And I do try to get up early, around 6:30 a.m., to walk along the Croisette and the harbor before I meet my team for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Usually, that lasts only about three or four days, but it’s the only time I find I can relax. By week two, every extra half hour of sleep is a treasure. Also, my rule now is to be in bed by 2 a.m.