Covert Media CEO on Making AFM Debut and Reimagining 'Hamlet' With Daisy Ridley

Brian Guido
Paul Hanson

Paul Hanson, the (not really) new kid in town, tells THR of starting over and how Netflix has changed the industry.

Thirteen months ago, Paul Hanson launched Covert Media; eight months ago they moved into their Beverly Hills offices; and now the fledgling production-finance company is heading into its inaugural AFM with several projects in tow, including a splashy Hamlet reimagining that has Star Wars standout Daisy Ridley attached to star and YA adaptation Need, from a female writer-director team.

For Hanson, 42, it’s been a year full of intense preparation to get the Media Content Capital-owned banner’s slate ready for this year’s foreign market. Before founding Covert, the veteran film exec served as the COO of Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and prior to that held the same position at QED International, where he oversaw Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Oliver Stone’s W.

Hanson talked to The Hollywood Reporter about establishing his company at this year’s AFM and why A-list attachments aren’t the only thing you need to sell a project anymore.

What has been the greatest challenge of being a new company in the past year?

I would say the two biggest challenges have been the cold start of having to rebuild the team and having to re-educate the marketplace about what we are doing during what is a tumultuous time in the business. The good news is that there is still a lot of appetite for content out there, so we feel validated that if we do our jobs right, there will be people to go and watch this stuff.

As a new company, how are you planning to establish yourself at this year’s AFM?

We are spending a lot of time and, frankly, money in development. In order to build great packages and movies, you have to start much earlier than you used to. It used to be that opportunities would present themselves and you would only have to take them the final 20 yards. Whereas now you have to be engaged earlier on with the material or with the filmmaker, honing it to a place where it has viability for distribution and financing. We are customizing our slate for what we think the marketplace wants.

Some say markets like AFM and Cannes are becoming less important as deals are being made year-round. Why are markets still relevant?

More than anything, because of the size of the transactions that we are doing, you need that face-to-face. One of the biggest issues about markets is timing. In order to have everything ready for the market — whether it is Cannes or AFM or some of the smaller festivals — we tend to be at the mercy of external forces. If we had our choice we would be fully packaged and have the projects ready three to four weeks in advance and start managing the conversation in anticipation of sitting down at AFM.

But the reality is that we are at the mercy of talent decision-making, talent management decision-making and things that come in late, so you end up not having everything together. I think the distributors are getting increasingly used to not having the perfect set of information at the marketplace. Markets are about making sure that there is ongoing relationship building and learning about what is going on in everyone’s territories and companies, over a lunch or a dinner.

How has the growth of Netflix and Amazon affected the market?

In the short term it has had a little bit of a dampening effect on what’s available for individual territorial buyers. There are certain titles that are taken off the table and, in the past year, a lot of those have been high-profile, interesting opportunities. It’s less painful for us because we can do business with Netflix as a producer-financier, but it doesn’t help us in the long term when doing business with these independent and international distributors. If we are giving business to Netflix it means we are not giving it to them, and that becomes problematic to them in the long run when it comes to having a sustainable slate of features.

Covert’s upcoming films range from a Shakespeare reimagining to a high-concept underwater escape movie. Do you want to continue this type of diversity in your future projects?

Absolutely. It’s not that we are approaching it with a mandate that we have a diverse slate, but we are driven by the quality of the material. Not having a specific agenda exposes us to a wide range of opportunities and storytelling — in periods and genres and size of movies. It keeps us excited, but I think that is what audiences want as well.

Daisy Ridley is attached to Covert’s Ophelia. What does it mean to have a star like Ridley attached to a project going into AFM?

We are no longer in an era of really obvious film stars. We don’t have those go-tos anymore. In these past few years, what used to be bankable stars have had movies that didn’t open well. Conversely, movies that open huge have not been built around star packages. Now, it’s harder to understand what consumers are driven by. So what we refer back to is, what is creatively compelling? Who is great for these roles and will deliver from a performance standpoint? But also, who will get us distribution? It’s not casting up with no-name actors or a bunch of stage actors. We have to be reasonable. I think this is a challenge for everyone at the independent and the studio level.

Do you think star power or storyline is more important to a foreign market?

We have had eras and times where it was all about the star. If you have had name X, Y or Z then the rest of it didn’t matter. But we are at a point where you need both. There are only so many names that justify a bigger budget. Maybe you can’t get the extreme stars — the DiCaprio, Pitt, Clooney level — but we still have a cast that is fanatic and that we believe in. A lot of the conversations we have had with distributors have revolved around the notion that we have to start creating new stars, or we need to believe in ourselves that we have found a filmmaker or a piece of material that is tremendous. In order to make something great, we are all going to have to jump off the cliff together, holding hands, with a creative and financial risk.