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This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When it comes to competing film projects, there’s no glory in being second. That’s why The Fifth Estate producer Steve Golin scored a major coup by getting his WikiLeaks project (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange) off the ground before similarly themed features from HBO, Universal and Megan Ellison‘s Annapurna Pictures. The $30 million DreamWorks pic, which kicks off the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 5 and hits U.S. theaters Oct. 18, is merely the latest feat by the Oscar-nominated producer of Babel, who also oversees Anonymous Content’s sprawling production, management and commercials operations.
Founded in 1999 by Golin, 58, the 70-employee, Culver City-based Anonymous boasts a client list that includes Steven Soderbergh, Samuel L. Jackson, Marc Webb, Russell Brand and Emma Stone. The company also has succeeded in packaging such upcoming TV projects as HBO’s Woody Harrelson/Matthew McConaughey crime drama True Detective, the Showtime drama The Angry Buddhist, the Cinemax drama Quarry and AMC’s Ballistic City. The native New Yorker honed his aesthetic at NYU during the 1970s before heading west to attend AFI and co-found music video and commercial production company Propaganda Films, where he helped launch the careers of David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michael Bay.
The father of two — who survived cancer several years ago — took a break from his Hamptons vacation to speak with THR about the allure of an Edward Snowden movie and why Anne Hathaway let him down.
How important is it to have the first narrative WikiLeaks film?
Let’s face it: Whoever went first won, and the other ones are dead. It’s highly unlikely that someone’s going to make another narrative feature on this subject [because] it’s almost impossible for someone else to get financing.
You couldn’t have a more timely film than The Fifth Estate. How did it come about?
DreamWorks had optioned two books, one by some of The Guardian journalists and one by Daniel Berg. They wanted [Anonymous client] Josh Singer to write it, and they put us on it as producers. It was really initiated by DreamWorks, by Stacey Snider and Holly Bario. And then we [approached director] Bill Condon, whom we also manage. I worked with Bill a long time ago; we did Candyman 2 together. I knew that Bill liked politics a lot. Bill had a relationship with DreamWorks from Dreamgirls — they really liked him — and Bill is very smart about the material.
Fifth Estate doesn’t have a big star. Does that worry you? This summer has shown that expensive actors aren’t always worth it.
It’s definitely a double-edged sword: Investors want stars, but they want to get them basically for free. And look, I’m sympathetic to it because I see the numbers: how much the movies cost, how much the marketing costs, that they need to get a return on their investment. I think the business has become very, very tough on movie stars.
Speaking of movie stars, Anne Hathaway was supposed to star in your upcoming dark comedy Laggies but was replaced by Keira Knightley. What happened?
She wanted to do it, and then she decided she didn’t want to do it one day. There’s no more story to it. She called us up; she said: “I love the script. I’m doing it.” And then we ran around, lined things up. And then she said, “Something’s come up with another project.”
Was the other project Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar?
Don’t ask me. We were all very disappointed with the way that went down — and you can quote me on that. We didn’t have a deal in place, to be clear. Legally, there was no question about it. But I don’t think it’s right — that’s all I’ll say. I agree to do things all the time and wish I could change my mind. But when I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it, unless there’s a personal emergency or something like that.
You’ve also got a project about the church abuse scandal in Boston, which finds you partnered again with Fifth Estate co-financier Participant. But DreamWorks seems to have backed out of the project. Why?
I don’t really know. I just think that they’re kind of looking at what their slate is. We developed it with them; we’re really grateful that they helped us finance the development of it. The good news is, a lot of people have read the script, and there’s a tremendous appetite from the studios to get involved in that movie. I’m really surprised, actually. I think every studio has the opportunity to do one of these types of films a year. Because Tom McCarthy [The Visitor] is such a great director, and because the script is so good and the parts are good, we’ve got many incoming phone calls about somebody to co-finance with Participant.
You option a lot of hot-topic journalism quickly. Will you be the first to get an Edward Snowden project in the works?
We don’t have one, but we’re considering it. We’re trying to figure that out. It might be a good companion piece to WikiLeaks. Assange is just an enabler; Snowden is the leaker. Snowden says he’s a guy who signed a pledge, believed in something but had a crisis of conscience and betrayed his pledge. That’s interesting.
On the TV front, the HBO True Detective deal was interesting because it was straight-to-series, something HBO doesn’t do often. How did that happen?
Nic Pizzolatto, who’s a client of ours who works with [manager] Bard Dorros, pitched the idea to us. We paid him to write the pilot script, episode two and the bible. We gave [director] Cary Fukunaga [Jane Eyre] the script and attached him. Then we got Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. We had a pretty aggressive auction — a lot of people wanted to be involved — so we made a very interesting deal. We weren’t interested in doing a pilot; we wanted to shoot all eight episodes. And we had the leverage to get that done. We’re also doing The Knick at Cinemax, with writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and Steven Soderbergh directing 10 hours of it. That’s our TV model: Create material, put together a package that’s undeniable and go straight to series.
Do clients like Soderbergh provide the leverage, or is it the material?
The clients are very important, but ultimately it’s about the material. We have development money, so we develop things when the writer comes in and pitches something. Instead of getting HBO or Showtime to pay for the development, we pay for it. Then we package it and go out and try to sell it. We are not looking for development deals; we’re not interested in that.
How much development money do you have?
A lot. Honestly, more than we can spend. It comes out of the management division or the commercials division. We take the capital that we make from our businesses, and we invest that capital rather than just suck all the money out of the company every quarter. I want to build the company into something much bigger, where we own intellectual property.
Has Wall Street approached you?
We’ve been talking to people about getting even more capital, but as of yet we haven’t done that. There’s tons of money out there right now: There’s private equity; there’s Wall Street; there’s rich individuals. Money is not the problem. The problem is having a solid business plan and knowing what you’re doing, whether it’s a movie, a TV series or a company.
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