HanWay Films Duo Talk A24 Partnership and 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties' Bash

Dan Kennedy
Peter Watson and Gabrielle Stewart

Gabrielle Stewart and Peter Watson discuss juggling a whopping four films in the Cannes lineup.

At the vanguard of the independent film scene since it was set up by Brit producer Jeremy Thomas and colleague Peter Watson in 1999, sales banner HanWay Films comes to Cannes this year with a whopping four films in the official selection. And it’s an impressively varied lineup, too, boasting a Neil Gaiman-inspired sci-fi (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), a Takashi Miike samurai epic (Blade of the Immortal), a Thai boxing prison drama (A Prayer Before Dawn) and an all-star splash of Yorgos Lanthimos peculiarity (The Killing of a Sacred Deer).

The sizable Croisette action comes more than six months after Gabrielle Stewart joined Watson at HanWay’s HQ in central London. A former Focus exec who returned to the U.K. after four years in L.A., helping to establish Bloom with Alex Walton (also a HanWay alumnus), Stewart took over as managing director for Thorsten Schumacher, who left to set up his own company.

Stewart and Watson spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the recent changes at HanWay, having new stateside BFFs in A24 and what it takes to survive (and make a profit) for 20 years.

Is four films in Cannes a company record?

PETER WATSON We’ve had several years where we’ve had two films in competition and even one year where we had two of our own productions in competition. But we’ve never had four in official selection before.

GABRIELLE STEWART And we have four films in great slots. We worked hard to get those!

What does having four films do for a company like HanWay?

STEWART It’s just really useful in terms of getting talent into films. It instills confidence. And in a world where it gets harder and harder to put together the financing of independent cinema, to have that kind of record so that we can come on board early with producers and help them, because of our reputation, our relationships, Jeremy Thomas’ relationships, is great.

There were some high-profile departures last year. Was it a shock to the company?

WATSON Well, I think you’ve got to understand what the company is, which is a sales business that has 20 years of trading history. In our 20 years, we’ve never failed to make a profit ever. We have 25 people, which makes us probably the only full-service sales company that is privately owned in Britain.

STEWART I came in, and we were able to make a couple of key new hires. It was an opportunity to just altogether freshen things up. A fresh pair of eyes. It gave me a little bit of freedom as well to just, you know, throw in some new ideas.

Where would you position HanWay in the market?

WATSON A couple of small films can be handled well by a small company, but then there’s this sort of abyss between those and the bigger companies. And we’re one of the only independent bigger companies. There are those like StudioCanal and eOne, which operate in our space, but they’re all public, so we’re not really comparable. But in terms of our punch in the market, I think with our slate we may not be seen as a force like StudioCanal, but I think we are seen as still quite a weighty business.

Away from the studios, with three out of the four films with A24, it sounds like you’ve found a perfect partner in the U.S.

WATSON They’re an amazing company. In general, U.S. distribution has resurged in the last three, four years. New companies, new capital, new ways of releasing films. It has given rise to a really exciting independent marketplace. We’re now selling everything for America. Six, seven years ago, it was all or nothing. And the other thing is that they’ve found a way to get to the more educated, discriminating audience. That’s the audience ultimately that we’re aiming for.

Rumor has it the afterparty for How to Talk to Girls at Parties is going to have a punk band …

STEWART Let’s just say this: It’s going to be the party of Cannes, believe you me. And I’m really happy it’s on the Sunday and not earlier. It’s the slot we fought for because we’re like, what we need is a fun Sunday afternoon, have a fun red carpet, because afterward it’s going to kick off. It’s going to be an insane party.

This story first appeared in the May 21 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.