Head Gear Films' Phil Hunt on Finding Financing Amid Post-Pandemic Uncertainly (and Why He Now Has a Mohawk)

Phil Hunt - H - 2020
Credit: Phil Hunt

The prolific Brit exec producer admits that while film financing may have "fallen of a f***ing cliff" since the start of the pandemic, issues over insurance and bank lending could see him back more films than ever.

With more than 300 films to his name across 25 years in the business, Phil Hunt, founder and managing director of London-based financier Head Gear Films, is one of the most prolific exec producers around.

But Head Gear — which he founded in 2002 and helps fund film, TV and video games, and has backed titles such as Minamata, Black Mass, Belle and X+Y — is just one of Hunt’s six businesses. There’s also the sales banner Bankside Films (he’s co-managing director) and, offering a hat tip to a love of ale, his proudly “non-conformist” LGBTQ+ London pub The Apple Tree, part of his Bohemia umbrella, which recently expanded to include the production and investment company Bohemia Media, focussing on diverse storytelling.

With such a growing empire, the COVID-19 pandemic struck Hunt on several levels. Like most U.K. venues, The Apple Tree has been shut for several months (and is currently hoping for a mid-July reopening, government guidelines permitting), while film financing, he explains, has “falling off a fucking cliff.” Just as the world entered lockdown, he was even forced to charter a 747 to extract the team of John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven — another film he’s financing— from Morocco (although Ralph Fiennes was apparently happy to stay).

But speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Hunt explains that, coming out of the pandemic into a very uncertain world also offers something of a “massive opportunity,” especially in the lower-budget film arena. Essentially, if insurance concerns mean that banks won’t back the producers he likes working with, then he will.

How’s your lockdown been so far?

It's really nice to have a quieter world. But it hasn’t let up — I’ve been working flat out. But I am a bit of a workaholic who will make stuff to fill the time. I’ve got six businesses, so there’s always been a backlog of stuff to sort out. I’m just looking into starting an internet radio station for my pub, Bohemia, and I’m planning to start another company. I’ll be announcing something later this year in the film space. The new things are not baking, although my other half has been doing lots of bread. And because my pub is closed and I love ale, I’ve ordered a load of ales and try to have one each day at 5:30 in the garden. And I’ve also got a mohawk. I got into punk when I was a teenager. I’d been meaning to get one for a while, and put in on Facebook and dared six other people to do it as well.

We’ve heard a lot about how the crisis how hurt exhibition and production, but what's the impact been on film financing?

Film financing has fallen off a fucking cliff. I'm down about 85 percent on money out. But I’ve been doing deals with video games tax credits and bits and pieces of TV. That said, I’ve got something in Serbia that is still looking pretty good for September. It hasn’t been announced but a studio pre-bought it. And I’ve got a movie shooting in the desert in California in the coming weeks, but that’s pretty low budget, under $1 million.

Did it all begin falling off a cliff in March, like the rest of the industry?

Yeah. I happened to go to L.A. on March 6 for seven days. There were bits and pieces of news about [the COVID-19 pandemic] but I was like, fuck it. And that was a weird week as the agencies refused to see anyone — you weren’t allowed to go to their offices. That was the start of it. When I got back on March 14, on the Monday we had a film shooting in Morocco, John Michael McDonaugh’s The Forgiven. And we had about four-five hours until the borders closed indefinitely. And this is a film that I’ve almost fully-financed, so I had a lot of approval. Ralph Fiennes wanted to stay. But I just couldn’t, so we had to get them out and we had to hire a 747 — the last plain that we could charter — for £150,000 [$188,000]. We had to reset that film for September.

And was that the first of many dominoes to fall?

Yeah. Then there was a bunch of stuff in pre or closing that was just not going to happen. There was one that I was fully financing, a lowish budget, $2.5 million film, and the producers were like, maybe we can shoot in two weeks. And I said I’m not doing it. I’m not funding a movie that you think you’re going to shoot in two weeks. And there were a number of others. So since then I’ve been focusing on the TV side of things and video games, alongside my pub stuff and a couple of big renovations I’ve got coming up.

Do you think, as we come out of the crisis, there’s going to be a fundamental shift in filmmaking and financing?

It’s all about risk. And the older I get, the more I understand how to measure risk, and the key to understanding this is the word assumptions. Where we’re at right now is a variant of assumptions that is so wide that it’s a very difficult question to answer.

When the variant is too wide, do not trade. So when you’re dealing in highly-traded volume stocks — Amazon, Google etc — the difference is an absolute gnat’s cock, it’s minimal. On a penny share, the variant is so much greater. And that is where film sales are at the moment. We talk about how the middle has dropped out of the market — you either win or lose. Now sales estimates on lower-budget dramas with no A-star cast, the variance on the estimates is fucking massive these days, more than it was 20 years ago.

To get back to your question, I just haven’t got a clue. But the most optimistic point of view is that early next year we're going to have got rid of all the COVID procedures and restrictions on a film set and the COVID risks and it will be back to normality. The pessimistic view is quite the opposite, that the COVID procedures are all in place and there’s no insurance for COVID, and if there’s no insurance then the banks are not lending. Which actually gives me a massive opportunity.

How so?

Because I'm a private lender, and I assess risk in a totally different way to banks. Also I’m a producer, and I make a stand to help some producers. I started out as a producer, but ended up stopping because I was shit at it, but I still love producing so wanted to invest and help. So for me, this situation isn’t just about me going, hey, I’ve got an upper hand I can do deals where others can’t and can make money. It’s also equally, if not more, about being able to help people producing realize their films. And I can quantify this — I can get stuck right into producing.

So as awful as this situation has been for the industry, for Head Gear Films it actually presents something of an opportunity to finance more films?

Absolutely. We've been talking to all of our regular filmmakers. We’re not usually the first money in — you’d normally bring us on board once you’ve got your equity. So we’ve been telling them they should be talking to us much earlier than they normally would, and that that’s going get your film in a safer place, the risks of getting into production are lessened.

Also, we’re not just a lender, we don’t just help producers out by writing checks, but by connecting them to the right people and deals. There are a lot of awful practitioners in this show, because money talks and everyone is after money. So having worked in this industry for quarter of a century and having worked on over 300 movies now, we have a lot of authority to be able to bring people in line.

For Head Gear, next year you could be exec producing a lot more films than you normally would?

Yeah. That’s what I want to do, to help producers get back to work as quickly and as effectively as possible, working with all my regular partners, whether that be the BFI, Screen Australia, and key sales companies and distributors and trying to ensure the business starts properly again.

Are you going to have any involvement in the two digital Cannes markets?

I think it's really for buyers and sellers, so it's kind of fairly pointless for a lender to participate. My business is about being in touch with producers every day of the year. I might be wrong here but I don't see the benefit of a lender participating in a virtual market.

But the good thing about keeping it virtual is that the city of Cannes won’t get all our money. Their festival rates — I believe — are more than at any other event throughout the year. This is my message to Cannes: Hey Cannes, you fuckers, don’t be so money-grabbing. You are now catering for an industry that has lost three-quarters of its money over the past decade, so bring your rates down, you bastards.