Magnolia Chief on Boss Mark Cuban, Harvey Weinstein's Wrath and His Hunt for Fringe Films at Cannes

Dustin Cohen
Eamonn Bowles

Eamonn Bowles, president of one of the last indie distribution houses dedicated to art house fare, opens up about why controversy pays off and how Lars von Trier got a bum rap at the festival.

Don't expect Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles to be striking any multimillion-dollar deals at the Cannes Film Festival. Instead, Bowles — who runs one of the last indie distribution houses dedicated to art house fare — will be on the hunt for documentaries (controversial or otherwise) and foreign-language films others might overlook.

Two years ago, Magnolia bought the Swedish dramedy Force Majeure out of Cannes, which went on to earn a tidy $1.4 million at the U.S. box office and handily more on VOD. More recently, it partnered with HBO Films to acquire the 2016 Sundance doc Tickled, a bizarre Catfish-like tale about people who sign up for "competitive endurance tickling" that opens June 18 in theaters, as well as the anti-Scientology doc My Scientology Movie, a British film backed by the BBC.

Magnolia is owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Entertainment, which also operates Landmark Theatres, making Magnolia a pioneer in premiering films early on VOD (presently, the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave is doing big business). The company, celebrating its 15th anniversary in an environment where so many indies have come and gone, guarantees a return on investment through sheer volume: With a lean staff of 35, Magnolia often releases more than 30 films a year. Its list of docs is impressive: Blackfish, Man on Wire, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room among them. In addition to Man on Wire, six other Magnolia docs scored Oscar noms, including Jesus Camp, Food Inc., No End in Sight and Capturing the Friedmans. Its top-grossing films at the box office are the features Women Thou Art Loosed ($6.9 million) and The World's Fastest Indian ($5.1 million).

Bowles, 60, moved from Belfast to America when he was 1 and is the married father of three grown daughters. He long has moonlighted as a musician and has played in the same punk band for 18 years. Bowles recently sat down with THR to talk about why controversy pays off, how Lars von Trier got a bum rap at Cannes and why he bolted from his job at Miramax after encountering the wrath of Harvey Weinstein.

What is the biggest challenge facing a smaller indie distributor like Magnolia?

The splintering of the formerly dedicated independent film audience. A lot of it has to do with television programming, including on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. They are coming up with the sort of complex, interesting programming that used to be the domain of independent film. There used to be an identifiable base group that went to the theater based on good reviews and a particular director.

What adjectives would you use to describe Hollywood studio movies?

Pandering. Obvious. Non-complex.

Has it gotten worse?

I think the LCD [lowest common denominator] factor has been ramped up in Hollywood the past few years. They're conforming to their audiences. If exquisitely intellectual films about difficult subject matters did a lot of money, Hollywood would be all over it. The studios are making movies for a global audience. Things are reduced to a sort of universal wow factor.

What's the maximum you will spend?

It's really just what we feel comfortable with. I would say a mean average for our films is around half a million dollars, but we will spend zero to $1.5 million to $2 million.

Is Cannes still an important acquisitions market?

Yes. We picked up Force Majeure and The Host out of Cannes that were fantastic for us. Everybody talks about the failures of Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, but people don't look at the smaller, around-the-edges movies. We picked up Best of Enemies [about the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.] and Tangerine out of Sundance in 2015, plus Wolfpack and Blackfish.

You bought Blackfish in partnership with CNN. Did you have any idea the impact it would have?

Honestly, we were having difficulty getting publicity before we opened the film. But then right before the film opened, SeaWorld sent something around to all the critics about what was wrong and inaccurate. It was such a boneheaded document. All of the critics went, "What?" We then got this huge piece in The New York Times about how SeaWorld is trying to suppress this film. The movie went gangbusters from there.

Why do you zero in on controversial material?

You have to get noticed, but you must have the right kind of controversy. The flip side is that in the past couple of years, controversy has not been selling as big. We have 24-hour advocacy on all of our news channels, with people yelling at each other. In this political climate, I think people are more and more wanting to go to theaters to escape. They want comfort food. They don't want to go and watch unpleasant subject matter, like Capturing the Friedmans, which deals with child abuse. One of the good things about VOD is that it's much more palatable for people to watch a film like that at home.

Magnolia already had bought von Trier's Melancholia before the infamous 2011 news conference at Cannes where he joked that he was a Nazi. Were you in the audience?

No, I was not. I was actually recuperating in a French hospital from slicing my hand open the night before. And I get on the plane, and I'm still woozy from all the painkillers, and my BlackBerry just starts blowing up. I didn't personally talk to Lars. He pretty much keeps to his own counsel.

Organizers banned him for life from the festival. Did he get a bum rap?

Yes. No question about it. He was like the mischievous kid in the back of the class.

Has Magnolia received threats over the years?

Yes. It was scary when we did Brian De Palma's Redacted [the 2007 war film was a fictional dramatization of the 2006 Mahmudiyah killings in Iraq, when U.S. Army soldiers raped an Iraqi girl and killed her and her family]. There were people online in conservative chat rooms, including extreme-gun chat rooms, who gave out De Palma's and Magnolia's addresses, suggesting that maybe someone should give him and us a visit. We thought about getting security at the front door.

There's a famous story about how Harvey Weinstein persuaded you to come work at Miramax in the '90s.

I was working as head of distribution at Samuel Goldwyn Films in L.A. and went down to the Sarasota Film Festival. We had just released Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet [in 2003], and it did $7 million out of nowhere. I was on a beach with some friends, and Harvey came over in a terry-cloth outfit with a cadre of assistants and yelled: "Which one of you is Eamonn Bowles? That [Wedding Banquet] was textbook. You have to come work for me." About a year later at Sundance, I met him, and he said he was going to offer me a job. I was very much wanting to get back to New York.

What did you do at Miramax?

They put me in charge of a new company that released Kids (2005) by Larry Clark, which was just about the most controversial film in recent memory because it was about teens having sex. After a few months, I became head of acquisitions at Miramax in New York. The first year I was slightly golden because of Kids. But at some point Harvey got mad at me. I saw him do it to every executive. After a while, you get the full force of his anger. So my enthusiasm about working there wasn't particularly great. I stayed two years total.

How often do you talk to Mark Cuban?

We communicate almost exclusively by email. He and Todd have been very, very supportive. We get all of our films approved by them, but they do not see them, we just give them the financial details.

They talked about putting Magnolia up for sale several years ago. Are those discussions still active?

No. I think they just wanted to get a valuation for Magnolia and Landmark in the real world.

What was the initial investment in Magnolia?

Mark and Todd were two of the original group of five. And we started with something like $1.2 million for the distribution side. About a year and a half later, Mark and Todd bought the Landmark theaters and bought out the other investors in Magnolia. Mark and Todd were very bullish on messing around with theatrical windows. Having a theater chain meant we could do day-and-date releases on VOD and in theaters.

What's your daily routine like?

It's pretty boring. I don't really travel much. I pretty much sit at my desk, get behind my computer and commune with my co-workers. I live in Port Washington on Long Island and take the train every day into the city.

This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.