Cannes: Pulse Films CEO Talks 'American Honey,' Viceland and Producing Beyonce's 'Lemonade'

Thomas Benski Exec Suite - P 2016
Jason Frank Rothenberg

"The concept behind the company has always been the same: to create a multidisciplinary independent studio," L.A.-based exec Thomas Benski tells THR. "But maybe certain aspects of that have only been visible recently."

When Vice Media took a controlling stake in Pulse Films this year, many would be forgiven for assuming it simply bought into another uber cool content creator, noted for producing scores of hit music videos (with such hipster-baiting types as FKA Twigs, Flying Lotus and DJ Fresh) and the odd bit of British TV.

But the past few months have seen the indie studio — set up in 2005 as a platform for emerging talent — burst into the film scene dramatically. First, there was February’s breakout hit The Witch (whose domestic haul of more than $25 million makes it the year’s biggest indie film by some stretch), and now there is Andrea Arnold’s Cannes competition entry American Honey. There also is the not-insignificant matter of Beyonce’s all-powerful Lemonade video, co-directed by Pulse regular Kahlil Joseph.

At the core of the company is its CEO and co-founder, Thomas Benski, 36, a self-confessed "confused kid" who was born in Brazil with a French father, then raised in Italy before moving, at 17, to London, where he would establish Pulse. Now based in Los Angeles, Benski talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his friendship with Vice's Shane Smith, grabbing the current momentum of feature films and one notorious fair-haired woman named Rebecca.

Pulse has been around for more than a decade, but only now is really making its mark in the scripted feature-film world. Was this part of a carefully planned strategy?

The concept behind the company has always been the same: to create a multidisciplinary independent studio. But maybe certain aspects of that have only been visible recently. We’ve really tried to start the business and build it concurrently. It wasn’t that we were a music video company that then went into features and so on. It was very much that we wanted to do all of these things, but obviously shortform content has an ability to be produced and developed much quicker.

So how did you become involved with American Honey?

We’ve always believed in building the company through partnerships and relationships that last for more than one film. We struck a deal with [New York banner] Parts & Labor about two and a half years ago, and that was one of the projects that was on the slate. We came onboard from that moment onward and really helped from the U.K. perspective; Lars Knudsen did a great job as the lead producer on building that film.

So scripted features are going to be a big part of Pulse’s output going forward?

Making films in whatever capacity has been at the core of what we do. Now that we’ve been having some traction, we’re trying to really grab the momentum and put ourselves in a position to make more movies, bigger movies, better movies. But we’re also not in the volume business. Realistically, we’ll be looking at making two movies per year that we co-produce, and then see what happens. If we have the capacity to do more, great.

Earlier this year, you sold a majority stake in Pulse to Vice, with which you’d been working for some years. How did this deal come about?

I’ve known [Vice founder and CEO] Shane Smith, [Vice chief creative officer] Eddy Moretti and [Vice president] Andrew Creighton for a long time. They’ve been great peers, friends and partners, and this collaboration has been organic and one we’ve really enjoyed. This latest deal is just the manifestation of a desire to leverage each other’s businesses as much as we can. It was a no-brainer.

What does having Vice onboard bring to Pulse?

Vice is having such an incredible moment right now. It will offer us opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise and hopefully fulfill some needs for Vice as a media company. We’re super excited about this. We know each other very well culturally and have had the time to learn about each other. I think the deal came at the right time for both businesses.

Vice obviously will be thirsty for content as it launches the TV channel Viceland globally. Are you going to help provide some of that?

Yeah, hopefully — it’s very much the idea for us to try to provide premium content for Viceland and all of their different channels. This is a huge opportunity for us and our talent to make groundbreaking TV, so absolutely, we’ll do everything we can to try and be very present in the schedule. Watch this space.

Are you not worried your friendship with Smith might come under strain?

Maybe I’m naive, but I look at Pulse, and my partners are my friends, too. Lucas [Ochoa], my producing partner, is one of my best friends; Marisa [Clifford], my co-founder, is one of my closest friends. I think the friendship allows you to probably be more direct about things because you know it’s coming from the right place.

In addition to The Witch and American Honey, Pulse also has been behind one of the biggest talking points of the year, Beyonce’s Lemonade video. How did you end up producing this?

This is really the fruit of a great filmmaker whom we work with, Kahlil Joseph, and a relationship that he had with Beyonce. We work on lots of commercial and music projects, and this was one that he was interested in doing. We produced it, but it’s really his vision.

As producers, do you know the identity of Becky with the good hair?

No! (Laughs.)