Creative Space

Saban Films President on Netflix, Amazon's Big Buys and How to Be "Agnostic"

Photographed by Christopher Patey
"The easiest way to describe [Saban] is what we don’t look for, which is foreign-language [films] and documentaries," says Bromiley, photoraphed Aug. 14 at the Saban offices in Santa Monica. "It’s the categories our competitors do really well with, but it is not a forte."

Bill Bromiley also discusses counterprogramming against the majors and why measuring a film's success is no longer just about box office.

Saban Films is heading into its fifth year at the Toronto International Film Festival. The anniversary comes as smaller distribution outfits like Broad Green and The Orchard have folded or been sold off, upstarts like Neon aggressively court filmmaker-fronted projects and streamers continue to cut bigger and bigger checks. But, says Saban Films head Bill Bromiley, his indie film distributor continues to thrive by abiding by its model, now a half-decade old: Going with "name-driven-cast genre films."

The company might not be getting the splashiest market titles or the potential awards contenders at fests, but Saban has carved out a niche for action thrillers, crime dramas and sci-fi features toplined by name talent (think Keanu Reeves' Siberia and Nicolas Cage’s Between Worlds). Ahead of TIFF, Bromiley, 57, talked to THR about how the industry has changed in the past five years, Netflix and Amazon’s big buys and why Saban is "distribution agnostic."

Why do you focus on genre movies?

There is an appetite for it in most of America; that is the short answer. It is becoming more and more important to try to buy and distribute films that are of higher quality. Because of social media and the amount of critical and public awareness that has lent itself toward the success of films, we have to be careful. How have you seen festival markets change in the past five years? The biggest change has been that markets and festivals would be a place where you would come to discover a film, and most of the films had no distribution attachments whatsoever. Because North America is such a large territory, it has become mandatory that to get films financed, you have to presell North America, unless there is a big equity investment. A consequence of that is that there is a North American distributor already attached to a good percentage of the films.

Do you think the big buys that happened at Sundance are going to affect the festival markets this year for Saban?

There has always been those big buyers that are willing to stay up all night and spend exorbitant amounts on movies. It may not be necessary, but they want the movies and they get them. From our perspective, if Amazon or Netflix really wants a movie, they are going to get it before Saban gets it. But I don’t think that affects the way we view the amount of product that will be available to us. Ultimately, you are talking about two or three titles at a market that go for the big chunk of money, but there are going to be 30 to 40 other titles that don’t have that.

How do you release a film in 2019?

You have to be very careful. But, the beauty of it is, you don’t have to spend as much money as you did in the old days because it was driven more by ad spends, and today you can use social media to drive a business, and that is a lot cheaper.

Is counterprogramming against the majors something you think about when you are going after niche audiences?

Counterprogramming is definitely a factor in our movies’ successes, but it doesn’t necessarily happen in the theaters. One of the things we also preach is that we are distribution agnostic, which means that our goal is to get a consumer to watch the movie — and where that revenue comes from is not important to us. It doesn’t mean we need a $20 million box office to be successful. We could be very successful with a $1 million box office or less. The eyeballs that eventually watch that movie depending on the film can come from a variety of places: digitally, in your home, airlines — it can come from anything. So, we are very conscious of that and good at exploiting that.

With recent projects like Rob Zombie’s 3 From Hell and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, you have gotten involved with films much earlier than you have in the past. Why?

Rob [Zombie] came to us and said, “I want to do my next movie with you guys. Will you do it?” We aren’t a development company, so we can’t pay to develop projects, but we began working with him at the script level. We did the same with Kevin Smith and Jay and the Silent Bob Reboot. We ended up financing big chunks of both of those movies. And that’s been a conscious decision to do this more aggressively in the past year and a half. I would say more than half of our movies are pre-bought today as opposed to when we launched, 90 percent were finished acquisitions. Will you continue to prebuy? Yeah, I think it is a good thing for us. By getting involved earlier, you know your release schedule. That is how I am able to tell you that in 2020, three-quarters of our slate is already established. I know when the movies are going to be delivered and when they will be ready to roll. The downside is you don’t know the quality of the film. You have only read the script. But it’s not just us, it is the way the business is going.

Will you continue to prebuy?

Yeah, I think it is a good thing for us. By getting involved earlier, you know your release schedule. That is how I am able to tell you that in 2020, three-quarters of our slate is already established. I know when the movies are going to be delivered and when they will be ready to roll. The downside is you don’t know the quality of the film. You have only read the script. But it’s not just us, it is the way the business is going.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 8 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.