Sierra/Affinity Distribution Exec Jonathan Kier Outlines His TIFF Showcase Strategy

Jonathan Kier H 2015
Scott Witter

Jonathan Kier H 2015

The industry veteran handling foreign sales for the fest's opener ('Demolition') and closer ('Mr. Right') comments on the shuffle at his former company, Weinstein Co., and which major market is most surprising.

Toronto is a big festival for Sierra/Affinity president of sales and distribution Jonathan Kier — from beginning to end. The industry veteran handles foreign sales for opening-night film Demolition, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paco Cabezas’ action-comedy Mr. Right, which closes out the event.

Since joining Sierra/Affinity four years ago from The Weinstein Co., the New York native (who speaks 10 languages) has worked on some of the most critically acclaimed films that have made their way to fests, ranging from Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler to triple Oscar winner Whiplash and The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling.

This year, Kier, 41, is bringing new footage of prison drama Shot Caller and Chris Pine-starrer Comancheria to show to buyers, but, as he tells THR, he’s also focusing on allowing the Toronto Film Festival to be the showcase foreign buyers want it to be.

What are you looking forward to this year?

We’re very excited. Demolition has sort of come full circle for us. We started selling the film last year at Toronto. And last year, Jean-Marc Vallee had Wild, and Jake [Gyllenhaal] also was there with us with Nightcrawler. So now we’re going back with both of them.

Does it seem strange that Demolition is opening the festival even though Fox Searchlight scheduled it outside of awards season, on April 8 in the U.S.?

It didn’t really occur to us. Jean-Marc is Canadian, so that makes sense. Toronto is a great audience-friendly film festival for something like this.

How does Toronto compare to the other film festivals?

It’s the most user-friendly for the audience, but also for the sales agents and buyers. It’s very convenient and easy. The fact that audiences are so good in Toronto gives buyers a much better gauge of what might work and what might not, compared to the very cinephile festivals. Toronto is a cinephile festival as well — it tends to have all the Oscar contenders — but it also has such a strong audience presence and it’s in a big major international city. You don’t get that at some of the other festivals that are in resort towns. We also are treating Toronto the way the buyers want it to be, which is as a showcase and not necessarily as a market. That message has been loudly conveyed by the buyers.

Why is that?

A lot of the Europeans are going straight from the beach to Toronto. They don’t necessarily want to be bombarded by scripts and presales. They want Toronto to be a showcase for footage and finished films. And AFM is six weeks later. We have product that we’re holding for AFM, and it’s not for a lack of product. But sometimes you get a movie that needs to be launched at Toronto because it’ll begin shooting. Demolition is a great example of that, and Nightcrawler the year before.

What are the challenges facing international sales agents today?

I think there’s been a lot written about the new platforms that are emerging and what that might mean, but that the end of the day, we at Sierra are a theatrically oriented company. And our buyers want theatrical films. That’s the space we’re in. Global box office is still growing, and we haven’t experienced some of the declines that have faced other consumer-driven entertainment. Ticket sales have been hovering around the same level for about a decade, which I see as positive. So there are a lot of changes, but we are still focused on theatrical films.

Is there any fear or concern about the growth of VOD?

Yes, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. I think people have been talking about the death of cinema for about 100 years, since the beginning. VHS was supposed to destroy it, and DVDs were supposed to destroy it. At the end of the day, people are still looking to be entertained and be moved and be inspired — all the things that cinema does. And the fact that people are still going to the theaters is the main thing that drives our business. All those other ancillary things are great, I hope they grow, but I don’t think they’ll grow at the expense of cinema.

What’s been a surprising result of a recent film you worked on?

Whiplash sold very well, but I’ve rarely had distributors [who didn’t buy the film] come to me after and say it was their favorite film. So many came to me later and were angry with me that I didn’t force them to buy the film. In many territories there were bidding wars, and it was great. In France in particular, the film was an enormous success, and I had many French buyers come to me and say, “You know I’m a drummer. Why didn’t you force me to buy the movie?”

Who bought it in France?

Ad Vitam, which we had never worked with before, and they buy just one American film per year. They did an incredible job. The year before they had Mud, and the year before that it was Take Shelter. I think they’re tastemakers.

Is there a lesson to be learned from the messy bankruptcy of Relativity?

I’m sure there are many lessons, and it remains to be seen. We’re all wading through the papers. It’s an evolving situation. I’m very curious to see what lessons we’re going to learn. I don’t think there’s been a situation like this in 25 years. Companies shut down for various reasons, but that seems to happen quietly. When something like this happens, the first thing everyone seems to be concerned with is what is happening to the existing movies. And when that business is taken care of, we’ll have to look at how they got there, how did these people let them get there.

What’s the biggest misconception about international film sales?

The international film financing world is very specific, and not every film can be financed in this space. If you’re going to finance a film in our world, you have to be respectful that different countries have different tastes, different preferences, different moviegoing habits. Not every film can be made in this space. Giant tentpole films don’t come from our space for a reason. Our space tends to produce high-quality, story-driven films, which the studios aren’t really as focused on.

There have been several high-profile exits at The Weinstein Co. As a former employee, do you think there’s something bigger going on over there?

I’m sure everyone is going to be talking about it. It seems to be independent events that seem to be happening at the same time. I wouldn’t change my time at the Weinstein Co. for anything. I learned everything from my time there, and it really was the best training.

How do you see the business changing in the future?

What’s interesting is seeing, over the past 10 years, various countries go through political and/or economic crises and emerge on the other side, and the markets are still there. People are still going to see films in Greece, Spain and Italy. I don’t feel that international has peaked or anything like that. I think that American culture is still our greatest export — our music, our TV, our films, so I don’t see that changing. What’s interesting is what is happening in Russia, where there’s an embargo. That’s a different situation. That’s new and something we haven’t experienced with a major market.