Stuart Ford Talks New Indie Film Venture and Life After IM Global Split

THR Stuart Ford_THR_Stuart_Ford_Shot_01_030 - THR - H 2018
Michele Thomas

The veteran producer-financier, who last summer was forced out of the company he founded in 2007, also opens up about the two "behemoth" projects, including Roland Emmerich's World War II epic 'Midway,' that he'll be unveiling in Cannes.

As someone who has been at various times in his life a budding professional soccer player, a top-level film executive and a would-be sports mogul, Stuart Ford is used to reinventing himself. So last summer, when Donald Tang and his Tang Media Partners, the majority shareholders in IM Global, forced Ford out of the company he founded in 2007, the Liverpool-born scrapper dusted himself off and started over.

In February, with backing from Latin America, Silicon Valley and Abu Dhabi, and taking nearly his entire IM Global team with him, Ford, 48, launched a new production, financing and sales group, AGC Studios, which will have its official unveiling in Cannes. Ford fell out with Tang over the latter’s plans to merge IM Global’s highly profitable film production and international sales operation with the risky business of U.S. distribution, in the form of Open Road, which Tang Media Partners had recently acquired. Over 10 years, Ford had built IM into a global sales juggernaut thanks to indie hits like Jason Blum’s low-budget franchise Paranormal Activity and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

Part of his success can be attributed to staying away from U.S. distribution, which, with the rise of all-conquering studio blockbusters, has become a perilous business for independents. When he was unable to persuade Tang to drop his merger plans — which created new indie studio Global Road — Ford sold his remaining stake in IM and walked away.

Ford is still bound by an NDA forbidding him from discussing Tang or his IM exit. But speaking to THR as AGC was moving into new offices in the historic Taft Building at Hollywood and Vine, the married father of two was more than happy to talk about AGC, his mini-major ambitions and lessons learned from 20 years in the business. 

What do you want to do differently at AGC from what you did at IM Global?

IM Global was a business that was born and prospered initially as an independent film company and maintained that indie sales and financing outlook throughout its 10-year life span. We had a deficit financing fund, and we had our own TV distribution. I still like all those elements of the business, but AGC is a content company, first and foremost. We will still independently produce, develop and sell for the international marketplace, but we will also work much more extensively with the major studios and with the streaming platforms across film and TV. IM Global was also very much an indie financier — we thrived on picking up packages from the agency community, whereas now I think there is so much competition for premium content and premium talent, you have to be a developer as well.

Exactly how deep is your development war chest?

It would be indiscreet to put a number on it, but you can say a high-seven-figure sum for development. Which is still pretty indiscreet. Just for development. Across film, scripted and unscripted television. Don’t get me wrong — we still want to be in the packaging business, but we aren’t as reliant upon it. Because certainly on the film side, so much of the talent is making TV or doing superhero movies that you can’t sit and wait for availability. You have to generate the material yourself and build from the ground up. 

What are you bringing to Cannes?

We have two behemoth projects, by independent standards, both $100 million films: an Annapurna animated project with the voice talents of Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana and Zach Galifianakis; and Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic Midway. Cannes is an important milestone for us as a new company, and I think these will make a major statement.

Who do you see as your major competitors?

Although we are much smaller, we aim to go toe to toe with the big corporate independent companies. The Lionsgates, the eOnes, the StudioCanals, who are active in both film and TV. That’s the space we are going to play in. Albeit, at least initially, with a much lower overhead and balance sheet. But unlike IM Global, which was built essentially as a foreign sales machine, AGC will be less focused on volume and more on true premium-quality projects. 

Does premium for you mean big budget?

Premium could mean commercially premium, critically premium or both. The two projects we are bringing to Cannes are both $100 million films, so that’s the high end of the indie scale. That’s reflective of the bigbudget features that a few years ago would be pounced on by the studios but are now being financed outside the studio system, albeit with major levels of U.S. or international distribution. I think the market is most definitely there for these projects. Most of the indie distributors internationally are feeling starved. A lot of their pipeline has been cut off — through movies going to the streaming platforms, at the production stage or as acquisitions. So their acquisitions focus has become much less volume-driven. They have to focus on finding titles that can provide a significant commercial and/or critical reward. And they are willing to pay a premium for it.

Are you looking to enter into distribution-production partnerships with international buyers?

Yes. Another feature of our new business is that some of the material will specifically be earmarked for co-development alongside international distributors so that we are wedded to each other at an early stage, [which] hopefully gives them a better chance of securing distribution rights to muscular films down the road.

How many films do you want to make a year?

We plan to produce and finance three to five films a year, with budgets anywhere from $5 million to $65 million. Then I can see us handling three to five third-party films a year as well as a seller — but only the biggest and the best: no fillers, no small indies. I don’t think the marketplace has a strong appetite for them right now. Of those three to five, some will be channeled into the independent marketplace, some will be channeled into the studio system, some will land in the streaming universe.

You want to work both with the streamers and with international theatrical companies. But aren’t those two groups in direct conflict?

It is resolvable over time. Many of these distributors are well capitalized. They are muscular media companies with an appetite for content. Having said that, the indie distribution business overseas has been a little slow to react to the realities of how important the streaming platforms have become in financing content. I think they will have to follow the U.S. and become more flexible in developing the business alongside the streamers. The traditional modus operandi of international distributors sitting back and waiting for product to come to them is going to have to change. 

Will you be signing output deals in individual territories?

No, not output in the traditional sense, where they take everything. I think the tide has turned against formal outputs in recent years. Distributors have to be a little more bespoke in terms of what they acquire. And for many, taking an entire slate from an independent company is not playing to their strengths.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about this business?

“Listen closely to everybody on the inside, but make your decisions based on an outsider’s gut instinct.” From a fellow Brit: the late, wonderful Anthony Minghella, on how to function in Hollywood. 

And the worst advice?

From a junior executive at IM Global: “It’s embarrassingly cheap-looking and slow. Just watch the first half-hour and then call Jason and pass.” My longtime friend, producer Jason Blum, had asked me to consider picking up international rights to the then-unfinished and distributor-less Paranormal Activity. Fortunately, I ignored the advice. 

This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.