ThinkFilm at 5

ThinkFilm has thrived for five years in the dog-eat-dog world of New York indie film distribution.

Unsimulated gay sex. Improvised dialogue. No stars, and barely any professional actors. A $2 million budget cobbled together piecemeal. What distributor in its right mind would take on a film with as many risks as John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus"? And after the controversial film became a critical hit at this year's Festival de Cannes, what distributor would Mitchell trust to roll out such a minefield to the public?

The answer to both questions is ThinkFilm, a company that has grown over the past five years by taking exactly these kinds of chances, walking a tightrope without the net of corporate affiliation and nabbing several Oscars along the way. Born when Lions Gate Films opted to shutter its New York offices and move its headquarters to Los Angeles in 2001, ThinkFilm is comprised of former executives and assistants who worked in the company's New York and Toronto offices and decided that staying indie -- and staying in their hometowns -- would be their priority.

The other key mandate, of course, was to seek out daring, challenging films, which can be a very risky business. For every movie like 2004's children-of-prostitutes docu "Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red-Light Kids," or the current critical darling "Half Nelson," there have been boxoffice disasters like Gus Van Sant's 2003 film "Gerry." But such failures have not deterred this indie's indie: At least one sure-to-be-controversial docu about a popular and ubiquitous four-letter word, "Fuck," is set for release Nov. 10.

"Their name is very fitting, in that they truly believe audiences want to think and want to be challenged," Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Pena says. "Their audience is people who go to films to have their minds opened up, not to be pacified."

Having founding staff members that were already a tight-knit, assimilated group has been one secret to ThinkFilm's success. The core group that runs ThinkFilm today still largely consists of the original Lions Gate refugees, including former president Jeff Sackman; former president creative, East Coast Mark Urman; former vp home entertainment Marc Hirshberg; and former vp acquisitions and business affairs Randy Manis. Today, ThinkFilm employs 35 staffers, many of whom have risen internally like Daniel Katz, a once titleless Lions Gate employee whom ThinkFilm promoted to vp acquisitions in 2004.

"The idea was that there was no formal hierarchy," ThinkFilm president and CEO Sackman says. "We put together a team of qualified, capable people who work well together, have the respect of the industry, the respect of each other -- and just hustle."

"They've shown they can be successful with films where other companies might say, 'I don't think there's a market for this,'" Pena says. "They find the market. And any company with Mark Urman is at an immediate advantage. He has great taste, a wealth of experience and a great attitude."

What got ThinkFilm going back in 2001, however, was more than just a solid group of employees. Sackman had a friend (whom he declines to name) who armed him with a low-seven-figure loan to acquire Canadian distribution rights to more than 40 films from Blackwatch Releasing, which was going out of business. The deal, which ThinkFilm senior vp finance and operations Hirshberg describes as "miraculous," included the 2003 release "Last Wedding" (the opening-night selection for the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival) and many stateside Sony Pictures Classics releases including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which won the foreign-language Oscar in 2001.

The loan and the TV and video rights to the films "basically gave us our fuel to get going," says Sackman, who repaid his friend within two years.

Before the official launch, says ThinkFilm U.S. theatrical head Urman, "We were subterranean and secretive -- nobody knew what any of us was doing." The company had a bittersweet debut at the Toronto fest just four days before the Sept. 11 attacks but rebounded in 2002 with three acquisition announcements at the Sundance Film Festival: Peter Care's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," Bart Freundlich's "World Traveler" and Laurent Cantet's "Time Out."

Within two months, Think-Film founded its straight-to-video genre division, Velocity Home Entertainment, headed by Sackman and overseen by vp finance and operations Hirshberg, and made its first worldwide-rights-and-prebuy deal with Thom Fitzgerald's "The Event."

The company enjoyed solid growth until January 2003, when issues arose over ThinkFilm's initial financial backing, and Sackman's longtime friend, Alliance Communications founder Robert Lantos, stepped in, buying a 50% stake in the company and taking over as chairman. ThinkFilm received another cash infusion in August 2004, thanks to private equity from Canadian investment firms Covington Capital Corp. and Dynamic Venture Opportunities Fund.

As any independent distributor knows, money is hard to come by, and Urman attributes the company's overall longevity to its intelligent use of resources. "What we spend on (prints and advertising) on some of our big boxoffice films relative to what other people spend is just so much less," he says, comparing ThinkFilm's summer release "Strangers With Candy" to another film from a studio specialty division that he declines to name.

"They went out on 800 prints to make something around $4 million, and we never did more than 100-and-something prints to make more than $2 million. They must have spent $7 million-$8 million in P&A, and we spent 1?5 of that. So, who's making more money? It's all about the bottom line."

And it's about the future. That expansion financing from 2004 helped ThinkFilm start releasing its theatrical features on DVD under the new ThinkFilm Home Entertainment label (alongside its Velocity straight-to-DVD titles). The company also has launched an international sales division, which debuted at Cannes in 2005 under the direction of Alliance Atlantis Pictures International president Mark Horowitz. ThinkFilm recently promoted David Fenkel from vp marketing to vp international sales, tasking him with heading up the company's international division.

"It occurred to us that the international theatrical exploitation of nonfiction film was a growing market," Urman says. "We were discovering these films at Sundance nobody knew anything about, getting them a great deal of attention, and then someone else was picking up international rights and making money. Why would we want something else to do that?

"It's an advantage going into markets if you're in a position to make a worldwide offer," Urman continues. "One negotiation, one delivery -- and you just have more to offer any buyer."

And considering its positioning for the future, ThinkFilm has just begun to strike multipicture deals to build its brand and its relationships with filmmakers and stars.

Whether such arrangements lead to even bigger ambitions -- such as a sale of the privately held company or a rethinking of ThinkFilm's modus operandi -- remains under wraps. Sackman will say only that "this company has been for sale since it started," adding that he's very content with the way the business is operating. "I've been in this business 20 years, and I've seen 50 distributors come and go," he says, "So, I'm very proud of the fact that we continue to exist. Period."