TIFF: WME Global Head Graham Taylor Sizes Up Film's Most Exciting New Players (Q&A)

Tommy Garcia
Graham Taylor

The sales veteran discusses the disappointing (or was it?) Sundance title 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' and the impact of IMG: "Everybody’s rowing in the same direction."

Never mind the high fives. After closing a particularly impressive festival deal, WME Global head Graham Taylor always breaks into dance. "Maybe a little Roger Rabbit," he jokes. “If it’s a good marketing release commitment, it could get the centipede. If it’s an old-school deal, maybe bring the Running Man in."

With more than $100 million in acquisition deals to his credit so far in 2015 — including Beasts of No Nation for $12 million and Sundance films Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for a combined $20 million-plus — the indie producer-turned-agent has found plenty of opportunity to bust a move. At Toronto, Taylor and his team of 12 (including fellow partners Liesl Copland, Mark Ankner, Alexis Garcia and Chris Rice) are representing nine finished films, including the Michael Moore documentary Where to Invade Next.

Given that Taylor, 44, spends an estimated three months a year on the road, the Maryland native strives to keep it fun, traveling as much as possible with his wife, producer Lynette Howell, and their 2-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son ("The only one that really gets shortchanged is our dog"). Taylor spoke to THR about the acquisitions landscape, why bankrupt Relativity won’t be missed and the benefits of being mentored by Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell.

What is the Toronto game plan this year?

It’s all about trying to find the right partner. There are roughly 75 movies being released between Labor Day and the end of this year. So as you’re going into markets and selling these pictures, it’s really about having a long view in the dealmaking process. Every distributor can do a great job with a movie, and, frankly, they can all wipe out. So it’s less about being caught up in the name of the distributor and more about who’s actually someone who connects with the movie passionately, has a point of view, has room on their schedule where it’s a priority and feels like they’re going to bring something fresh to the marketing.

You’ve closed more than $100 million in domestic rights deals so far this year. Is that a record for WME?

It is. Every year over the past 10 years, it’s been a higher figure [than the previous year]. The content that we’ve had has been stronger and stronger. There are more buyers. There are more ways to release a movie, and there’s been an increase in the number of movies we’ve put together.

Relativity obviously won’t be buying at the festival. Harvey Weinstein is a question mark. What are your thoughts on the landscape of buyers?

I’d say the only real substantial difference today is Relativity, and, historically, they acquired very few movies, particularly out of market. But I would absolutely keep my eyes on what [exiting Radius founders] Tom [Quinn] and Jason [Janego] are going to do. Those are two very smart operators.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reportedly sold for $12 million at Sundance but made only $6.7 million. What happened?

It was not sold for $12 million. It had offers of $12 million, but the financier elected to make a very smart deal with Searchlight wherein the financier, Indian Paintbrush, and Searchlight both economically did fine on that movie. I think the expectation was that the movie was going to be Little Miss Sunshine in terms of its ultimate economic life, but for what was spent to release it, what it did, what the movie was made for, the deal they constructed, everyone did well.

Which new players excite you most?

Beyond the obvious Netflix and Amazon, it’s Broad Green and STX. And then you have smart independent players that are quickly on the rise like The Orchard, Alchemy, Bleecker Street. The difference between a Relativity and a Broad Green or STX is Broad Green and STX are built like virtual studios, but they’re doing stuff for a fraction of the cost because they’re outsourcing pieces of their business, the expensive pieces. They’re not carrying a traditional studio’s infrastructure and overhead. And they have hundreds of millions of dollars and smart executives.

How has the landscape changed the past few years?

Look at our own core practice. We have an explosive independent TV finance and distribution practice we’ve been building. The biggest change is now there ultimately is no distinction. We see ourselves as media content, financing and distribution agents. It’s often figuring out, especially when it’s at the beginning of an idea, what form best serves the story. Is it a two-hour feature, is it a six-part, closed-end series? Is it an ongoing series?

How did WME’s IMG acquisition affect your division?

It was a huge boost. There are tremendous synergies between the entities coming together. So combining is clearly a one plus one equals three. It’s supercharging a lot of efforts that were already in place on the WME side. The combined operation feels like everybody’s rowing in the same direction.

Give me an example of that synergy in play.

IMG is executive producing The Gleason Project, which WME is co-repping and is being produced by our client, Seth Gordon. And WME filmmaker Peter Chan is directing a feature biopic about [retired tennis star and] IMG client Li Na, who will serve as a consultant on the project.

Who has been your biggest mentor as an agent?

Ari and Patrick. For more than a decade now, they both have empowered me, allowed me and financed me to go build this space and build it different. They encouraged fearlessness and fairness. Despite whatever press relationship they can have from time to time, there’s a reason people always mention a culture [at WME]. They let a scrappy indie producer [like me] come in here and helped me build a representation practice where we now represent over 50 financiers, distributors, theater chains and film and TV content companies.