Former Universal Chairman David Linde on TIFF Bet, What He Misses About Running a Big Studio

Hussein Katz
David Linde

The Lava Bear founder has four movies in the coming year (including the supernatural thriller 'The Forest' and Amy Adams starrer 'Story of Your Life') and hopes strong relationships with filmmakers equal successful hits.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Toronto Film Festival marks a reunion of sorts for David Linde, the longtime film executive who ran Universal Pictures with Marc Shmuger before they were ousted in 2009 just before Comcast bought NBCUniversal. Lava Bear, the production and financing company Linde launched four years ago with his own money and backing from India's Reliance Entertainment, will be in Toronto for the premiere of the immigration thriller Desierto, starring Gael Garcia Bernal — whose career was launched by Y Tu Mama Tambien, a film Linde handled when he ran Good Machine — and directed by Jonas Cuaron, son of Y Tu Mama and Gravity filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. Desierto is one of four Lava Bear films set for release in the next year as the company faces crucial box-office tests; they include supernatural thriller The Forest (Focus, Jan. 8) and Story of Your Life, an alien epic directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) and starring Amy Adams. (Paramount paid $20 million for North American rights to the $50 million Story.) Linde, 55, a married father of two college-age sons, and Lava Bear presi­dent Tory Metzger, a former CAA agent, are drawing on filmmaker relationships to build their slate. In addition to several Chinese co-productions, Lava Bear helped finance The Rover, from Australian director David Michod (Animal Kingdom). That film didn't do much business ($2.1 million worldwide) but paid off in another way: After Michod directs Brad Pitt in War Machine for Netflix, he'll shoot the historical epic The King for Lava Bear and Warner Bros. that the elder Cuaron is producing. Linde spoke with THR in his Culver City office about Lava Bear's goals, his investors and what he misses about running a big studio.

Staff at Focus Features arranged this playful photo of Alejandro G. Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron as a gift for Linde after Inarritu made 2003’s '21 Grams' there.

You've been at this for about four years and are ramping up production. How many films do you want Lava Bear to make a year and at what price?

Three to four in addition to executive producing one or two such as Desierto. So far, the budgets have been between $5 million and $50 million. But we have multiple projects in development budgeted in the $75 million to $100 million range. There are more distribution opportunities than there have been in five to 10 years, both at the studio and independent level. Our leverage as creators is to try to control as much of our development as possible.

Is Reliance 100 percent committed considering its investment in DreamWorks hasn't really paid off?

Lava Bear is financed partially by Reliance. They've always been supportive and involved in the company and continue to be so.

Do you have any China investors?

No, but we are building a China business under the basic presumption that China is going to represent 30 percent of the worldwide box office by the time 2018 rolls around. We've co-produced three Chinese movies so far — Flowers of War, which grossed $96 million in China, Coming Home and The Bodyguard — and are developing two others. I don't know any Americans who have been involved in five movies [there] in three years.

One of your 2016 releases, Shut In, is going out through Red, the joint venture between EuropaCorp and Relativity. Will Relativity's bankruptcy hurt it?

We're not involved with Relativity. EuropaCorp has been incredibly supportive of the production, and we've found the executives at Red to be equally supportive and on their game.

What lessons are to be learned from Relativity?

For independent film producers, it shows how complex the world is and how important it is to be prepared for any sort of situation. Things can be really golden one minute and then get incredibly difficult.

In Desierto, Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. meet a racist who takes border patrol duties into his own hands. What would Donald Trump make of it?

If you are asking if folks should see a dynamic, very topical film by a terrific, thoughtful director, absolutely. (Laughs.)

Is there anything you miss about running a studio?

The money? I never purposely built a career with the aim of running a studio. I always tried step by step to expand my own experience. Working for a studio provides you with a lot of structure and relationships, and it was an invaluable relationship.

Do you see a superhero backlash coming?

In the age of Marvel, the bar for superhero movies is now extremely high. Audiences will continue to expect and demand that high level.

What is the biggest challenge facing Hollywood?

We all recognize it is theatrical windows, especially as younger audiences get older and have more money. They will demand broader access to content in a shorter timeline.

How did you choose the name Lava Bear?

I grew up in Oregon and went to summer camp in the mountains when I was 9 or 10. The coun­selors would tell us, "Don't wander away, there are lava bears out there." I believed in lava bears for a long time.