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FilmNation: state of the nation

Guided by Glen Basner, FilmNation has effortlessly mixed critical acclaim with commercial success. Jeremy Kay talks to Basner as the company celebrates its fifth anniversary.

It says a lot about New York and Los Angeles-based financing, production and sales outfit FilmNation that one of the hallmarks of its success in the first five years can be seen not just in its heavyweight market presence, but on the red carpets of the world’s leading festivals.

Takes Cannes as an example. The hard work of CEO Glen Basner and his team have ensured three titles from the sales roster secured Official Selection berths on the Croisette.

There is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in Competition, Sofia Coppola’s Un Certain Regard opening film The Bling Ring and JC Chandor’s Margin Call follow-up All Is Lost starring Robert Redford, which screens out of competition.

“People know us in Cannes, so the movies we screen there do well,” says Basner during a phone conversation in the run-up to the Riviera. “One of the things we have always focused on is to have not just exciting things to sell but to distribute. Last year we had two movies in Cannes [Lawless and Mud] and it’s a strong indication our choices are good ones.”

Basner will agree it was good initial choices that paved the way for the launch of the company. The trio of investors - Boston-based developer Steven Samuels and brothers Anthoni Visconsi and Dominic Visconsi who hail from a Cleveland family real-estate empire - have been unwavering in their support.

“These gentlemen were there with me at the beginning and have been great partners and integral to our success,” says Basner. “The first decision I made at FilmNation was a good one.”

Things have come a long way since the founder sat down in his New York kitchen with an initial staff of three to outline a vision for a world-class financing, production and sales company. Since then, there has been Looper, there has been Magic Mike and before either film there was The King’s Speech, the multiple Oscar winner that amassed a spectacular $279m at the international box office.

Basner previously served as president of international at The Weinstein Company and executive vice-president of international sales and distribution at Focus Features, which inspired confidence in his backers.

His wealth of experience and that of the now 30-strong team has built a company that adds value to every customer in the chain.

The key may lie in catholic taste and knowing when to exercise it in a way that delivers the right film - be it mainstream or arthouse - to the right audience at the right time. FilmNation’s sales slate has delivered some $800m in revenues over five years, of which a mighty $468.5m came in 2012.

Key drivers were $117.2m for Mirror Mirror, $120.2m for Rian Johnson’s sci-fi smash Looper, $60m and counting for Magic Mike and around $87m for Sanctum.

“The word ‘quality’ means a lot of different things to a lot of people but our approach in film choices is one of quality, whether it’s commercial like Looper or Magic Mike or arthouse like The King’s Speech or I’m So Excited!,” says Basner.

“We achieve that through contact with world-class film-makers like Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Pedro Almodovar, Jeff Nichols, JC Chandor, Anton Corbijn and Rian Johnson. Most of them have come back multiple times.

“To be able to attract these great film-makers is exciting and to have them come back to us is crucial to our success. You see a combination of established film-makers and exciting ones coming up like Rian, Jeff and JC.” Among the established film-makers, FilmNation has nurtured strong ties with Terrence Malick, among others, representing sales on To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups and the untitled follow-up.

The Cannes sales roster is led by a reunion with Looper partners CAA, Endgame and FilmDistrict on Tarsem Singh’s thriller Selfless to star Ryan Reynolds. A trio of new titles unveiled at the EFM in Berlin this year included the untitled Marc Lawrence project starring Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei, serial killer thriller Solace with Colin Farrell and Anthony Hopkins, and drama The Imitation Game to star the in-demand Benedict Cumberbatch.

A compelling mix

Sometimes the eclecticism raises an eyebrow. Looper, sure. But Genius? Even with Michael Fassbender and Colin Firth, a drama about the relationship between author Thomas Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins seems like a hard sell. Basner chuckles and delivers a swift riposte.

“Several years ago you might have thought the same thing about the story of a British monarch with a stammer.” For the record, Genius sold out after last year’s AFM.

FilmNation does not have a franchise yet, but Basner is not unduly bothered. “I would love to have one but we’re always looking to go out and get films that are compelling to us and create value in the market. If that is a franchise, fantastic, but if not we’re going to move on. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a franchise, but it’s just about consistently delivering the highest quality we can.”

The financial viability of the company was confirmed earlier this month when FilmNation secured a $50m equity-backed, revolving credit facility with Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Union Bank. The investment will allow Basner and president of production Aaron Ryder to finance, produce and acquire more films and at higher budgets.

The production arm under Ryder, whom Basner describes as “very creative, smart, constructive”, goes from strength to strength. Nichols’ Southern drama Mud premiered in Cannes last year and opened well in April through Roadside Attractions, garnering the latest round of positive reviews for a revitalised Matthew McConaughey.

Previous in-house productions include The Raven and House At The End Of The Street, while Dan Beers’ teen sex comedy Premature is coming down the pipeline, and FilmNation will finance, produce and sell in association with David Linde’s Lava Bear the sci-fi Story Of Your Life from Nic Mathieu. Ryder is currently producing Alcon Entertainment’s Transcendence, which Basner regards as a big vote of confidence in his colleague.

“[Over the years] we have [developed] a much stronger sense of who we are, how we should be acting and what type of films we should be involved with,” says Basner. “When you start a new company you start to learn about yourself through trial and error like a youngster. I feel we’re like a young adult, and we know and like who we are, and that clarity is something we enjoy.

“Everybody on the team adds a tremendous amount of value, not just to the company but to the films we work on. There are many points of contact [with the likes of producers and financiers] and one of the things we hear a lot is what a great team we have. To me that’s very important because we feel the team is our biggest asset.”

And what comes in the next five years? “We started thinking about the next steps a year ago,” he says. “We decided we were going to invest all our success back into content, so last Cannes we acquired almost all of the world on David Michod’s The Rover.

“The evolution in the next two to three years will be quite dramatic with our ability to fully finance and invest directly. We can look to be more strategic corporately. It’s been a quick five years,” he says, before pausing, “It’s really only just begun for us.”

FILMNATION AT A GLANCE

  • Sales titles premiering at Cannes in Official Selection Nebraska (Alexander Payne); The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola); All Is Lost (JC Chandor)
  • Cannes market buzz title Selfless directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Ryan Reynolds. Endgame Entertainment financing; Film District to distribute in the US
  • Production slate Mud opened on April 26 in US through Roadside Attractions on $2.2m; House At The End Of The Street; The Raven
  • Coming up Premature, Out Of Sight
  • Sales highlights The King’s Speech (2010), $279m international box office; Sanctum (2011), $86.8m; Mirror Mirror (2012), $117.2m; Looper (2012), $120.2m; Magic Mike (2012), $59.8m (opens in Japan in August)

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