Launched six years ago, Legendary Pictures survived the economic crash and continues to bring private equity and hedge-fund investment to Hollywood movies. Jeremy Kay meets chairman and CEO Thomas Tull.

It is difficult to believe Legendary Pictures has been around for such a relatively short time. In the six years since it launched, the company’s name and knotted Celtic-style logo have adorned acclaimed entertainment including The Dark Knight, 300, Watchmen and Inception, which opened last month and raced to more than $228m worldwide after two weekends.

The sci-fi thriller marks the third time Legendary and its co-financing and producing partner Warner Bros has collaborated with UK director Christopher Nolan following the global triumphs of The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. For Legendary chairman and CEO Thomas Tull, an astute businessman, film lover and self-professed fanboy, the journey has been immensely satisfying. “The success we’ve had starts with Warner Bros,” Tull says from his offices on the studio lot. “I started the company in 2004 and approached [them] to talk about what I thought the future of the business looked like and how we could work together both financially and creatively.”

He had in fact engaged in conversations with several studios, but quickly identified a meeting of minds with Warner Bros citing the “honour and acumen” of chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, president and COO Alan Horn, and president of Warner Bros Pictures Group Jeff Robinov, among others. Tull brought $500m in private equity to the studio from investors such as ABRY Partners and AIG Direct Investments.

Straight off the Bat

Tull, the former president of media and entertainment holding company The Convex Group, secured access to capital through his connections in media, entertainment and private equity and kicked off the relationship with Warner Bros on Batman Begins, a $372m worldwide hit which created an instant franchise. Subsequent investments have included The Hangover, Superman Returns and We Are Marshall, as well as the recent comic-book adaptation Jonah Hex, a rare miss for the company.

Legendary develops many of its own projects which it will then take to Warner Bros, and gets involved at an early stage on appropriate ideas from the studio. “We don’t go into a room and pick from a chart and vice versa,” Tull says, adding that the output is generally four to six titles a year.

“We’re a very director-driven company and have had the privilege of working now three times with Christopher [Nolan], three times with Zack Snyder [300, Watchmen and the upcoming fantasy thriller Sucker Punch], we’re about to do our third film with Todd Phillips [The Hangover, upcoming 2010 release Due Date and The Hangover 2], about to do our second movie with Bryan Singer [Superman Returns, the upcoming Jack The Giant Killer], a movie with Sam Raimi [World Of Warcraft, expected sometime after 2011] and Spike Jonze [Where The Wild Things Are].

“We’ve been very fortunate to work with the best directors on the planet. We do movies that are commercial, but hopefully elevated in concept and execution. You look at something like The Dark Knight, and as I’ve said before, that cast could just as easily have done a Shakespeare movie. So we tend to focus on things, candidly, that I want to see as a fan. We’ve done a lot of comic-book stuff and movies we think have a great theme and are interesting both here and globally.”

For Tull, the important role played by international cannot be overstated. “It’s front and centre. You have to ask yourself how the movie is going to translate and what about it is going to appeal to international audiences. In our business it’s more than a 50% issue, so it’s something we spend real time on. Veronika Kwan-Rubinek [Warner Bros’ president of international distribution] is the best and is amazing at helping us decipher the black box of international.”

The economy and the changing face of the business have inevitably thrown up challenges. “There are an awful lot of questions to be asked at the front end and your margin of error is shrinking,” Tull says, noting that the studios have been doing what they can to hedge risk “and they have distribution fees that provide a nice steady cash flow”. He recognises that Legendary’s capital is important even to a giant like Warner Bros because “in general it’s more difficult to find the level of capital these days”. He adds: “Our hope has always been that we’re adding creatively and financially and from a development standpoint.”

Tull believes in the theatrical experience and says the jury is still out on how VoD will evolve. Nonetheless, new media cannot be ignored and former EA senior executive Kathy Vrabeck has been brought in to head Legendary’s interactive entertainment business. “We’re looking at acquiring things for that space as well as some organic growth,” says Tull. “We’re at the exploratory stage.”

Scheduled releases for later this year are Due Date and Ben Affleck’s crime thriller The Town, followed by Sucker Punch and The Hangover 2 in 2011.