The Fox and Warner Bros veteran talks about a studio-aligned equity finance model for local-language films.
Clifford Werber was already intimately acquainted with local-language production from his senior executive days at Fox and Warner Bros. So as he watched demand grow and, closer to home, witnessed trends like lower distribution fees create increasingly advantageous positions for studio partners such as Alcon and New Regency, the idea for Fluent Entertainment was born.
“The past 15 years or so have been witness to an evolution in equity film financing models in Hollywood as well as the growing success of local-language films,” says Werber, a former SVP of acquisitions at Fox where he snapped up international rights to Braveheart and the ex-head of global co-production and acquisitions at Warner Bros where he was involved on Trainspotting and Asterix, among others.
“Fluent is a marriage of these two evolving opportunities and perhaps the first of its kind to combine the apparatus of a studio-aligned equity finance model to local-language films.” Fluent’s financial and advisory clout thus far comes from New York-based bank CIT Group and European law firm Olswang plus a strategic investor within the US. The studio component was sealed in March with a three-year worldwide first-look deal that tapped into Sony Pictures’ highly prized distribution network.
Werber began exploratory talks with his eventual studio partner in mid-2011 at a time when the likes of Disney, Paramount and Universal were scaling back their local language co-production and acquisitions businesses to varying degrees. “While at Fox and Warner Bros, when we first launched local-language film strategies, the only studio then actively involved was Sony,” Werber says. “While we’ve seen some of the studios recently recalibrate their focus on local content, Sony’s hasn’t wavered. Together, we identified an opportunity at Sony to build an Alcon-like financing structure.”
The company aims to make 10 films a year in multiple territories and its M.O. is to find an intellectual property, take it to an international producer – although Werber notes that in 80% of cases the producer will most likely come to him with a property – inject equity into the equation and offer up Sony’s pipeline.
“The appetite for local films has increased and the films have improved in quality and become more commercial,” he says. “Fifteen-or so years ago local films were predominantly auteur-driven and released like specialised films. We didn’t see a lot of romantic comedies, teen or family films. Audiences have responded in kind and today local language films are in wide release and, in many territories, populating, if not commandeering, the top-ten, week after week.”
Werber anticipates identifying the first crop of titles with Sony this year in time for release in 2013. When a project gets the greenlight in a territory Sony can also dangle the carrot of test screenings and will advance the p&a. The distribution mandate extends only to the territory where the film gets made, although the partners are free to explore wider footprints. Sony’s distribution fee in the Fluent deal is, Werber says, “very competitive.”
Prior to the studio’s involvement Fluent set up a couple of productions in Germany. Funf Freunde is a remake with Sam Film of the classic young adventure property Famous Five and is on its way towards one million admissions through Constantin. A remake of Brazilian body-swap comedy If I Were You is in the works with H&V Entertainment.
“A local territory can be something of a petri dish for intellectual property,” Werber says. “If you can’t get Harlan Coben’s Tell No One or Enid Blyton’s Famous Five produced in the US – and Lord knows I’ve tried – you might well produce it in France, Germany or elsewhere as a local-language film.”
Once a project is set up, Werber likes “to get out of the way” and leave the creative decisions to the filmmakers. But he’s not averse to offering business advice and the runaway $325m-plus success in Europe of French hit Intouchables offers pause for thought. “We think a producer should try to hold on to the rights outside of the territory because he or she is waiting for that time when the rights have value as an exportable film.”
The retreat from the international arena some years back of New Line International and Miramax has created a dearth of regular US product flow and led to the larger focus on local product. Fluent is betting on being in the right space at the right time. “Today we’re seeing local film market share rise, from India’s 90% to France’s 42%, Germany’s 28% and Korea’s 52% and there are emerging territories joining the fray,” Werber says. “The number of local films breaking out and the upside of these breakout films has markedly increased.”
The industry is taking notice. “Clifford pioneered the studios’ local-language production efforts here in Brazil and helped expand the market for our films here and worldwide,” says Carlos Diegues, who chairs the 2012 Camera D’Or jury in Cannes. “A filmmaker could not ask for a more supportive partner.”
Pre-1986: Worked as an attorney in the private entertainment practice of Shagin, Myman, Abell & Fineman
1986: Joined Twentieth Century Fox, rising five years later to svp of feature film acquisitions
1996: Moved over to Warner Bros to head worldwide film co-production and acquisitions
1999 onwards: Worked as an independent consultant at Summit Entertainment, Scholastic Entertainment, Helkon International Pictures, among others
2004: Signed overall producing deal with Warner Bros
March 2012: Unveils Fluent’s distribution deal with Sony