Searchlight Pictures is in the awards fray with three strong films: ’Poor Things’,’ All Of Us Strangers’ and ’Rye Lane’. But less well known is how pivotal its UK team has been in bringing these titles to fruition.

Searchlight lead 3x2

Source: Searchlight Pictures

‘All Of Us Strangers’, ‘Rye Lane’, ‘Poor Things’

For three decades Searchlight Pictures has consistently stood firm as an awards season and box-office powerhouse, punching through with titles including The Full Monty, Black Swan, Slumdog Millionaire, Twelve Years A Slave, The Shape Of Water, Nomadland and The Banshees Of Inisherin. Initially established in 1994 as Fox Searchlight Pictures, a specialty production and distribution division of 20th Century Fox, the company has stayed true to its path of supporting independent, often edgy, film­making voices that can also find favour with audiences, as exemplified by the trio of hot titles in play this awards season: Poor Things, All Of Us Strangers and Rye Lane.

What is less known is the pivotal role that its lean UK operation has played in driving the creation of these and other titles on the Searchlight slate. “I think some people still don’t realise we’re here, and how bespoke we are,” says Katie Goodson-Thomas, executive vice president, head of film production and development and the founding member of Searchlight’s UK team. “There’s an assumption that everything is somehow just coming out of the US.”

Smooth operation

The UK office has been running since 2013, with UK projects previously overseen from Los Angeles. “The Full Monty was the film that made them realise the UK could be a foothold,” reflects Goodson-Thomas. The Bafta- and Oscar-winning 1997 comedy was backed by Film4 at development stage, but the UK funder opted out for production, with Searchlight fully financing at a $3m budget and later grossing more than $250m worldwide. Searchlight’s further notable UK forays included backing Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, produced by Jeremy Thomas’s Recorded Picture Company, and Never Let Me Go. The company distributed Sexy Beast (2000), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), The Last King Of Scotland (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Goodson-Thomas, a former producer, initially joined to work across both Searchlight and private equity fund Ingenious Media, which had struck a co-financing deal in 2011, and was tasked with searching the UK for new investment projects. “For the first year, I didn’t even have an assistant,” she recalls. But Goodson-­Thomas fought to get the UK noticed. After two years she was moved into the now shuttered 20th Century Fox Soho Square office, to work solely for Searchlight.

“Partly that was because I had been a British producer before, so I was more proactive than they were used to,” she says. “Suddenly we had a slate, and there were loads of films about to go. Also, the industry here over the past decade has continued to get stronger and stronger, and they could see there was commercial potential.”

The blossoming slate highlighted the need for a fully-fledged team, with 2015’s Far From The Madding Crowd the first dedicated Searchlight UK production. Titles to follow included Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, A United Kingdom, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Favourite and The Banshees Of Inisherin.

The London office’s production and development squad now totals a small but mighty four, headed up by Goodson-Thomas, who along with her US counterpart DanTram Nguyen has joint oversight of film development and production on both sides of the Atlantic; they report into Searchlight’s US-based co-­presidents Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum. “We both run everything, and we have each other, but I tend to oversee the UK [and European] productions in a more hands-on way, and she tends to oversee the US ones,” she says.

In the UK, Goodson-Thomas works alongside Pete Spencer, director of development and production, who came to Searchlight in 2017 from Big Talk Pictures and oversees the day-to-day running of the London office. They are supported by two assistants, Florence Darlington and Tara Williams, who are across development and talent outreach.

Rounding out the team are legal and business affairs and marketing and distribution, bringing the total Searchlight UK workforce to around 15, most of whom are based in Disney’s corporate HQ in Hammersmith, west London. The production and development team, however, stayed behind in Soho, moving into a comfy fifth-floor base in London’s media heart, after Fox’s Soho Square office was closed in the wake of the Disney acquisition.

Bespoke and boutique

Katie Goodson-Thomas, Searchlight Pictures

Source: Bay Thomas

Katie Goodson-Thomas, Searchlight Pictures

Searchlight is able to straddle both the comfort of being part of a US juggernaut like Disney, which acquired Searchlight as part of its $52.4bn takeover of 21st Century Fox in 2019, while remaining nimble and rooted in the UK industry. “We seem to have the best of both worlds,” observes Goodson-­Thomas. “We have the establishment and benefit of that overarching machine. But we also have the freedom to be creative.

“There aren’t many places that have that connectivity with the US but are also concretely based here,” she continues. “We know everyone and can work with everyone.” (For their part, Searchlight co-presidents Greenfield and Greenbaum offer the following praise to their UK team: “Katie and Pete’s focus on UK filmmaking talent and strategic partnerships is an invaluable on-the-ground resource that helps shape our entire production slate.”)

Being embedded in the UK industry allows Goodson-Thomas and her team to keep close ties with the public funders, BBC Film, Film4 and the BFI, and UK-based producers, tracking projects and talent and looking for the right opportunities for Searchlight to come on board at the development stage, as a co-­producer and/or as a financier and executive producer. Film4 in particular is a regular partner — Poor Things was co-financed with Film4 and All Of Us Strangers was developed by Film4 and financed by Searchlight — but it also works with the BFI and BBC Film, as it did on Rye Lane, which the three partners co-financed.

They also have longstanding ties with some of the UK’s leading independent producers. Goodson-­Thomas started her career at Graham Broadbent and Damian Jones’ Dragon Pictures, collaborating with the producers again on All Of Us Strangers and Rye Lane through Broadbent’s Blueprint Pictures and Jones’ DJ Films respectively.

Searchlight’s US production and development team is around 14 people compared to the UK’s four. “We don’t see ourselves as an outpost, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful,” says Goodson-­Thomas. “Matthew and David run the department, I talk to them every day. I’m on Zooms until 11pm most nights. There are a lot of conversations about what I’m having for dinner.”

The magic sauce

There is no single recipe for a Searchlight title, but there are key ingredients. “It could be a familiar story that’s just told in a completely unique way. That’s what attracts us to a new project,” says Goodson-Thomas. “A great example is The Favourite — on paper it’s a standard period piece, but only Yorgos [Lanthimos] could have told it in that way.”

The executive believes their “magic sauce” is taking time to develop projects and foster relationships with filmmakers. “It all starts with a cup of tea,” she says. “I don’t ever want to make a film with a director I don’t know quite well.”

The UK office has around 20-25 projects in development at any one time. While none of its awards season contenders this year were developed in-house at Searchlight, they fit its ethos of having “a deep humanity”, says Spencer. “That runs pretty much through all our films.”

“We don’t really greenlight films at Searchlight,” adds Goodson-Thomas, “we tend to just keep moving until someone says stop.”

William Oldroyd’s Eileen is a film they developed and let go — but having a strong development-to-­production ratio remains important. Searchlight tends to be most involved in prep and post. “You don’t want us on set — if I’m on set there’s usually a problem,” quips Goodson-Thomas. “There have been productions where I’ve had to be on set every day, and that’s not a good thing.”

The production and development team is keen to involve their marketing and distribution colleagues at an early stage. Everyone reads the script before greenlighting any project and, she says, “we all have a proper conversation about who wants to do it”.

“I’ve made films before out of the UK where the majority of people have said, ‘Not sure,’ but three of us are passionate about it,” she continues. “As long as we’ve got one person from marketing, one person from distribution, that’s enough. That’s another thing that gives us the edge — marketing and distribution are so important for us, we want to make things they will know how to sell.”

For Rye Lane, which is Bafta-nominated for outstanding British film and lead actress (Vivian Oparah), producer Jones previously had a first-look deal with Searchlight, which had expired. However, the relationship had roots, and BBC Film had flagged director Raine Allen-Miller as a talent to watch. “Normally we wouldn’t do a film of that size [budgeted at $3.8m/£3m] but we had just started streaming [Disney+ launched in 2019], which was a very new thing for us, and Raine was a very exciting talent,” says Goodson-Thomas.

Rye Lane was released theatrically only in the UK-Ireland, and received a window of two weeks before landing on streaming platform Disney+. It grossed $1.5m (£1.2m) at the UK-Ireland box office. “I don’t regret not releasing it theatrically anywhere else,” affirms Goodson-Thomas. “That project isn’t one we made for financial reasons — it’s about Raine finding her voice. I think it’s one of those films that will get more of a cult status over the years.”

Theatrical, however, remains Searchlight’s bread and butter. “We’re obviously a theatrical company, and that’s what we want to do most,” she maintains.

All Of Us Strangers is nominated for six Baftas, including outstanding British film of the year and best director. At time of writing it had passed $3.5m (£2.8m) at the UK-Ireland box office after 10 days on release. The Searchlight team had been tracking the project for some years, with Film4 developing an adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel Strangers with Goodson-­Thomas’s former employer Broadbent and Blueprint. When Andrew Haigh boarded as director, it became a no-brainer for Searchlight.

“Andrew is the perfect example of the type of filmmaker we want to work with, but it had to be the right project,” she says. “We like to bring those auteur voices to a wider audience.”

Auteurs do not come much more singular than Greek filmmaker Lanthimos, who first collaborated with Searchlight on $15m-budgeted The Favourite, and is working on Kinds Of Kindness with Searchlight and his regular collaborator, UK-Ireland producer Element Pictures. “We had heard about Emma Stone and Tony McNamara and the Poor Things package and we’d talked to Yorgos about it, but never take for granted that we will necessarily be the next home,” says Goodson-­Thomas. “But then we had a first look with him, so obviously we did get first look.”

Element Pictures had struck a first-look deal with Searchlight in 2018, and Searchlight was the majority co-financier on the $35m-budgeted Poor Things with Film4. The feature is one of Searchlight’s biggest budget investments to date, and boasts 11 nods each at the Oscars and Baftas. Searchlight is also in contention at the Oscars with Eva Longoria’s feature debut Flamin’ Hot in the original song category, and documentary short The Last Repair Shop.

Pete Spencer

Source: Searchlight Pictures

Pete Spencer

Looking ahead

While having the backing of Disney has its benefits, it is no guaranteed cushion. Disney had a challenging year in 2023, and CEO Bob Iger has scheduled $7.5bn in cost savings by the end of 2024. In April of last year, 4,000 staffers were cut from Disney, including Searchlight employees. There are currently no plans to expand the UK team, or launch international Searchlight offices. “Now everybody’s seen with streaming [that] the streets aren’t paved with gold,” says Goodson-­Thomas.

Upcoming Searchlight projects are sitting in the mid-range of $15m-$25m budgets. UK talent with whom the team is currently working includes The End We Start From filmmaker Mahalia Belo, with a fresh feature in the works after her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion at Searchlight was pulled.

Further international projects on the slate include comedy Rental Family starring Brendan Fraser from Japanese filmmaker Mitsuyo Miyazaki, whose credits include Netflix’s Beef, plus Bob Dylan biopic A Complete Unknown, directed by James Mangold with a cast including Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning and Edward Norton.

Acquisitions is run out of the US, headed up by Chan Phung, but the UK team remains keenly involved in these conversations. “We work very closely with [acquisitions]. We just bought A Real Pain from Sundance,” says Goodson-Thomas, with Searchlight snapping up global distribution of Jesse Eisenberg’s comedy drama for a robust $10m, one of the major deals of the festival. “We all watched it in the office and fed in our notes.”

The landscape for mini-major studios is also becoming increasingly competitive, with the likes of Black Bear and A24 setting up UK offices and venturing into in-house distribution. Searchlight is committed to staying competitive, and prides itself on its expertise in worldwide distribution. “That’s one of the reasons why filmmakers come to us and why our campaigns can be so good,” says Goodson-­Thomas.

In truth, studio is not a categorisation they have ever felt wholly comfortable with. “We want to be seen as a safe space, rather than as a studio,” confirms Spencer.

“Talent are rightly scared of studios, especially the younger talent we want to work with,” says Goodson-­Thomas. “I just like [to be known as] Searchlight.”