With two mega-budget films in production under a new deal at Sony Pictures and the launch of their own distribution outfit, FilmDistrict, Graham King and his business partner Tim Headington have become Hollywood’s most ambitious empire-builders.

When I meet him in September, Graham King declares with a mixture of weariness and resilience that he has travelled between Los Angeles and Europe a total of 38 times in 2010. It can’t be avoided. The producer has two $100m-plus movies shooting in Europe this year: romantic adventure The Tourist starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese’s first family film –— and his first shot in 3D.

“Seriously, I have been living on a plane,” he says. But King, now a fixture in the Hollywood firmament, has always set himself ambitious targets. He was never just a movie producer or a studio man and for all the scale and pedigree of his films, he has perhaps never been more in control of his own destiny.

In 2007, King split with his former business partner, Colin Cotter, and teamed up with Dallas-based oil billionaire Tim Headington to cash flow his productions, avoiding any of the credit crunch pitfalls with which other
independents struggled. Two years later he left his Warner Bros base and negotiated a put deal with Sony Pictures for two event pictures a year.

GK Films, as King’s company was now rebranded, would cover its own overhead and production costs, while Sony would pay for worldwide p&a. If that weren’t dream deal enough, King last year finally found a situation
in which he could work with his old friend Peter Schlessel, the well-liked executive who was president of worldwide affairs at Sony. King hired Schlessel in June as president of GK Films and in just two months, the two hatched a plan to launch their own US distribution company.

Finally unveiled recently with Schlessel as CEO and distribution veteran Bob Berney as president of theatrical distribution, FilmDistrict will handle between four and eight wide-release films a year. The company will have a
close relationship with Sony which will handle ancillary rights; some of the films will even go through Sony’s Tri–Star and Triumph labels. In addition, FilmDistrict will provide consulting services to Sony Pictures Worldwide
Acquisitions (SPWA), the lucrative division of which Schlessel was the architect and through which he brought This Is It, District 9 and many other titles to the studio.

Among the first films to go through FilmDistrict early next year are King’s productions The Rum Diary, directed by Bruce Robinson and starring Johnny Depp, and London Boulevard, directed by William Monahan and starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley.

King describes FilmDistrict as another “avenue of control” for his indie-style productions but also as a means of exploiting the huge gap in the market left by the demise of many of the studio specialised divisions.

That said, the company is not necessarily designed for smaller films. “The movies could be anywhere from $10m to $70m. It doesn’t go into my two slots a year with Sony which is for tentpole films but it’s not far off either. It’s for different levels.”

With the ability to finance films himself at the very top level, a close and privileged relationship with a major studio for distribution, his own distribution capability and an international sales arm, King is building an ambitious independent infrastructure unparalleled in the Hollywood business.

Key to his success are his relationships, both with talent such as Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and with Headington himself. “I met Tim about six or seven years ago through a lawyer friend of his. He’s an oilman and will tell you he runs a small independent company,” chuckles King. “He said he was very interested in films and would love to invest in them. I spent about a year getting to know him because dealing with high-profile talent as we do, you never know who you want to bring into their world.

“Every time he came to Los Angeles, we had dinner, and after that I told him that he shouldn’t invest in movies but in a company. If it’s me, great; if it’s not me, that’s OK too. But if you invest in a company, your risk isdiversified across all the films that the company makes.”

The year was 2006 and the timing for King couldn’t have been better. He was about to win the Oscar for producing The Departed, a movie which grossed $290m worldwide. Headington decided to back King and invested “a small amount of money” in return for a small percentage in the company.

In May 2007, after Cotter had left, King sat down with Headington and talked about the future. “I told him there were two ways I could go. I could move to the Warners lot and become a producer for Warner Bros, or we could blow this up and really go for it. But I told him: ‘To do that, I need your help. I don’t want any hedge funds, banks or credit lines, none of that. If you want to play in the bigger game, I need you.’”

Headington committed with a handshake and King was able to implement his ambitious plans. Since then, the two have worked closely together without a formal contract.

“We are committing to three- and four-year deals and obviously Tim is behind that,” he says. “I can’t really put into words how generous and wonderful he is. But at the same time I look after him and treat his money as if it’s
my money.”

Through his first-look deal with Warner Bros, King had produced Blood Diamond, Edge Of Darkness and Ben Affleck’s recently released hit The Town, but in 2009 when the deal was coming up to expiry, King went to studio chief Jeff Robinov with a proposal. “They paid a third of my overhead but they weren’t greenlighting movies and I told Jeff that I’ve got ambition, I’ve got to make a living and I kind of want to go back to being independent. What I am looking for is slots. I will make the movies and they put up the p&a.”

While Warner, which already has financing partners such as Legendary and Village Roadshow, wavered, King had lunch with Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal. “She offered me a couple of slots and we would be in first position,” he says. King went back to Robinov who agreed he should take the Sony deal.

Two weeks into the Sony arrangement, King sealed a deal with Depp —whose production company Infinitum Nihil has a long history with King — to star with Jolie in The Tourist, a remake of French thriller Anthony Zimmer to be directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The two stars met for the first time in January this year and by March they were shooting in Venice. The film opens on December 10. “It was a very quick process,” says King, “unlike my usual process with Marty, and I think it’s the most commercial movie I’ve ever made.”

The second film in the deal is Hugo Cabret, Scorsese’s fourth film with King, which is currently shooting in the UK with an ensemble cast led by Asa Butterfield (The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) and including Chloe Moretz,
Jude Law, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone and Emily Mortimer.

“I have never seen anything like the footage,” he gushes. “Dante Ferretti has built the Gare du Nord in the 1930s to scale at Shepperton. I am so excited that on December 9 next year, we are going to present the world with this movie. I know the world is waiting for Martin Scorsese to direct a 3D movie.”

Also up for 2011 and beyond is Jolie’s Bosnian-set directorial debut, a feature of ITV mini-series Unforgiven to star Jolie, GK’s first TV series, Camelot, currently shooting for Starz, Gore Verbinski’s animated movie Rango, which Paramount will open in March and a film about the life of Freddie Mercury in which Sacha Baron Cohen will star.

So what does King have that enables him to forge and sustain such megawatt talent relationships? After all, he is not the only one with deep pockets in LA. “I don’t know,” he smiles. “No bull–shit, maybe. When I say I am going to do something, I do it. It’s about finding the material for them, finding out what kind of projects they want to do next and going out and sourcing that.”

Graham King

■ UK-born King moved to the US in 1982. He worked in various distribution roles and set up Initial Entertainment Group in 1995.
■ At Initial, he was responsible for financing and selling films including Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York and Michael Mann’s Ali.
■ He continued his relationship with Scorsese as producer of The Aviator in 2004 and The Departed in 2006 for which he won the Oscar for best picture. He also produced Ed Zwick’s Blood Diamond in 2006.
■ In 2007, he launched independent production company GK Films with Tim Headington, with first credits including Martin Campbell’s Edge Of Darkness starring Mel Gibson and The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt.
■ Since striking his 2009 deal with Sony Pictures, he has produced The Tourist and is in production on Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret.
■ He launched GK-TV in 2009 and is in production on the 10-part mini-series Camelot.
■ He was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2009.