FilmNation’s Glen Basner and Aaron Ryder reveal to Jeremy Kay their recipe for success: whip up commercial productions, add a sales roster from leading directors, and feed a network of international distribution partners
There cannot be many dishes cooked up in Glen Basner’s family kitchen that have gone on to be quite as successful as FilmNation. Three years ago, the widely respected former head of sales for Focus Features and The Weinstein Company sat down by the stove with a staff of three and set out to build a modern sales, production and financing company.
Fast forward to the present and the FilmNation CEO and his 23 employees in New York and Los Angeles are riding high with an acclaimed sales slate that includes the spectacular $279m international performance of The King’s Speech. President of production Aaron Ryder, vastly experienced and equally admired in his field, has added a new dimension to FilmNation, developing a pipeline that is drawing some of the most dynamic film-makers working today including Oren Peli and Oliver Hirschbiegel.
The first two productions, James McTeigue’s The Raven and Mark Tonderai’s House At The End Of The Street, will open theatrically next spring and Ryder is in Arkansas until mid-November overseeing production on the third, Jeff Nichols’ Mud.
“Because we like all types of films, we wanted to be in the specialty business, the genre business and the commercial business,” says Basner. “[We want to work] on a roster of titles like Sanctum, or the Almodovar [The Skin I Live In] or the new Terrence Malick or Oren Peli’s untitled film.”
‘It’s our approach to deliver films that can be successful, irrespective of how they work in the US’
Glen Basner, FilmNation
Backed by US property moguls Steve Samuels (who produced and financed Michael Clayton), Anthoni Visconsi and Dominic Visconsi, FilmNation now has the capital to fully finance projects. The first is an untitled genre film from Paranormal Activity creator Peli, which will start shooting soon in Eastern Europe.
“There have been milestones in the last three years that I look back on and see where we stepped up,” says Basner. “One was when… The King’s Speech producer namechecked us to the world during his Oscar acceptance speech. Then when I saw the FilmNation logo on the Palais in Cannes in front of [The Skin I Live In]. And there was waking up recently to see Sanctum passed $100m in worldwide box office while on the same day we went into pre-production on Oren’s movie.”
Basner’s charm belies a mind as sharp as they come and his calculated approach to building the business is yielding dividends. Fuelled by sales on The King’s Speech and cave-diving adventure Sanctum, which was released in both 2D and 3D, the company has seen its titles gross more than $200m this year-to-date at the box office in the territories it controls.
The sales slate, boosted by ongoing supply deals with Relativity, MRC, Endgame and Echo Lake, as well as third-party product, features Zhang Yimou’s Nanking massacre epic The Flowers Of War, Michael Hoffman’s Gambit with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, John Hillcoat’s Wettest County, Rian Johnson’s eagerly awaited sci-fi Looper, Dan Bradley’s Red Dawn remake and Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper movie Magic Mike starring Channing Tatum.
And now the production slate is taking shape under the keen eye of Ryder, a popular independent veteran and former president of production at Newmarket Films, whose credits include Memento, Donnie Darko, The Prestige and The Mexican.
The Raven, a fictitious account of the final days of Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe that stars John Cusack and was produced with Intrepid Pictures, will open in the US in March, followed the next month by horror tale House At The End Of The Street, a co-production with A Bigger Boat that stars Jennifer Lawrence. Relativity is distributing both titles.
“We’ve hit the ground running,” says Ryder from the set of Mud, a co-production with Everest Entertainment which stars Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey and Michael Shannon. The director of the coming-of-age drama, Nichols, won the Cannes Critics’ Week award for Take Shelter.
“As a production entity, you have to understand the films will define the branding of the company,” Ryder says. “We make commercially viable independent films that can be developed outside the studio system and would have no problem being marketed and distributed by a studio.
“Having worked as an independent producer for as long as I have, it’s incredible to have the access to marketing and distribution perspectives [through FilmNation’s network of distributors] at such an early stage. As we’re putting these films together, we’re able to make informed decisions.”
FilmNation is now in development on two thrillers: Hirschbiegel’s Eye In The Sky and McTeigue’s Message From The King, which is casting and will shoot in Los Angeles in the first quarter of 2012.
In the sales pipeline are Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin set to star Scarlett Johansson, and a space mission thriller called In The Event Of A Moon Disaster based on a spec script from former journalist Mike Jones.
‘It’s incredible to have access to marketing and distribution perspectives at such an early stage’
Aaron Ryder, FilmNation
“[The company backers] are invited to do as much or as little as they like and we’ve definitely had some good choices out of them,” says Basner, of his flexible approach to budget levels and the number of films the company makes a year.
“We need to deliver for the financier of the film to ensure they’re profitable and we need to reach the numbers we say we will. We need to create a platform for distributors to be able to come in and acquire movies. We need to service them in ways that have not been serviced before.”
FilmNation’s IT boffins have created an innovative way of doing this: Basecamp is a password-protected extranet inspired by social-media sites. It allows the company’s associates to track their film’s performance anywhere in the world, view materials and chat with partners.
“When a distributor comes in and buys a film, they’re also buying a value-added service that we believe sets us apart,” Basner explains.
Basner and Ryder know the international marketplace well enough to move forward on projects without a US deal in place.
“The importance of domestic box office depends on the type of movie. On some films it has little or no relevance,” Basner says, in reference to Sanctum which grossed $80m outside North America, where it took a disappointing $23.2m.
“We need to make sure the movies can work in as many territories as possible. On House At The End Of The Street, we started production without US distribution in place. We believed it would work overseas. We made the decision to move forward and we [now] have excellent [US] distribution in place with Relativity. It’s our approach to recognise how the world is changing and deliver films that can be successful, irrespective of how they work in the US.”
- Glen Basner began his career in 1995 under former Good Machine co-founder David Linde. He went on to head up sales at Linde’s Focus Features as executive vice-president of international sales and distribution, handling titles such as Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He moved to The Weinstein Company in 2005 to become president of international, where his sales credits included 1408, Hoodwinked! and Superhero Movie. He launched FilmNation in 2008.
- Aaron Ryder joined Newmarket Films in 1999 as president of production. He developed and produced or executive produced Memento, The Mexican, Donnie Darko and Wrong Turn. In 2003 he helped Newmarket build a distribution arm and acquired titles such as Whale Rider, Monster and The Woodsman. In 2004 he formed Raygun Productions with Newmarket, to feed Newmarket at least two films a year. He joined FilmNation as president of production in 2009.