Though he did an early stint in Hollywood as a senior attorney at Warner Bros and a business affairs executive at ICM, Irwin Olian has spent most of his working life as an entrepreneur in the financial, medical and mining industries.
But even while he was busy in other fields, he says, 'I kept feeling there was a tremendous opportunity in the independent film arena for a quality niche distributor that would focus on bringing world cinema to the screens of North America.'
The result is 14-month-old NeoClassics Films, a welcome new presence on the US specialty distribution scene that is responding, says CEO and chairman Olian, to 'a huge growth in the quality of cinema all around the world, in countries that previously we would never associate with quality film-making.'
Based (mostly for fund-raising and investment reasons, says Olian) in Canada, NeoClassics has the bulk of its executive team in Los Angeles. The team includes Phil Breen, formerly with Sony's Triumph Films, as executive vice-president of business and acquisitions; long-time sales consultant Frederic Demey as senior vice-president of international sales and acquisitions; and Michael Kananack as vice-president of sales and acquisitions.
The five titles acquired by the company so far come from four different countries 'but they're all crowd-pleasers', Olian proclaims. Already getting gradually expanding platform releases in the US are Australian drama and Berlin Crystal Bear winner The Black Balloon and Flemish-language dramedy Moscow, Belgium. And due for release by the middle of the year are Jordanian Sundance world cinema audience award-winner Captain Abu Raed, Australian dramatic thriller Surviving Crooked Lake, and British comedy St Trinian's.
One of the company's strategies for operating in the often tricky US specialty marketplace is to develop relationships with the cinema owners whose co-operation is vital to keep films in theatres for long enough to produce significant theatrical returns.
Another strategy, says Olian, is to act as 'the partner of our producer clients'. Whether NeoClassics pays a minimum guarantee or, as an alternative, puts more money into prints and advertising, 'we take reduced distribution fees, we report monthly, we have transparent book-keeping and we keep our expenses chargeable to the pictures to a bare minimum,' Olian asserts. 'Our goal is to make money hand in hand with the producers, not to make money at the expense of the producers.'
If the strategies pay off in the US, NeoClassics, which usually buys all US rights to films and sometimes selected foreign rights as well, might expand into new territories and new activities. Among possible moves under consideration, says Olian, are the launch of theatrical distribution operations or co-ventures in Canada, the UK (where the company already has a satellite office) and Germany and the launch of an off-balance-sheet prints and advertising fund.
The fledgling company is also, says its founder, 'looking at some really interesting internet strategies' and developing a couple of projects - including a romance called Gypsy Love from Captain Abu Raed director Amin Matalqa - for production in house.