UTA independent film group is using its international insight to connect film-makers to innovative financing partners. Screen talks to Rena Ronson and Rich Klubeck about comedies, co-productions and Cannes

If there were any doubts about the rise in stature of UTA’s independent film group over the past couple of years, Sundance 2011 buried them. Co-heads Rena Ronson and Rich Klubeck and their colleagues David Flynn and Bec Smith went to Park City with 14 acquisition titles. By late March the team had sealed deals on 12, including Like Crazy to Paramount, The Guard to SPC and Martha Marcy May Marlene to Fox Searchlight, while The Weinstein Company took both The Details and My Idiot Brother.

This followed a strong 2010 for the division after it secured a high-profile sale of the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried to Lionsgate at Sundance that year and closed deals on Mike Mills’ Beginners, among others, at Toronto.

“We took time over the past year and a half to carefully identify the projects to focus on and really got to work with film-makers with very clear voices,” says Ronson, who arrived from WMA in October 2009.

Ronson and Klubeck oversee a team which takes pleasure in studying and understanding the environment in which it operates.

“Our goal was to cultivate our clients’ projects and help get them set at the right budgets within the parameters the market can bear,” Ronson explains.

“In Sundance we had an unusual amount of comedies and film-makers with bold new voices, which really helped,” says Klubeck.

Sundance comes up a lot during the conversation: success there has fuelled a desire in the team to maintain excellent working relationships in the US and overseas.

“This first quarter we have eight films ready to go,” Ronson says, adding that the group enjoys a strong relationship with the wider agency. “A lot of the success has to do with the clients here at this agency.”

The group’s knowledge of the international arena is one of its distinguishing features. Klubeck comes from a production background and also serves as a partner in UTA’s motion picture literary department where his clients include the Coen brothers, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Juan Solanas, Paolo Sorrentino and Fatih Akin.

Ronson headed Lakeshore International before working on hundreds of projects in WMA’s financing and packaging unit. Ireland-born Flynn and Australian Smith bring a knowledge of global talent. Smith helped attract Animal Kingdom director David Michod to the agency.

Klubeck also credits Jim Meenaghan, who runs motion picture business affairs, and David Spingarn, who oversees business development, for their analysis before deals close.

The group’s ability to take advantage of international opportunities was written all over Beginners, Mills’ acclaimed drama which debuted in Toronto last autumn. UTA sold worldwide rights to Focus Features excluding a handful of territories, and licensed rights directly to MK2 in France and Hopscotch in Australia, among others.

Similarly, the success of Buried enabled the group to work with the film’s Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes on his next project, Red Lights. UTA brought in Spanish television finance (TV3 and Antena 3), regional tax money (from Spain), international and US equity and attached Lisa Wilson’s Parlay Films to close several key international pre-sales.

The group has also arranged financing on Fernando Meirelles’ 360, now shooting in Europe, and Fresnadillo’s upcoming Intruders, among others.

Adaptable sales strategies

With Intruders, the goal was to structure financing around a broad international distribution deal with Universal Pictures International and a deal for ancillary rights in Spain with Antena 3. “We opted for Universal International as opposed to a foreign sales-based approach because of the type of distribution we all wanted for the film,” says Klubeck.

‘Cannes is where we can identify new film-makers and where we stay current with our buyers overseas’

Rich Klubeck, UTA

“Throughout the year we have ongoing conversations with the buyers,” Ronson adds. “[We have] cultivated good relationships with them and in many cases are working with them to help set up co-productions, as with Red Lights, Andrew Adamson’s Mister Pip and Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place. Our ability to sell directly helps us in many ways, not only in identifying value but also by being more innovative on the finance strategy of the film for the producer.”

Klubeck points to a new breed of financier, mainly high-net-worth individuals. “We seem to be discovering new people every time we go out with a project,” he says, adding that UTA introduced Wes Anderson to entrepreneur and Indian Paintbrush founder Steven Rales, who is financing his third Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom.

Now, more than ever, the name of the game is assembling quality product at a price and ensuring the creative collaborators know what to expect.

“The market’s back,” Klubeck says. “The important thing is that we’re very current on the trend and guide film-makers on what they’ll need to do to get the film made. We bring them into the numbers and the market dynamics, and when we ultimately arrive at a budget they understand exactly why that level was reached. That’s important for their comfort in making the film and confidence that they’re still making the film they set out to make.”

“There’s no easy money any more,” Ronson notes. “That’s not to say funds won’t be put together again. There seems to be less immediate interest right now with slate deals and [financiers are] experimenting more with one-offs. I think that will change, but only because they’re making smarter moves on the initial investments.”

Both Ronson and Klubeck point out that the wide range of buyers at the last few North American festivals indicates a renewed hunger for product, and that the studios have also been on the prowl to fill their vast international pipelines. “IFC, Magnolia and SPC had clear sailing two years ago,” Klubeck says. “This year at Sundance the buying pool was much deeper, with the Weinsteins making major acquisitions, Paramount back in buying with their partner Indian Paintbrush, Summit pursuing more movies than they have historically and Searchlight active after a quiet Toronto.”

Theatrical vs VoD

Deal-making with buyers has evolved too as acquisitions executives make more p&a commitments than they did in the past in the fight to get titles in an increasingly aggressive market. Agents need to understand the value of marketing potential in all areas.

“It’s no longer just about an MG and some back-end,” is how Ronson puts it.

As the industry looks to the ever-shifting distribution landscape and the gradual erosion of the notion of theatrical primacy, Klubeck acknowledges the challenges.

“The issue with VoD we all contend with is the degree to which it restricts the theatres you can play in,” he suggests. “If you have a VoD premiere, you are now outside the main theatre chains and you’re now only going to play in certain chains. VoD can be a positive thing for the economic life and profile of certain films, but there’s a trade-off. The trickier thing is valuing digital distribution. That’s what people are trying to figure out — how much you can generate if you premiere your movie digitally.”

Cannes for the team is about relationships. “We’ll have significant sales titles but it’s equally about meeting film-makers,” Klubeck says.

“Cannes is where our team spreads out and covers all bases because it’s where we can identify new film-makers and talent, and where we meet and stay current with our buyers overseas,” he adds.

“We have an average of 10 meetings a day where we find out what’s working, what’s not, what people are looking for and hopefully figure out ways to marry great projects with financiers and distributors.”

Rich Klubeck

A former CEO of Jersey Films, where he produced Garden State, Klubeck is co-head of the independent film group and a partner in the motion picture literary department. His clients include Nicole Holofcener, Miranda July, Ewan McGregor, Mike Mills, Lynn Shelton and video-game company Electronic Arts.

Bec Smith

Smith represents directors and writers including Julia Leigh and David Michod, serving as executive producer on the latter’s acclaimed Animal Kingdom. Prior to UTA she was head of development in the Sydney offices of Working Title and started out as a film journalist.

Rena Ronson

Formerly of Lakeshore International, Ronson joined UTA from WMA in 2009. She focuses on global film finance, distribution and marketing strategies for independent and co-financed studio features. In 2008 she spearheaded a partnership with Screen Capital International to form the Incentive Filmed Entertainment fund.

David Flynn

Flynn is a motion-picture literary agent whose clients include Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Drake Doremus and Rodrigo Cortes. Prior to UTA he was a founding partner in Los Angeles-based Chaos Management and produced Seraphim Falls starring Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. He started his career at ICM.