ThinkFilm went on a bit of a shopping spree at last month's Sundance Film Festival. The five-year-old independent US and Canadian distributor, not known for high-profile purchases, paid a reported $2m for North American rights to space-programme documentary M, wrote another big cheque for North American theatrical rights to spoof The Ten, and is said to have started talks for Penelope Cruz romantic comedy The Good Night.
The splurge, says ThinkFilm's Toronto-based president and CEO Jeff Sackman, might not have been possible but for the acquisition of the company last October (for an undisclosed sum) by Los Angeles-based entrepreneur David Bergstein.
"That's a perfect example of what we had hoped to be able to do," Sackman says of the company's post-acquisition Sundance buying drive. "We're at the beginning of the new phase. We're trying to enhance our position in the marketplace and ThinkFilm on its own had certain constraints that would not allow us to achieve that."
The Bergstein acquisition makes ThinkFilm a sister company to UK-based sales and financing operation Capitol Films - which Bergstein bought a year ago - and potentially part of a new transatlantic empire.
Launched five-and-a-half years ago by, as Sackman describes it, "four people in one room", ThinkFilm has expanded to become a theatrical and video distributor of edgy independent, documentary and foreign films. It is also a fledgling international distributor and, on occasion, an executive producer providing completion funds in return for rights.
It has never had a breakout theatrical hit - its best performer to date, comic documentary The Aristocrats, grossed $6.4m domestically - but its all-time top 10 includes one documentary feature Oscar winner (Born Into Brothels) and two nominees as well as current Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling drama Half Nelson.
Now ThinkFilm is entering a growth phase that, Sackman suggests, will follow the model of his former company, Lionsgate.
ThinkFilm's domestic theatrical operation - overseen by New York-based head of US theatrical Mark Urman - is on course to release 25 films this year, compared to around 15 last year. The slate includes French best foreign-language film Oscar submission Avenue Montaigne, UK documentary Glastonbury, Gregory Nava drama Bordertown (executive produced by Bergstein) and, set for a September opening, In The Shadow Of The Moon. The latter, Sackman suggests, could have the appeal to become ThinkFilm's first really wide release. And in its new phase, he adds, the company might even, if it can find the right property, try its hand with the kind of wide-release genre films that have boosted Lionsgate's bottom line.
How often and closely ThinkFilm and Capitol work together remains to be seen. Surprising some observers, ThinkFilm recently strengthened its presence in international sales - its sister company's main area of expertise - by hiring Capitol's head of sales Eve Schoukroun. She now heads ThinkFilm's international division, though head of sales David Fenkel remains in his post. The division's current sales slate includes spoof Farce Of The Penguins, controversial documentary Zoo and Ethan Hawke-directed drama The Hottest State.
Maintaining separate sales operations may appear "a little odd", Sackman concedes, but "we are able to do more by having these two labels", he argues.
Since Capitol sometimes handles bigger projects with studio distributors attached, ThinkFilm will not necessarily handle its sister company's projects in the US theatrical market. Still, says Sackman, "There are certain complements and synergies that I think are fairly obvious. One thing we bring to [Capitol's] table is they can now assure a [North American] theatrical release, which previously was not certain."
As for ThinkFilm's new owner (who was unavailable for interview), he remains a mysterious figure for many in the independent film industry, known mostly for his dealings with the short-lived Franchise Pictures. Sackman is wary of attributing motives to Bergstein's push into the indie-film sector, but he reports that the new chairman has so far kept his promise to be a hands-off owner.
"One of the attractions for me," explains Sackman, "was that David said, 'I'm not a meddler. I'm going to leave you to run the company and build it and we'll provide the resources for you to do what you do well.'
"He's a big-picture guy. It seems to me he wants to build a global entertainment entity, something much more significant than we are today."
|The ThinkFilm Top 10|
|1||The Aristocrats||July 29, 2005||$6.4m|
|2||Spellbound||April 30, 2003||$5.7m|
|3||The Gospel Of John||Sept 26, 2003||$4.1m|
|4||Born Into Brothels||Dec 8, 2004||$3.5m|
|5||Half Nelson||Aug 11, 2006||$2.7m|
|6||Strangers With Candy||June 28, 2006||$2.1m|
|7||Shortbus||Oct 4, 2006||$2m|
|8||The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys||June 14, 2002||$1.8m|
|9||The Story Of The Weeping Camel||June 4, 2004||$1.8m|
|10||Keeping Mum||Sept 15, 2006||$1.6m|