FilmNation, the emerging Oscar powerhouse you’ve never heard of
Glen Basner, the head of the movie company FilmNation, leaned back in his downtown office and reflected on his firm’s below-the-radar reputation.
“Someone said to me the other day, ‘You’re the most influential film company no one knows,’ ” he said. “And we like that.
Both parts of it.”
When the Oscars get underway Sunday, it will bring out a parade of executives from well-known companies — traditional studios like Paramount and prestige divisions such as the long-standing Sony Pictures Classics.
But the show will also mark a coming-out party for FilmNation, the New York-headquartered outfit of about 40 employees that has quietly transitioned from a niche firm specializing in the sale of international rights to a burgeoning production and financing entity behind one of the season’s biggest breakouts.
FilmNation co-financed and produced “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral science-fiction movie that is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Budgeted at about $50 million, the movie this week will cross the $100-million mark at the domestic box office.
The milestones follow a $12-million sale at last month’s Sundance Film Festival of another FilmNation movie, the Judd Apatow-produced culture-clash romantic dramedy “The Big Sick.”
Together, the two movies thrust FilmNation into the limelight and pose a tantalizing question: can a company unaffiliated with any conglomerate become a powerhouse in the challenging climate of the 21st-century entertainment industry?
FilmNation seeks to involve itself at many levels of financing, development and production — a rarity in the industry. The firm sometimes incubates and develops a script from an early stage and sees a movie all the way through production. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it comes in much later in the game to provide additional financing or sell rights when a project is near the finish line. Or anything in-between.
The goal, executives say, is not to impose a template on any one film or partner. “We built a platform that isn’t beholden to a specific model,” Basner said. “We don’t approach a movie that we like with ‘This is how we work,’ It’s ‘Tell us what you’re trying to achieve and here’s how we can help.’ ”
Also uncommon is its choice of projects. Basner’s raison d’etre has been to back movies with bolder and slightly off-center visions — filmmaker-driven pictures like “Arrival” and “Big Sick” that defy their ostensible genres.
That has particular value, he says, at a moment when it takes something unique to draw people out of their cable- and Netflix-equipped homes.
“In the new world of consumption, if your theatrical offering doesn’t differentiate itself, you lose. What that means is not going down the middle as much — going bolder and more creatively compelling,” Basner said. “Look at the Oscars, the kinds of movies that are nominated and how well they’ve done.” Indeed, the over-performance of many similarly uncategorizable films on this year’s best-picture list- a melancholy musical in “La La Land,” an intimate gay coming-of-age drama in “Moonlight"- -reinforces his point.
Essentially, FilmNation resembles Miramax — the eclectic company of upscale commercialism founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein — only reconfigured for the 21st century (and without, at least for the moment, the distribution wing).
“The mandate is not to have a mandate,” said Aaron Ryder, the veteran Hollywood producer and past Christopher Nolan collaborator who co-runs FilmNation’s production and acquisitions arm.
The Weinstein bent makes sense given Basner’s professional history. The executive, 49, spent more than a decade at Good Machine/Focus Features during a run that included “Lost in Translation,” “In the Bedroom” and “The Ice Storm.”
Then, beginning in about 2005, Basner worked at Weinstein Co. as the brothers unraveled their Disney partnership and struck out on their own. That offered the chance for him to witness a company make a go of it without major corporate backing — and see all the opportunities and chaos that go with it.
In 2008, backed by real estate developer Steven Samuels, Basner left to start FilmNation as a foreign sales outfit — basically, he would sell rights on a film, often at festival markets, to distributors in various territories — hoping to take advantage of a gap in that business owing to consolidation.
But it wasn’t until the production of the Matthew McConaughey-starring “Mud” in 2012 that FilmNation began edging into other territory. And it took Hollywood banner Village Roadshow investing $18 million in exchange for a 33% stake in the company, in December 2014, for production to become a regular part of the FilmNation operation.
The company now can fund between $80 million and $100 million worth of movies at any one time, executives say, with returns from those films then funneled back into the next wave of projects.
The issue has not been a shortage of funds to make the desired movies but a shortage of desired moves to fund.
“Money isn’t the problem. The problem isn’t enough films,” said Ben Browning, the other head of FilmNation’s production and acquisitions arm. “The goal is not to look under every rock for every possible movie. We’re probably going to want the movie 100 other people want. We don’t like too much,” he added, “but the things we like we really go after.” (In that sense and a few others the company resembles A24, another press-shy New York outfit that has made a splash this Oscar season.)
Upcoming projects fall under Browning’s definition. They include “Life Itself,” an epic transatlantic love story from “This Is Us” creator (and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” writer) Dan Fogelman currently in preproduction, and “Gifted,” the prodigy-child dramedy from "(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb set to come out this spring.
While such an approach might delight cinephiles, though, it could make for some tough business sledding.
Historically, consistency has been a problem for companies that function independently and lack franchises and reliable genre properties. Movies for grown-ups may be an exploitable gap in today’s studio-driven market, but that gap exists for a reason — if the film isn’t a critical hit (and sometimes even if it is), there’s no safety net.
A company like FilmNation faces further challenges without a distribution arm, which forces it to rely on others.
That was a frictional point on “Arrival.” Before turning it into a blockbuster. Paramount pushed FilmNation and its partners to — spoiler alert; skip ahead to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know — keep the daughter of Amy Adams’ character alive at the film’s end. (Producers successfully resisted.)
And the company’s distribution-less status really was driven home with the Michael Keaton-starring “The Founder.” The Ray Kroc tale, distributed by Weinstein Co., has gained critical acclaim and might have been another seasonal hit for FilmNation. But the TWC rollout was modest, and the movie has grossed just $12 million. FilmNation earlier this month sued Weinstein over the timing of the release.
FilmNation’s casual style and low-publicity approach may belie a more methodical plan.
“You underestimate Glen Basner at your peril,” said John Sloss, the longtime head of Cinetic Media that sometimes competes, sometimes collaborates with FilmNation. . “He’s someone who dots his i’s and crosses his t’s, and that makes him dangerous.”
A gregarious, direct personality — the point is underscored by a trace of an accent from his native Long Island — Basner draws often on his sales background in industry dealings. He has an ability to schmooze with bankers and filmmakers alike, which can make him seem as much an old-school hustler as a smooth Hollywood executive.
He also has run the company with a start-up vibe. Most of FilmNation’s early employees are still there, it has regular retreats and often solicits ideas from interns and assistants.
“We call each other ‘FilmNation citizens’ and keep everything communal,” said Milan Popelka, the company’s 37-year-old chief operating officer and one of Basner’s first hires. “People make fun and say it’s like a cult, but I wear that as a badge of honor.”
Villeneuve said the company’s startup undercurrent has been a virtue. “I have to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” the director said. “FilmNation has the right equilibrium of enthusiasm and experience,” noting the company’s relative youth.
Whether the outfit can retain that as it matures remains to be seen. The prestige-film business is littered with unaffiliated companies on their way to powerhouse status one minute only to go away or be swallowed up the next. That’s especially true for a company like FilmNation that lacks a deep library and is, also for the moment, without a TV business.
Basner, who said the firm is profitable, maintains that while an exit strategy may be down the road, the immediate plan is to stay independent.
“People ask what we’d like to be — a mini-major or independent studio or the next Focus or Miramax,” he noted. “These terms feel outdated. We just want to be a 21st-century film company without any of those comparisons.”
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