Paul Bernon is a principal at Rubicon Real Estate, which owns and manages one million square feet of commercial property in New England. Sam Slater is a principal at Tremont Asset Management LLC, which owns and manages over 2,000 apartments, office properties and agricultural properties throughout the United States and Canada. After meeting at a party at Bernon’s house in 2012, they teamed up to start a production company, Burn Later Productions.
They made a splash with their first feature, Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” starring Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick. Since then, they’ve produced a string of high-profile indies including Ross Katz’s “Adult Beginners,” starring Rose Byrne, Nick Kroll and Bobby Cannavale; the Peabody Award-winning documentary “Best Kept Secret;” Terence Nance’s “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty;” and most recently, Andrew Bujalski’s “Results,” starring Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders.
Indiewire recently chatted with Bernon and Slater about how they got into the film business, what they look for in a project and the similarities between the real estate and film businesses.
You both come from a real estate background. What interested you about getting into the film business? How did that happen?
Paul Bernon (PB): I went to Boston University for film, actually. When I got out, I wanted to build a business background before getting into independent film. I wanted to understand finance, business, management, etc.. I thought that would be helpful in making independent films and producing them. I went to work for a real estate developer. I got my Master’s in real estate and then after starting my own company, built it up and a couple of years ago, I turned it over to some people I worked with and start producing. I produced a short film called “Teacher of the Year” that [played] Tribeca in 2012 [and] starred Rachel Dratch. I went down for the whole festival to network with folks, and right around that time I actually met Sam [Slater] in Boston at a political fundraiser.
So, Sam, you two met and then how did things move on from there?
Sam Slater (SS): Yeah we met. We were both ready at the same time, coincidentally enough, to transition to careers in film. Although I have no formal educational background in film, I’d always had that desire for a creative outlet. I’ve always been a creative guy, myself, but just like Paul went into a career of business and real estate to get started off. When we met, Paul had already begun his transition of careers and I was ready to make that switch [as well]. It was a perfect time for us to meet.
All of your films fall into the category of character-driven relationship comedies. Did you discuss that in advance, like “this is going to be our niche”?
SS: I think that that was less of a predetermined fate for us and more of just a natural evolution. We found ourselves in a position [where] we were able to understand and connect with good material and relate to some of these stories that are relationship stories and stories that we’ve experienced ourselves or peers of ours have experienced. They are things that were in our world and things that we could connect with, rather than us going out and trying to make an action movie or make the next “Avengers.” Things like that really are just outside of what I’m capable of comprehending from a production standpoint.
Did you also look strategically at the market and determine that this was an area where there is interest and maybe is underserved?
SS: Absolutely. That absolutely goes hand-in-hand with the direction that we chose to head in. We felt, and still feel, this way as we’re still making these types of films. We do feel that for these relationship pieces — that have really strong and well-developed characters and maybe are high-concept — to take these types of films and cast accomplished and known and interesting actors in some of these roles and make them [on] a tight, independent budget is the recipe for success. Yes, there seems to still be room in the market for that. It is somewhat underserved and we’re going to just continue to head in that direction.
As far as budgets, your films have all been low-to-medium range. Do you top out at $10 million?
PB: Sure. $5 million and under is a sweet spot for us. If there’s a foreign pre-sale component, we look at slightly larger budgets. That’s a good spot for us.
In what ways would you say the film business is like the real estate business? Is there any overlap?
SS: There’s a bunch of ways that they’re similar. There’s an obvious, to me at least, comparison and something that feels very much the same in many ways when comparing real estate development to producing a film in its early stages, which is the sense you’re really taking something and really building something. If you’re a visionary in a new neighborhood totally developing a place but there’s nothing there, I think that in certain ways you get the same feeling when taking a film from just finding a script and transforming it through the casting process, through the hiring of department heads and through actually producing the film. I get the same feeling, actually, which might sound a little ridiculous. Honestly, it really is a similar feeling to me.
It seems like all of your films so far could be characterized as falling into the category of “mumblecore.” What do you think of that term? Do you think we’re beyond it at this point?
PB: I think we’re certainly beyond that. I know Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg are defined as forefathers of that movement. I think for us, we just look for strong material and relationship pieces with a comedic element that move us. I don’t think they are so mumblecore-esque. I think that they’re all good stories.
You’ve been in the film business for just three years, but even in that time, it’s changed quite a bit in terms of VOD playing a much bigger role. Can you talk about some of the changes you’ve seen in the three years since you started out?
SS: We’re already noticing a huge shift in perception towards release strategies. I remember, quite vividly, prior to making “Drinking Buddies,” around that time three years ago, that there was still a lingering stigma attached to a really strong VOD digital release. That was really prior to Netflix being as accepted and prominent as it is today. We were just on the cusp of that being fully accepted, and I remember feeling at the time that it was not something that all independent filmmakers would get behind. There’s still some clinging to pure theatrical releases or heavier theatrical releases as an important part of the release strategy. I think that now that’s not nearly the case as it was even three years ago, let alone, five, ten or 15 years ago.
I think there’s still a nice, important component to a release strategy that does include some level of a theatrical. It’s always nice to be able to go see the film in a theater. For us, it’s really [about] the best release strategy for a particular film. Most often, for the films we make and for the climate and atmosphere today, it really ends up being, most often, on various types of digital platforms. We’re okay with that. I think most people are now okay with that, as well. They get it.
Two things: One, are you actively looking for new talent? And two, what advice would you give to a filmmaker out there who does have a character-driven comedy and is trying to get interest in it?
PB: I would say that we’re not actively looking for new talent, but we’re always looking for new material. It’s a little bit of a slippery slope because we don’t accept unsolicited material, but I think that we’re always looking for good material. We’re fortunate now, having been in the business for three years, that we have people referring us. Joe Swanberg referred us to Andrew Bujalski, which was kind of him. I think that worked out well for all parties. I think in terms of advice, two things: I would tell aspiring filmmakers to just go out and make content, as opposed to talking about it. Instead of taking an excessive amount of meetings, I would say they should make short films, they should really go out there and make things, even if they’re bad, and continue to hone their craft.
In the digital age, from YouTube to Vimeo on up to Amazon and Netflix, there are so many ways that people can see content. I think that’s a great way [to go]: low cost, making things with your friends, getting actors out of Tisch School of the Arts and USC, etc.. That’s a great way to become known and work your way up the ladder. The other thing is, I would say to go watch Mark Duplass’ keynote from SXSW, which was incredible and really hit the nail right on the head.