International Agenda: HBO Films, GreeneStreet, and Wellspring Push Global Plans
by Anthony Kaufman
Cannes 2003 won't be remembered for its masterpieces or brisk acquisitions business, but it did see a number of American-based film and media companies take aggressive steps into international markets. And I'm not talking about Miramax, PR blitzes for "The Matrix: Reloaded" or "T3," but a trio of companies that produce and distribute independent films. While most industryites are still lamenting the dire state of the world economy and struggling TV markets, these intrepid outfits -- a media giant, a New York production company, and a specialized distributor -- are nevertheless pushing forward with global agendas and expanding the reach of non-Hollywood movies.
HBO Films was clearly one of the big winners from Cannes 2003: its latest production "Elephant," directed by Gus Van Sant, took home top prizes for best film and best direction; its Sundance grand jury prize winner "American Splendor" screened in Un Certain Regard, winning a FIPRESCI critics prize; and an auspicious lineup of new productions was announced (including work from such talents as Jim McKay, Bruce Beresford, John Leguizamo, Fred Schepisi, and Sidney Lumet), with the recently opened HBO Films London handling international sales for the slate. As Elvis Mitchell wryly noted in one of his New York Times pieces on the festival, "It's not Cannes. It's HBO."
In March 2002, HBO Films president Colin Callendar told me that the company had no plan to release any of its movies in theaters. But with the theatrical success of "Real Women Have Curves" (released by HBO and Newmarket), HBO has changed those plans dramatically. "'Real Women' got such a powerful reaction," Callendar now says, "We began to look at releasing theatrically less as a way of generating revenue than a way of extending the brand." It will release "American Splendor" through corporate sibling Fine Line Features (a division of AOL Time Warner's New Line).
"It's a response to the demand," adds HBO Films programming, video & enterprises president Steve Scheffer, who oversees the London branch. "With the consolidation and disappearance of a lot of the independent movie makers, the supply to international distributors has diminished in some respects, so we realized there was an opportunity for us."
It's not the first time that HBO's films have traveled to foreign lands; HBO has sold the occasional film to foreign territories since 1997's "The Second Civil War" and it has been involved in British co-productions throughout its history. But the company is now actively going after the theatrical market -- internationally and domestically -- with unprecedented vigor. During Cannes this year, the London office announced it had made its first world rights acquisition, acclaimed Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's second film "The Holy Girl," produced by the Almodovars' company El Deseo. Callendar says, "We were keen to establish a partnership with Agustin and Pedro."
Both Callendar and Scheffer agree that the foreign presales market remains in bad shape, but Callendar says they are taking a long-term approach, building relationships now for greater returns later. Plus, adds Scheffer, "We're not looking for the international sales to supply the negative costs of our movies. If the movie does not have the potential, we don't have to force it. The decision to make or not make a movie is not based on what we think we'll get out of the international market."
The dour state of the economy also propelled HBO Films to set up its division in London rather than Los Angeles, where, according to Callendar, the sales execs could more easily and affordably interact with European distributors and more actively oversee the marketing of their movies overseas. Callendar, who also happens to be British, admits, "It is true that I'm very aware of how the different countries do business, which can sometimes get in the way. And that has made me sensitive to doing business across borders."
GreeneStreet Films, the seven-year-old Tribeca-based production company, also made headlines on the Croisette with the announcement of a new international sales arm, GreeneStreet Films International. Cedric Jeanson, a French-born former exec VP at Miramax International, heads up the division. "The decision came to us because we realized that it's very difficult to develop if you're solely a film-by-film producer," Jeanson explains. "We put 100 percent of the financing into our own productions and then passed these films onto distributors where you don't have the control or the rewards."
"You may earn back your producer's fee, but it's barely worth it, financially," continues Jeanson, "If you have an international company, you can control your distribution mechanism and tap into funds in a way that is more fare in light of the investments. Otherwise, it's a complete gamble without much of the upside."
Jeanson was on the Cote d'Azur in May, mixing with distributors from the major international distributors and sealing deals with minor territories like Russia, Israel, and Greece for a pair of productions in the works: "Orlando" director Sally Potter's "Yes," which will be ready by November, and mainstream thriller "Slow Burn," which begins shooting next month.
Jeanson also acknowledges the presales business is especially challenging right now. "People are much more selective and they can't rely on the cushion that used to come from television," he says. But Jeanson says a company like GreeneStreet can actually take advantage of its more indie-minded positioning ("not popcorn films"). "By not going through a middleman and offering very well made films done at a low price," he says, "this is exactly the way to interest distributors."
In addition to pushing its own films, Jeanson says the company will also seek out films to acquire, co-financing opportunities and split rights deals with studios, "in order to build clout and volume, and our own ability to finance films," he says.
Once upon a time, a little film company called Good Machine took a very similar tract: the film producers launched an international sales division, headed by David Linde, began selling Good Machine's own pictures overseas -- as well as those by October Films and later USA Films -- and then the entire company grew to such a degree that they were eventually bought out by Vivendi-Universal, and remade as Focus Features.
Focus, of course, had a major sales presence at Cannes 2003, it was joined by other sellers such as the new Conent International which launched last year.
Jeanson acknowledges the "apparent parallel," he says (he did take over Linde's job at Miramax), but he thinks the companies have different "positioning." "But definitely there was a sense on their side to grow," he admits. "For us, this came from an overall realization that we're reaching a new level of maturity."
Wellspring Media was another international player visible on Cannes' Croisette. Though the company has been handling foreign sales and operating in international markets for years, head of international sales Sheri Levine admits Wellspring turned it up a notch at Cannes 2003, taking full-page ads for newly acquired titles like Damon Dash's "Death of a Dynasty" and Tim McCann's "Revolution #9."
"The main reason why we picked up the pace is DVD internationally," explains Levine. "With the proliferation of DVD players, all the territories are looking for DVD projects."
Although Levine acknowledges that these are difficult times for selling English-language indies overseas, "because there's more foreign co-productions and product coming out of Europe," she says that good films can still do business. "That's why we don't do the genre films," Levine says, offering the following mantra for just about anyone in the film business: "Good programming sells and average stuff doesn't."