It takes guts to join the indie distribution fray, especially when the market is challenged by big buyers like Netflix and Amazon Studios (which, along with Annapurna, is optimistically taking over its own theatrical distribution) and television is chasing down the hottest indie talent. Even one-time high-flyer The Weinstein Co., which once knew better than anyone how to play the indie game, is evolving to survive during these changing times.
When Wall Street billionaires Gabriel Hammond, 38, and his brother, Daniel, 34, launched independent producer-distributor Broad Green Pictures three summers ago, Hollywood was skeptical. It was a strange time to reinvent a dying economic model.
Now, after trying to use arcane algorithms to determine what movies to make, Gabriel has decided to pull the plug on production. The breaking point was the July 14 release of John Leonetti’s “Wish Upon,” which grossed $13.2 million on a $12 million budget. (Theaters return about half of the take to the distributor, not to mention marketing costs.)
This decision comes a year after Broad Green laid off about 6 percent of its staff — all in the publicity department, often a canary in the coal mine. Some 50 projects are in turnaround, and the company laid off another 15 of its 75 employees, down from 87 at their peak. Gabriel told Deadline that he will launch Broad Green 2.0 early next year. In the meantime, its acquisitions execs will seek titles at the fall festivals as their bosses looks for more experienced executives to supply the knowledge they lack, and leave specialty fare in the rearview.
The question is, who in their right mind would sell to them?
Hollywood has been waiting for this company to give up the ghost. Broad Green’s oversight of its pipeline was always problematic. The company is led by people with the ambition to run a studio but a dearth of experience, and who often do not listen to their own staff. According to several ex-staffers, Broad Green has displayed a lack of business understanding that prevented them from making clear decisions. And while the Hammonds hoped to foster a friendly and hospitable place to work, they failed to register that Hollywood is a relationship business — partly because they relate to numbers better than people. And they kept switching their strategy for success.
The Hammonds launched Broad Green in 2014 with the goal of launching a full-fledged studio, expanding rapidly to 87 staffers and opening brand-new Hollywood offices with spiffy screening rooms where they feed employees breakfast and lunch. “It’s everything from the guys that option the books and graphic novels — the development sides, the earliest stages, the IP, production — on through marketing and distribution,” Gabriel told IndieWire in 2015.
However, outside of its 2015 Sundance acquisition “A Walk In the Woods” starring Robert Redford, which made nearly $30 million at the domestic box office, and Bryan Cranston thriller “The Infiltrator,” which managed $15 million, Broad Green has struggled to find its footing.
Disappointments include Ramin Bahrani’s well-reviewed real estate thriller “99 Homes” ($1.7 million domestic), Sarah Silverman’s depressive drama “I Smile Back” ($58,000), and Amazon Studios’ Nic Winding Refn horror flick “The Neon Demon” ($1.5 million domestic). “Brain on Fire,” starring Chloe Grace Moretz, debuted at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival to mostly withering reviews and went straight to streaming platform Netflix, with no theatrical release.
Even with stars Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale, Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” scored only $566,000. “Song to Song,” starring Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender, which opened SXSW in March, and his 25-year-labor-of-love “Voyage of Time” IMAX documentary grossed even less.
While Broad Green launched with the intent of pursuing quality projects, they shifted from acquisitions to produce more-accessible titles like “Bad Santa 2” ($23 million worldwide). That wasn’t enough to staunch their negative cash flow.
The company poured cash into their films without seeing much come back into the till. Broad Green paid for one movie that they did not release, Jeremy Saulnier’s uber-violent “Green Room,” which went to A24 after they reluctantly let it screen at Cannes in Director’s Fortnight, where it was well-reviewed and went on to gross $3.2 million domestic. Another Broad Green release, Rodrigo Garcia’s well-reviewed 2015 Sundance title “Last Days in the Desert,” starred Ewan McGregor as Jesus; it played a few theaters on May 13, 2016, with no reported grosses. The company also didn’t supply numbers for October 2016 release “New Life,” which scored 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and April 2017 release “Danger Close,” which scored 20 percent.
And Gabriel pulled “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios,” Lucy Walker’s sequel to Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder’s classic Cuba music doc, from Sundance 2017 at the last minute. They released their edit of the film without her involvement on May 26, to meager attention from media and moviegoers ($123,000).
They brought in Relativity veteran producer Matt Alvarez (“Straight Outta Compton”) to rejuvenate Broad Green production; that came to naught. (His contract expires later this year.) Talented production execs such as Vince Gatewood and Shary Shirazi went to Scott Rudin and Tristar, respectively; former Anonymous Content producer Alix Madigan also departed, as did business affairs executive Christopher Tricarico.
Among the 50 projects in turnaround — the Hammonds would remain producers of projects set up elsewhere — are an L.A riots film from Oscar-winning writer-director John Ridley (“12 Years A Slave”) and drama “Entering Hades,” set to star Michael Fassbender. Broad Green reportedly will hang on to some others, including “Just Mercy,” “1974,” “Eli,” and “The Vessel.”
Building a distribution machine burns a lot of cash before seeing returns. The deep-pocketed brothers hired seasoned professionals such as departed senior publicity executives Adam Keen and Emmy Chang, and Screenvision distribution executive Travis Reid. Marketing is now run by eOne acquisitions import Dylan Wiley, distribution by Richie Faye, acquisitions by Marc Danon, and homevideo by Steve Nickerson — who, like media exec Gail Heaney, came from Summit.
Broad Green plans to release the movies on their slate, including Paul Shoulberg’s indie romance “The Good Catholic” (September 8), low-budget horror entry “Zombies” (September 29), and Ron Shelton’s action comedy “Villa Capri,” starring Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, which was originally scheduled for August 25 and is now set for November 22.
The company is no longer releasing completed sorority comedy “Step Sisters,” from “Drumline” director Charles Stone III. Los Angeles Media Fund CEO Jeff Soros had to cover production overages, and the movie missed its initial March 31, 2017 release date.
From the start, business-minded Gabriel and creative enthusiast Daniel went big, seeking to create a full studio. For international, Broad Green bought a 45% stake in David Garrett’s British foreign sales company Mr. Smith. While the Hammonds wanted to run everything from VOD through DVDs through the company with consistent marketing, they did not invest in a homevideo distributor, pacting instead with Universal. “It’s a huge learning curve,” admitted Gabriel. “It’s been exhilarating to just put it all together. It’s fascinating how this business works and there’s surprisingly so much room for large-scale competition in something that would otherwise seem so crowded.”
Warning signs were always out there. The morgue of failed start-ups include Newmarket Films, Artisan, Overture Films, ThinkFilm, Trimark, Destination Films, Yari Film Group, Orion Pictures, Apparition, Palm Pictures, Vestron, Wrekin Hill Entertainment and many, many more.
Relativity went bankrupt, as Ryan Kavanaugh finally reached the limits of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Peter Schlessel folded his FilmDistrict into Universal subsidiary Focus Features, until the studio finally figured out that blurring a high-class brand with genre movies was a mistake. Then Schlessel exited, B-fare went to a revived Gramercy label, and Universal promoted Peter Kujawski to run Focus, who has faced a learning curve of his own. (The long list of companies that have gone through the Universal sluicer is depressing, from October, USA, and Good Machine to PolyGram.)
Longtime indie New Line Cinema was absorbed by Warner Bros., which allowed it to run autonomously for a while; it’s now a production label and its chief Toby Emmerich has ascended to run production at the studio. Steven Spielberg’s ambitious DreamWorks is now Amblin Partners, a production company not unlike his original Amblin. Universal is releasing its live-action films, and has purchased DreamWorks Animation.
Then there are the studio subsidiaries that have come and gone: Warner Independent, New Line/HBO partnership Picturehouse, Fine Line, Paramount Classics and Vantage. And they boasted all the advantages of studio resources and output deals.
It remains to be seen if the Hammonds have the right stuff to keep Broad Green off the indie distributor trash heap.