Ten years ago, Aaron L. Gilbert was a music licensing expert in Canada with no Hollywood dreams. A decade later, Bron Studios, the company Gilbert started with his wife Brenda, has become one of the most prolific financing entities in the film business. (The company’s name is a combination of “Brenda” and “Aaron.”). In 2018, Bron signed a $100 million co-financing deal with Warner Bros., an arrangement that culminated the following year with its role in “Joker,” which grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
Now, the Vancouver-based entity is juggling a wide range of projects through a blend of studio co-financing deals and in-house productions that run the gamut from hot potential blockbusters like “Ghostbusters,” “Candyman,” and the Kevin Hart drama “Fatherhood,” to the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” and the Black Panthers drama “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Bron also supported Tom Hanks’ recent Apple-released submarine thriller “Greyhound,” and one of the biggest sales of the fall festival season, the Vanessa Kirby marriage drama “Pieces of a Woman,” which Netflix acquired and plans to push during this year’s awards season. The studio now has offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto in addition to its Vancouver home base. Gilbert admitted that Bron’s current scale wasn’t part of the original plan.
“Honestly, when we first started in the business, it was really opportunistic,” he said in an interview with IndieWire during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Bron hosted a series of talks to celebrate its anniversary. “A friend of ours called me and said, ‘Hey, we need help on this movie, the money fell apart, can you help?’”
That was 2009’s “Daydream Nation,” a low-budget Canadian drama co-starring Kat Dennings and Josh Lucas that premiered at TIFF, giving Gilbert his first taste of the adrenaline-fueled dealmaking of the festival scene. He followed that up by helping to secure financing for the Abigail Breslin musical drama “Janey Jones.” The couple mined an innovative financial resource — Creative Wealth Media, which is backed by the Canadian labor union LIUNA. Even then, Gilbert said, “we didn’t have aspirations to grow where we are now.”
Those ambitions arrived after a dramatic five-year gestation period that culminated with two of the biggest sensations of 2016: Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” which landed a historic $17.5 million deal with Searchlight Pictures out of Sundance, and Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” which scored the company its first Oscar. While “Birth” was later marred by reports about Parker’s prior rape charges, the attention to the two projects meant that Bron found itself approached by a much wider array of companies. “Those were such big, noisy movies,” Gilbert said. “Yes, the noise around ‘Birth’ was up and down, but the visibility around the movie meant that the industry took note.” By 2019, the company had invested upwards of $600 million in film production and amassed 19 Oscar nominations.
Looking back on the initial five years, Gilbert acknowledged that the company faced a learning curve in terms of finding projects worth their time. “When we first got started, I think I was too transactional,” he said. “I’d see something, say, ‘Wow, this movie’s going to be incredible because look who’s in it.’ We’ve learned the hard way that — and I know this sounds like a cliché — you will never have a wonderful movie if you don’t start with an incredible script.”
In the pantheon of recent power-players to emerge in Hollywood’s ecosystem, Bron occupies a unique position. Prior to the pandemic, the Gilberts were regulars on the festival circuit, from Sundance to Cannes and TIFF, supporting an international array of boundary-pushing projects such as “Assassination Nation,” “The Nightingale,” and “Leave No Trace.” At the same time, the company has financed adventurous studio fare like “Bombshell,” “Queen & Slim,” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” While the Bron logo occasionally crops up in some curious outliers like the recent “Child’s Play” remake, by and large, Bron’s discerning approach seems to be paying off. Though it may not be as widely recognized as A24 or Netflix, the brand has become synonymous with substantial narratives designed to challenge or advance modern-day issues.
“Brenda and I want to be involved with big commercial fare,” Gilbert said. “It’s exciting for us. But the things we’re most passionate about are stories that matter. We don’t want to bang people over the head and say, ‘This is important!’ The goal is to find stories that matter and put them inside a commercial vehicle. That’s what our company is getting better at.”
Bron has maintained a diverse slate since its outset, years before the pressures of #OscarsSoWhite galvanized conversations about representation in mainstream storytelling, which Gilbert attributed to their own biracial family. “It’s wonderful that the world is now talking about inclusion and diversity,” Gilbert said. “But that’s always been important to us. We’re obviously a mixed couple, our kids are dark and like other people of color have to be mindful of their surroundings. So for us, that’s always been at the forefront of the stories we want to tell.” He spoke highly of former Bron executive Solome Williams, who recently left to kickstart Cynthia Erivo’s new production company. “We want to create a platform for both creatives and executives,” he said.
The pandemic obviously put a damper on Bron’s immediate plans, though several of its upcoming projects — including “Pieces of a Woman” and Barry Levinson’s biopic “Harry Haft” — were already in the pipeline. Gilbert said he expected productions to resume in at least six countries, from Canada to Indonesia, by November. America is not among them. “The U.S. is a mess right now,” he said. “We have to be really careful.”
Gilbert admitted that the company has curtailed its spending, but was growing wary of hearing the same pitches many times over. “I think I’ve had 9,000 people say to me, ‘How do we produce a condensed thriller?’” he said. “The goal is to try to find stories that can be compelling, beautifully written, wonderfully acted — but at the same time not overly complicated with a million locations.” Most of their projects tied to studio production deals have been pushed to 2021. “It just doesn’t make sense to try to get into those right now,’ he said. “2019 was a special year for us, so sliding into 2020, we had a lot planned. It’s been quite an adjustment to resettle a bit.”
At the start of 2020, Bron was poised to return to the blockbuster fray with Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which Sony has since pushed into next spring. Bron’s involvement came from Reitman reaching out directly to the company after it supported his last two features, “The Front Runner” and “Tully.” Gilbert said that he expected Sony to move the movie again if theaters remain closed. “We trust in Sony’s decision,” he said. “Come on, it’s ‘Ghostbusters’! Historically, that brand hits every age.”
Yet even as it continues to support new film productions, Bron is pressing further into the TV space. Gilbert estimated that only five percent of the company’s projects were TV-related until about two years ago. Now, he said, “We will be 50/50 by the end of 2021 because that’s where the world is going.” In 2019, the company promoted David Davoli to oversee its international efforts. The company helped launch HBO’s “Euphoria,” which is currently in production of its second season. Bron is also developing the upcoming Berlin-based postwar miniseries “The Defeated” (formerly “Shadowplay”) and the non-fiction series “Homicide or Justified,” which focuses on civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. That project is being overseen by Brenda Gilbert as part of Bron Life, the company’s non-scripted outfit. The company also launched a virtual production division called Bron Digital designed to support its animation efforts, including the upcoming “Aesop’s Fables”-inspired “Fables,” which is being directed by filmmaker Azazel Jacobs in his first animation effort. “It was inevitable we’d go in this direction,” Gilbert said.
Like most film entities in 2020, Bron is at the mercy of an unpredictable future, but it maintains financial resources at a moment when many creatives are going to need the help. “We had been learning and growing, but that exposure allowed us to grow exponentially with our capital partners,” Gilbert said. “In full candor, I look at the first 10 years as stage one of our company. Both of us had a lot to learn, and now is an exciting time.”