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Searchlight Loves the Hulu Opportunity but the Box Office Future Remains Unclear — Q&A

"Anybody who tells you that they know that," said Searchlight co-president David Greenbaum, "have them call us."

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”

Nick Wall

The Sundance Film Festival is always a snapshot of where the film industry goes next. For years, Searchlight Pictures (then Fox Searchlight) had its pick of the films most-likely-to-succeed with critics, movie audiences, and Oscar voters, from “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Brooklyn” to the ill-fated “Birth of a Nation” and its big 2021 buys, Rebecca Hall thriller “Night House” and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s concert documentary “Summer of Soul.” The pandemic put a crimp in those films’ theatrical performances but Hulu saved the day, as it did with Searchlight’s big Oscar-winner “Nomadland.”

Eyes are on the label Disney acquired from Twentieth Century Fox in 2019; since then, Searchlight has not only dropped the Fox but also said farewell to veteran co-chairs Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula, who shepherded the specialty distributor to most of its 164 Oscar nominations and 43 wins (including five Best Picture winners). When they handed the co-presidency to production heads Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum (known in Hollywood as “The Greens”), it was already clear that the company would add television and Hulu content to their prior mandate of about six theatrical movies a year.

With the pandemic reshuffling the Searchlight release slate, the Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan whodunit “See How They Run” is the only film that Searchlight has officially dated for theaters in 2022. Does the new Searchlight still have theaters and Oscars in mind, or is it becoming a streamer?

The answer: Yes and no.

SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED), Nina Simone performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, 2021, © Searchlight Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

“Summer of Soul”

©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Searchlight is unlikely to repeat last year’s Best Picture, Director, and Actress Oscar trifecta, but it is well positioned to pick up multiple nominations next week for “Summer of Soul,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” and Jessica Chastain vehicle “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

Ahead of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Searchlight scooped up Mimi Cave’s debut thriller “Fresh,” starring Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”) as a young woman who has a very bad boyfriend (Sebastian Stan). At the festival, Searchlight won the bidding war for Sophie Hyde’s two-hander about an older widow (Emma Thompson) who hires a sex worker (discovery Daryl McCormack) to find out what she’s been missing. Both movies were acquired and will be marketed by Searchlight, but they’re going straight to Hulu as Originals, along with previously announced straight-to-Hulu titles such as “Fire Island.”

Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum90th Annual Academy Awards, Executive Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018

Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum

Stewart Cook/Variety

But what about Emma Thompson’s Oscar chances? “Matthew and I don’t believe that a Hulu movie shouldn’t be eligible,” said David Greenbaum during a wide-ranging conversation over Zoom. The Greens spoke from their new offices on the Disney lot and revealed much about their strategies going forward — while leaving their theatrical and Oscar ambitions decidedly vague. While the pandemic complicates theater bookings, the duo have learned much about growing their audiences via Hulu and they’re bullish on being able to continue to bank on the high-quality, bespoke, well-marketed movies Searchlight is known for. (Many titles, from Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” to Eva Longoria’s “Flamin’ Hot,” are in post-production.)

As the co-presidents wrestle with their new identity as a hybrid distributor with multiple platforms, they don’t want genre movie “Fresh” to entirely define their new mandate, but there’s no question the label is trying to broaden its reach beyond the older Oscar demo. The Greens continue to insist that Disney is giving them autonomy over how to spend their acquisition, production, and distribution budgets. And yes, Taika Waititi’s unfinished soccer movie “Next Goal Wins” will be released — someday.

Daisy Edgar-Jones in “Fresh”


Anne Thompson: Are you still going to be doing six theatrical releases a year?

David Greenbaum:  Yeah, that’s what we’re doing. And we’re adding a bunch of movies for streaming.

What was your strategy going into Sundance that led to acquiring “Fresh” and “Good Luck, Leo Grande”?

Matthew Greenfield: It’s a continuation and an evolution of what we’ve always done, which is looking for films with exciting filmmakers, new voices, films that got our blood pumping and our hearts racing in the love of cinema. We found two movies that did that for us. Both are wildly different from each other and that’s exciting for us, too. You never know, going in. You’re praying that you find one of those films. You go in with lots of questions, a lot of research. With “Fresh,” we do it before the festival.

So you took that off the table before the festival started and made sure you didn’t get caught in a bidding war. You’re still cock of the walk at Sundance, but how do you compete with the streamer money?

Greenbaum: We try to think of ourselves as an underdog in any situation. Because, number one, the landscape is changing dramatically. Number two, we are the handcrafted scrappy version. One of the things that’s a selling point for our relationship with the filmmakers is each movie that we take on, even though we are saying we’re making more, we’re still treating it as a very important part of the slate. Each individual movie has its own campaign. That is a differentiator for us. It’s also obviously important for us to think about how the filmmakers can fit into what we hope to do with them.

[We have] the opportunity to really take some risks and some chances on things that serve different audiences. “Fresh” is on one end of the spectrum and, and “Leo Grande” is on another. They both engender real, passionate advocates. It means they do a lot of that work. The work that we’re going to do is additive, to some extent, to the work that the movie is doing on its own.

I totally get why those two movies are Searchlight movies. But where does the Hulu Original come into the Searchlight brand? How do you maintain the Searchlight brand with Emma Thompson, who could have been an Oscar contender in the old universe?

Greenfield: The partnership with Hulu is a great one for us. It gives us another way to reach an audience. The movies are selected by Searchlight, they are marketed by Searchlight; when we make them, they’re made by Searchlight. The process for the filmmaker and the way we connect with the audience, the strategy is all Searchlight, and then utilizing and connecting with Hulu to learn all their insights from their point of view.

Greenbaum: Yeah. It was an eye-opening experience for us — as it’s been for the whole industry — to learn what, for an audience, is defined as a streaming movie. Obviously, with “Nomadland,” that was an extraordinary experience and Hulu is a massive part of it. We had responses from audiences who sometimes don’t see the Searchlight movie, whatever it may be, until after we’ve had some box-office success or some award success. The path for “Nomadland,” because of its accessibility, was one where we had a surprising response from an audience earlier on in the process.

Greenfield: Something similar [is] “Summer of Soul” That’s been a great process, too. That partnership with Hulu allows us to expand our audience in a way that feels incredibly natural to Searchlight.

So “Summer of Soul” is your Oscar frontrunner this year, with “Nightmare Alley” coming in a little from behind?

Greenfield: Awards in general are a helpful means to increase the profile of any movie. That’s the point of the whole process. We want as many people to see the movies as possible. We’re happy for any uplift we can get. [For Searchlight] that has always been the point and that remains the point.

The old Searchlight was “Oscars are us.” I’m discerning a slight shift.

Greenfield: In one breath you say that and I also think you would recognize the old Searchlight also is “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State” and “Juno” and “Ab Fab: The Movie” and “Ready or Not.”

The theatrical side of things, especially the arthouses, is under serious duress and you are a pivotal player in that world. Their survival depends on you. You guys give them the best, most commercial, most mainstream titles. And we don’t see that much lined up on the release calendar.

Greenfield: There’s a lot coming. Traditionally, we wait till we’re pretty far along in post on most of our movies before we date them because we want to get to the final movie and understand the landscape and figure out the right timing and process for it. That remains true because of Covid. The schedules of all of these movies has really mucked up the process in terms of scheduling. We have a lot of movies that we’ve shot. We have a bunch that will be theatrical and we’re still in the process of post on them, some at a very early stage.

Our plan is the number of movies remains the same. Searchlight has always been variable in terms of how many movies it’s released, depending on the calendar year and what movies work on the schedule. We try to have the schedule led by the creative process on the movies. Once that process has revealed itself, then we date it. We’re in the middle of that process. There will be plenty, don’t worry.

It’s been a challenge whatever you guys have been through. It’s been tough.

Greenfield: The world is in a tricky place, but people are persevering. We are too, and we feel lucky to be doing it.

Greenbaum: The [Academy] rules during Covid, will they be the rules after Covid? We don’t know. All we’re focused on is quality. All we’re focused on is movies that we respond to. Of course, it’s important that we shine a light on them with awards. Matthew and I don’t believe that a Hulu movie shouldn’t be eligible.

Do you have a sense of what your theatrical model is going to look like? And how much say does Disney have in what you do with those films?

Greenbaum: The Searchlight brand will be prominent inside of Hulu, so it’s not like when we are a Searchlight movie we’re going to be just in charge of marketing. We’ll be in charge of everything that happens with the movie. The Searchlight logo will be on the movie. There’ll be a prominent display of Searchlight inside of Hulu.

Is there a Searchlight vertical?

Greenbaum: We still don’t know exactly how that’s gonna be. But there will be a place to find all the Searchlight movies. Yes.

What’s the new model looking like? Everybody else has been shifting and moving around the windows.

Greenbaum: We think everybody really is taking it movie by movie, week by week, like everything in Covid. Six months ago, we thought we’d be in a different place today. We hope we have an idea all of us about where we’re going, Covid-wise, six months from now. Part of why we don’t date our movies until just before is because we want to be able to make the best possible plan for that moment. That’s what we’re focused on, but we don’t have a crystal ball. “Nomadland,” we spent a long, long time waiting and thinking and looking until we could find the way to get it out there. We made the best possible plan for that movie in that moment and we’re trying to do that with all of our films.

It feels like you’re heading younger?

Greenfield: It was always very tricky for us to reach a younger audience theatrically. One of the opportunities that Hulu gets us is an opportunity to connect with a younger audience. We’re interested in all the opportunities that are provided by Hulu.

Greenbaum: I wouldn’t say “Nomadland,” “Leo Grande,” and “Summer of Soul” necessarily reach older or younger.

Both, right?

Greenbaum: Yeah. We were also surprised by the response when something is that easily accessible, versus the let’s-go-out-to-the-movies.

Accessible meaning: being on a platform.

Greenbaum: Yes. We’re focused on expanding what the definition of a Searchlight movie is. We have lots of debates internally, right? Like, is “Fresh”? Or is this, or is that? People advocate and if they are advocating that it is [a Searchlight movie], that’s number one. It’s [also] important for us to think about how we can find an evolution of what that audience can be for Hulu as well. We’re actually bringing things to Hulu that Hulu doesn’t currently have. That’s an opportunity for us; it’s also obviously an opportunity for Hulu.

Greenfield: Although our movies have often not skewed young, I also think things like “Ready or Not” skewed younger. Our goal is trying to find movies that have an audience that we can connect with first — but then if we’ve done our job, and if the movie is good and people like it, then they tell their friends and relatives and age becomes less of a factor over the course of a release.

Greenbaum: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was interesting for us because there was a core audience that was interested or knew that story. Then Jessica [Chastain’s] performance shined a light on something that a lot of people either didn’t know about, or thought they didn’t care about and found interest in the world of that movie. Obviously, Wes Anderson does it every time: You see a Wes movie and think, “I’m just going into the world of Wes and Wes’ brilliant mind.” That also is one of the joys of his movies because he’s going where he’s gonna go and we’re all ready to go with him.

Is there a budget cap on your movies these days? Or is it higher than it used to be, just to be competitive?

Greenbaum: It certainly hasn’t been a budget cap in terms of our relationship with Disney. They have been nothing but supportive from day one. We ourselves certainly still try to be very rigorous about what we’re making and how much we’re making it for.

Greenfield: There are two things philosophically. One is we want the budgets to be in line — we want the movies to be successful, right? And we don’t want money to lead the creative choices. We try to find an area where where the movies can really be led by the desires of the filmmaker,and the creative choices that are the best choices.

Have you curbed and cut back your expectations on what theatrical will return for you? Does that bring budgets down?

Greenbaum: TBD. We don’t know. To be honest, nobody knows and anybody who tells you that they know that, have them call us.

Greenfield: We know what the theatrical marketplace is today. We know what it was last week and the week before. We don’t really know what it’s gonna be next week, or the week after, and certainly six months or a year from now. We’re really hopeful that people are going to come and all audiences, all kinds of films, all theaters come back in droves. But we’re taking it week by week and month by month as we discover what it is. And we’ll keep figuring it out as we go along.

Does Disney give you a number of films that you’re supposed to fulfill for Hulu, and then you have the option of creatively deciding what those films are? I’m curious about the relationship with Disney in terms of what you’re supposed to accomplish.

Greenbaum: We work very closely with Disney; they’re incredible supporters of what we do. We always have an idea of how many films we would like to reach. Now we have more films and a wider range of films and a wider range of ways in which we can release those. Obviously, it changes a little bit as it comes. There’s opportunity with movies we find and fall in love with, like we just did with these two movies at Sundance, [or] as movies in post take longer — which happens to us all the time, frankly. Sometimes they move more quickly in post production.

Are we ever going to see a finished “Next Goal Wins?”

Greenfield: You will. But we’re working with filmmakers who are busy. As as we did with “Nomadland,” flexibility is an aspect that we can offer filmmakers when we have the right project and the right filmmaker. We’re real believers that every movie has a process and a time that’s going to lead to the best possible movie and the best possible connection with the audience.

Greenbaum: The other way to put it is, was there a remit? Did you go into Sundance with a remit? The answer’s no.

Greenfield: Find the filmmakers you love, like Mimi Cave.

Greenbaum: We were lucky that we were able to come out with two movies that we absolutely loved. But we didn’t go into the festival with any form of pressure to say, guys, look, we need to just get some movies. That is absolutely not our approach and will never be our approach.

Greenfield: We are supported by our parent company to work on great stuff that we love. Now we’ve had to do more of that, if we can find it. We love to find filmmakers we can make more movies with in the future and we have that in both Mimi Cave and Sophie Hyde. Those are actors we love — Emma Thompson, we’d love to work with her more. Daryl McCormack, who was incredible, for us a discovery, we were totally entranced by him and hopefully can do more stuff. Same with Daisy and Sebastian. For us, the goal is the same: Find movies we love, figure out how we can bring them to the best audience, and find filmmakers that we can hopefully work with again and again, again.

Greenbaum: And we also, to be very clear, hate Zoom.

I wish we were in person.

Greenbaum: We’re actually in our new offices, which is cool.

Greenfield: But there’s nobody here honestly right now, because of Covid, we’re the only people in the offices.

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