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Some Good News from Oscar Season: How Big Studios Supported Questlove and Hamaguchi (Column)

Disney's Onyx Collective and WarnerMedia OneFifty helped small movies win big. That's exciting news for the independent sector.

Questlove and Hamaguchi accepting their Oscars

“Hollywood died last night.” Of all the texts that engulfed my phone in the aftermath of the 2022 Oscar ceremony, it was this one sent to me by a veteran filmmaker that stood out. And sure, watching an iconic performer smack another one in real time as it was broadcast to millions certainly felt like an implosion of the industry’s confidence in itself. But this optimist, who writes a weekly column about sustainability rather than self-destruction, saw silver linings.

Lost in the discourse about poor Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson accepting his Best Documentary Oscar for “Summer of Soul” after all that, or the inanity of cutting off poor Ryusuke Hamaguchi with premature music in the midst of his Best International Feature acceptance speech for “Drive My Car,” is that both men thanked modest studio divisions that deserve more attention in the film community. Buried in the beast of major conglomerates in the midst of the streaming wars, there is hope.

Onyx Collective, the Hulu-centric division of Disney that handled “Summer of Soul,” and WarnerMedia OneFifty, the content innovation hub at WarnerMedia that acquired “Drive My Car” for HBO Max, both received shoutouts for their respective wins. And while they differ in crucial ways, they both support diverse narratives while providing a gateway for emerging talent with studio resources.

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

“Summer of Soul”

©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

As the VOD space continues to fuel the independent sector while the theatrical business flounders, it creates acquisitions opportunities. Onyx and WarnerMedia OneFifty function as extensions of the specialty divisions that once welcomed diverse, edgy storytelling like Picturehouse, Warner Independent, and Paramount Vantage. (The only remaining specialty divisions of that sort still kicking are Sony Pictures Classics, Searchlight, and Universal’s Focus Features.) Those entities adhered to the same business metrics as their larger studio homes; these newcomers are leveraging the streaming business to create a commercial conduit for diverse storytelling that might not otherwise exist.

Onyx Collective launched last spring as a “Hulu content brand for creators of color and underrepresented voices,” as a press release put it at the time. Its very existence has been the subject of envy across the Disney landscape. Last month, when LGBTQ staffers at the studio sent an open letter to CEO Bob Chapek with multiple requests for change, they mentioned Onyx as a model for how the studio could amplify additional marginalized voices.

The day before the Oscars, I attended a lunch for “Summer of Soul” at the home of Walt Disney television chairman of entertainment Dana Walden that doubled as a salute to Onyx Collective’s swift progress over the last year. Chapek was there, and it seemed clear that the studio saw the division as a critical resource on several fronts. In addition to its acquisitions, Onyx Collective houses all “non-Marvel” projects by Marvel directors Ryan Coogler and Destin Daniel Cretton as part of their overall deals with the studio; this strikes me as an essential safeguard against the threat of talented directors getting consumed by big paycheck gigs, and mitigates the potential creative risks of new filmmakers taking on these projects when they come up.

Tara Duncan, who leads the division in addition to overseeing Disney’s Freeform cable channel, told me that her main focus is television — they’re currently in production on Roger Ross Williams’ “The 1619 Project” — but their resources hold enormous potential for festival breakouts.

EXECUTIVE PORTRAIT - Tara Duncan, President, Freeform & Onyx Collective. (Freeform/Jabari Jacobs)

Tara Duncan

Freeform

For Duncan, Onyx was a natural result of the work she did as a consultant for Hulu. “We wanted [a name] that felt bold, loud, distinct but also harks back to our ethos of championing artists of color,” she told me in a phone interview this week. “Onxy Collective” refers to a smooth black healing stone (though they sometimes come in other colors, as Duncan was quick to point out). “It’s a stone found naturally in the Earth that is rare and premium,” she said. “That was the idea we kept coming back to.”

It was Onyx that first flagged “Summer of Soul” as a worthy acquisition ahead of its 2020 Sundance debut, when it was still titled “Black Woodstock.” Searchlight, also scouring the festival for acquisitions, handled theatrical. “Just seeing that sea of black faces and knowing this was a directorial debut really checked every box we wanted for our brand,” Duncan said. “I can’t overstate the significance of having a POC executive team. We were able to define the significance of the film and make sure it got a global reach. It’s a testament to the content itself that we were able to exercise all of the corners of the Disney company.”

Onyx’s small staff includes HBO veteran Jackie Glover, who heads up documentary acquisitions and this year picked up “Aftershock,” the Sundance entry about Black women underserved by the U.S. maternal health system. The project was a joint pickup with ABC News. A deal with Onyx also guarantees international exposure on Star+. “I look to the teams at Searchlight, ABC, Pixar, Marvel,” Duncan said. “They are really the bar for us as we continue to grow and evolve until we are at the same level as our sister brands.”

Duncan wasn’t keen on comparisons with specialty divisions of the past. “I don’t think of myself as specialty or somehow in the minor leagues,” she said. “We’re just as major as everyone else. There’s nothing more major than the Walt Disney Company, so for us to have the access and resources that the company provides for me isn’t specialized at all.”

Onyx Collective was one of many buyers that saw potential in “Summer of Soul” by the time it premiered at Sundance; “Drive My Car” is another story. Hamaguchi’s three-hour meditation on language, performance, and grief overcame lackluster offers out of Cannes last year through an innovative partnership between Janus Films and the new entity Sideshow, which leveraged the exclusivity of the critically acclaimed movie’s theatrical run. That helped it gain traction with the Academy, which awarded it Japan’s first-ever Best Picture nomination in addition to nods for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best International Film, which it won. Those nominations also helped secure a streaming deal on HBO Max — or, more specifically, WarnerMedia OneFifty. More than once, as “Drive My Car” circled the Oscar finish line, I was asked by industry folks if I had any idea what that was.

The answer is complicated, but it essentially functions as an investment firm that acquires diverse content with an eye toward bringing that talent in-house. That includes a array of short films — in addition to “Drive My Car,” the division also released two Oscar-nominated live-action shorts, the touching Polish drama “The Dress” and the dystopian satire “Please Hold” (both of which are well worth your time on the service).

WarnerMedia OneFifty head Axel Caballero said these recent buys speak to a larger strategy. “With 90 percent of the projects we’ve acquired, we’ve given grants to the artists to set up their next projects at WarnerMedia,” he told me when we sat down together at SXSW last month, shortly after the division premiered a new episodic project at the festival. “We add interconnectivity to WarnerMedia by working with the teams at HBO Max, Warner Bros., CNN, and other brand units to build relationships with these artists.”

Over the past year, that included filmmakers such as Talia Lugacy, whose improvised veteran drama “This Is Not a War Story” was acquired by WarnerMedia OneFifty last year; her narrative project “Whitey on the Moon” is being with an artist grant from WarnerMedia OneFifty. The 2020 short “Rosa” was another pickup, and director Suha Araj set up has the time-travel comedic feature “The Bowling Green Massacre” (great name!) at the studio. Mexican director Miguel Angel Caballero’s short “Acuitzeramo” is also on the service; it helped the director set up his feature debut.

Axel Caballero

These are nascent filmmakers whose sensibilities and original stories might not seem like natural fits in the studio universe. But WarnerMedia OneFifty creates a portal for that — and if you’re rooting for an ecosystem that supports filmmakers at early career phases, you’ll want to knock on wood that this is one aspect of the WarnerMedia empire that survives the merger with Discovery set to take place April 11.

Caballero wasn’t sure how that would play out for him and his small team. “Oof,” he said when I asked about it, considering the weeks ahead. “It’s an incredible track record that Discovery has, and that leads to an incredible opportunity for creators as they see many more outlets coming up. It’s exciting to think about what the future could look like for an artist.”

Caballero, who ran the National Association of Latino Independent Producers for four years before he joined HBO, speaks of OneFifty in almost philanthropic terms even as he’s tasked with acquiring content that serves the broader needs of a company in transition. The division invests in 300 artists organizations, including the sponsorship of 50 film festivals.

“Our tagline is ‘the artist studio where innovation happens,'” he said “The idea of studio has evolved over time, especially now when all of it is integrated in a certain way. We have the ability to connect with the bigger units.” He also can bring a flexible definition to the type of content they pick up. “It’s no longer a linear way of thinking,” Caballero said. “It’s a multi-content way of thinking. That’s exciting. If it can be a short film or an episodic or a three-hour feature film with subtitles — well, people can choose what they really love on the service.”

With HBO Max now in 51 territories, the global nature of the service adds additional options. “As we look at the different projects that are coming in, we’ve started to think about the regions more closely,” Caballero said. “It becomes much more viable to go after global rights or to do something more localized, to work with the Latin America or Euro teams to build artist relationships there.”

Drive My Car

“Drive My Car”

Janus Films

A cinephile who cited Robert Altman and Akira Kurosawa among his favorites, Caballero said he was keen on acquiring films that reflected the types of projects they wanted to support at the incubation stage. That’s how “Drive My Car” came into the picture.

“We operate in this particular space very much in line with the work that other folks have done like Criterion,” he said, noting that WarnerMedia’s existing Criterion relationship via Turner helped “Drive My Car” find a home. “We see a unique space at HBO Max where people are craving something different. The incredible theatrical success of ‘Drive My Car’ translates to streaming. This audience base is really searching for something beyond just the bigger things — which are great — but we want to create that hub, a studio within WarnerMedia, for that type of content.”

With Cannes a few weeks away, many in attendance may wonder if this year’s “Drive My Car” breakthrough could emerge. Caballero is crossing his fingers that the new bosses will let him travel there to find out. “I think we have a real clear vision that we bring to the table,” he said.

With these companies on the hunt for talented filmmakers, the prevalent cynicism about the death of film culture seems more than just exaggerated; it’s naive. On this week’s Screen Talk, I argued that despite the embarrassments of the latest Oscars ceremony, the awards season continues to be an exciting platform for cinema that just a few years ago was left out of that conversation entirely. And while show hosts love to joke that nobody watches the movies that get nominated… well, until we see some real streaming numbers, that’s anybody’s guess. But ambitious movies clearly have a greater chance of reaching more people than ever before.

Certainly the success of Netflix in supporting costly auteur passion projects suggests the audience is still out there, though that’s one service that pulled back on acquisitions. Onyx Collective and WarnerMedia OneFifty suggest that all hope for the movies is not lost in the studio system.

Of course, vast corporations can shift strategy when an executive has a bad hair day, and I might be too quick to celebrate these particular opportunities without considering their overall frailty in the big picture. I welcome readers to share their own thoughts about the evolving opportunities for international cinema or how they would prefer to see the industry meet the needs of an unpredictable distribution landscape: eric@indiewire.com

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