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The Company That Financed ‘Joker’ Is Getting Out of the Blockbuster Business (Column)

Exclusive: BRON is restructuring, laying off employees, and thinking smaller when it comes to film production. That may be good news for the movies.

"Joker"

“Joker”

Warner Bros.

The movie business teaches you to be wary of big spenders. Broad Green came and went in a blur of miscalculated flops. Annapurna downsized after several reckless buying sprees and finally stopped acquiring movies altogether. Now comes whispers that Canadian investment studio BRON — which helped finance films like  “Joker” and “Licorice Pizza” — is going down a similar path.

Sources tell me that the studio launched by husband-and-wife team Aaron and Brenda Gilbert in 2010 laid off several senior roles and will merge its film and TV divisions into a single unit. Rather than produce the live-action features, I’m told that BRON is now working to secure new corporate partners as it restructures its business model around its BRON Digital division (in its previous incarnation, BRON’s financing came in part from Canadian pension plans). That means a renewed focus on animation and games designed to create new franchises, not the usual blend of blockbusters and A-list auteurs that it has supported in the past. The company declined comment.

BRON might seem like yet another company feeling the pandemic squeeze, but over the last few years, it has become one of the most prolific film-financing entities in North America, particularly for movies made in the $50 million range. The company’s track record also includes everything from “Judas and the Black Messiah,” to Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “House of Gucci.” This list doesn’t signal a collective vision so much as an array of them, which isn’t the worst strategy in an era defined by fickle viewers. In a different world, BRON’s profile might have inspired it to market sweatshirts to compete with the A24 fashion set.

“Joker,” co-financed with Warner Bros., grossed $1 billion worldwide and made it clear that big theatrical movies with innovative high concepts had serious business potential. Studios could mitigate their risk factor; BRON could lean into that risk for serious upside. With the pandemic, that model made less sense. “House of Gucci” flopped hard. “Ghostbusters” made $200 million worldwide but fell far short of the $650 million that investors expected.

Movies greenlit pre-pandemic were no longer sufficiently theatrical in the post-Covid market. Several of the titles BRON financed for Sony sold to streamers, including the Tom Hanks WWII thriller “Greyhound” (Apple), Kevin Hart comedy “Fatherhood” (Netflix), and the Ron Howard Thai cave rescue drama “13 Lives” (Amazon). This string of setbacks underscores the bottom line: A financing entity dedicated to movies and only movies doesn’t make any sense.

BRON’s new direction includes Web3 applications, with blockchain games and NFT components being discussed, but BRON Digital isn’t new; it has a core staff of 65 employees and twice as many who work for the division in some capacity worldwide. It’s no surprise that the company would turn to its other assets now. Consider the precedent: Annapurna has generated more headlines lately for projects out of its interactive division like third-person cat adventure game “Stray” (which, holy shit, this cat-lover really needs to play) and its investment in the Tony-winning musical “A Strange Loop.”

BRON hasn’t entirely given up on feature films. While the company will double down on IP undertakings like its animated series “Fables” and “Gossamer,” I’m told that it may continue to invest in films budgeted at under $10 million — a pittance by Hollywood standards, but also the sweet spot for ambitious lo-fi narratives where some of the best cinema gets made.

"Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

A24

It was only six years ago that “Moonlight” rode to Oscar and commercial success on the basis of a $1.5 million budget, but few have replicated that approach. After “Moonlight” premiered in Telluride, I wrote that movies aren’t dying; they’re just getting smaller. That was mostly an aesthetic observation, but the business is starting to realize it, too. It’s not the worst fate for a medium that often leads to reckless spending and a culture steeped in power plays that do a disservice to the creative process.

So: Let’s say the future of film financing is small movies — not Dogme-95 small, but $10-million small. That means the occasional “bigger” budget for a financing entity would be closer to $25 million rather than $50 million (which is what movies like “Joker” have cost).  That’s not a bad place to be — it’s the reported budget of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Financing at this level makes sense for true visionaries who can also secure some measure of studio backing. It bears repeating a point I’ve made a few times in this column: Studios need more first-look deals with filmmakers, where they can enable emerging creatives without setting money on fire.

Filmmaking will continue to sneak into the system even when it makes no damn sense on paper. Every now and then a visionary loon like Werner Herzog or Frances Ford Coppola will come along with “Fitzcarraldo” or “Apocalypse Now,” drive everyone crazy, and deliver a masterpiece. You can’t scale a business around these projects; they’ll always have to storm the gates. It’s time to welcome an era of lower-budget filmmaking in tandem with the chaos that will always exist on the margins.

My optimistic read on this situation may not be the one many industry insiders agree with. Tell me why I should be more alarmed by the BRON news and what it portends for the state of feature filmmaking, or suggest your own solutions to current financing struggles, and I may include it in an upcoming column: eric@indiewire.com

Eric Kohn’s previous columns can be found here

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