Meet the Hammonds, Indie Film’s New Kids on the Block

Meet the Hammonds, Indie Film's New Kids on the Block
Meet the Hammonds, Indie Film's New Kids on the Block
Many are called to start indie distribution companies. But few are chosen. The morgue of failed start-ups is quite full.

No longer active indies include Newmarket Films, Artisan, Overture Films, ThinkFilm, Trimark, Destination Films, Yari Film Group, Orion Pictures, Apparition, Palm Pictures,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. Miramax Films, which was founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein and bought by Disney, which in turn sold the company after they left to launch The Weinstein Co., has been exploiting its library and may be on the verge of becoming more active again. 

Relativity is on the ropes, as Ryan Kavanaugh finally reaches the limits of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. FilmDistrict’s Peter Schlessel folded his line-up into Universal subsidiary Focus Features, which has now figured out that blurring a high-class brand with genre movies is a mistake, and has relegated B-fare to a revived Gramercy label. (The long list of companies that have gone through the Universal sluicer is depressing, from October, USA, and Good Machine to PolyGram.)

Long-time indie New Line Cinema was eaten up by Warner Bros., which allowed it to run autonomously for a while; it’s now a production label. Steven Spielberg’s ambitious DreamWorks is a production company not unlike his original Amblin, and is no longer a distributor (Disney does the honors for live action, while Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation goes through Fox).

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 had all the advantages of studio resources and output deals. 

So it takes guts to join the indie distribution fray, especially as the market is heated up by big buyers like Netflix and Amazon, and as television chases down the hottest indie talent. So all eyes are on the new kids on the block, financial entrepreneurs Gabriel and Daniel Hammond, who launched Broad Green Pictures last summer.

Gabriel Hammond started things off by falling into the Terrence Malick business. When he was exploring Cannes in 2014, he saw a promo for the documentary that Malick’s been working on for the last 25 years, “Voyage of Time.” He stepped into the U.S. gap financing, and took an option on distribution, which at the time the Hammonds still weren’t set up to do. “We said, ‘We’ll finance this and get the first right to distribute if such a thing exists,'” Hammond told me at Cannes, “and that really opened the door for us to develop a relationship with Terry and his producers, and talk creatively about how we want to market that movie and do things differently. I love Terry because he’s so collaborative.”

That led to a deal to release Malick’s next three films. First up in 2016 is “Knight of Cups,” which debuted at Berlin to a mixed response. So rather than go out in December during the awards corridor, they decided to go in the new year. “We want to have the longest run possible,” said Hammond, “not for money’s sake, but so we can get as many people to share the experience.” Next will be the still-untitled drama (which will not be called “Weightless”), which recycles some of the same ensemble cast led by Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, followed by “Voyage of Time.” 

Last fall Broad Green made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival by opening a hospitality suite and going on a buying spree, scooping up (and probably overpaying for) French immigration drama “Samba” (July 24), which reunites Cesar-winner Omar Sy with the filmmakers behind specialty hit “The Intouchables,” Ramin Bahrani’s well-reviewed real estate thriller “99 Homes” (September 25), a two-hander starring Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield, and Mia Hansen-Love’s French 90s electronic-music drama “Eden,” which is their first release, opening June 19 in New York and L.A., followed by San Francisco and Miami.

One example of what they are trying to do is take “99 Homes” beyond the fall awards conversation and open it up to a social action campaign. “We start platforming in L.A. and New York,” said Hammond, “and we’ll take it as wide as the numbers support. Our idea is to keep it in theaters for as long as possible. One of the reasons that we won that bid was that I told Ramin Bahrani, who’s really big on the message of the film, ‘Listen: it’s great that you’re big on the message, and we should help get it out and they should think about it, but let’s actually do something in the real world. Let’s not just plant an idea in people’s heads. Let’s actually use this to start a social action campaign to put 99 families back in their homes.'” 

They also acquired James Napier Robinson’s undated award-winning New Zealand chess drama “The Dark Horse,” and Spanish-language trans-Atlantic romance “10,000 Km,” which opens July 10 after playing the festival circuit. Broad Green won the Sundance 2015 bidding war for Ken Kwapis’s Robert Redford vehicle “A Walk in the Woods,” which they had to commit to take out wide this fall (September 2) to at least 1,000 screens. In March they announced the pickup of Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back,” an undated Sundance Dramatic Competition entry starring Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles. 

This year the Hammonds attended Cannes with a full team trawling the festival and market looking at promo reels and potential acquisitions and production opportunities: they nabbed U.S. rights to “Lincoln Lawyer” director Brad Furman’s drug drama “The Infiltrator,” starring Bryan Cranston and Diane Kruger, set for 2016 release.  
So far the Broad Green release roster is strictly specialty films. “In the middle of next year, if not sooner, we’ll be launching our wide-release slate,” Hammond said. They’re hoping to put out six to ten mid-budgeted films (around $25 to $75 million) a year on more than 2500 screens with some $20 to $50 million committed to prints and ads. They’ll be chasing the usual mix of genre, action-thriller, and big-budget comedies, including female-driven and urban, he said: “It’s two different facets of the business.” 

In the current competitive climate, they realize that they have to produce their own films. So far they’ve financed Isabel Coixet’s drama “Learning to Drive,” starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley (August 21) and sibling sports drama “Break Point,” starring Jeremy Sisto (September 5). In the works is Lucy Walker’s sequel to Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder’s classic Cuba music doc, “Buena Vista Social Club.”  “We got into this with a development and production focus,” said Daniel Hammond. “It’s one of the strengths of our team. So we’re excited to make sure that we’re spending our development dollars as appropriately as we’re spending our acquisition dollars.”

One movie that they paid for they will not release. They are closing a deal with another distributor for uber-violent “Green Room,” which director Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin”) convinced them to allow him to play at Cannes in Director’s Fortnight, where it was well-reviewed. “This movie’s very unique, in that way — in a good way,” said Gabriel Hammond, “but there may be somebody who can really run with that.”

Building a distribution machine is a major undertaking that burns a lot of cash before seeing much in the way of returns. The deep-pocketed brothers have been hiring seasoned professionals such as Screenvision distribution exec Travis Reid, Warner Bros. publicity exec Adam Keen, eOne acquisitions exec Dylan Wiley, and homevideo exec Steve Nickerson, who like media exec Gail Heaney, comes from Summit; they’re not messing around. Since September 2014 they have jumped from ten employees to 65 in NY and LA, and could reach 90 by the fall, they estimate. 

Gabriel, who leans toward the business side as his brother Daniel oversees creative, describes Broad Green as “a full studio. So 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.”

For international, Broad Green recently bought a 45% stake in David Garrett’s British foreign sales company Mr. Smith, which adds 15 additional people in London. “He’s got an equal passion for the big stuff and small stuff,” said Gabriel. “At DreamWorks, he just sold ‘The BFG’ for Spielberg. Likewise, he likes doing ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’ He’s got a passion for both. Nothing’s too big or too small for him to handle.” While the Hammonds want to run everything from VOD through DVDs through the company with consistent marketing, they do not yet own a homevideo distributor.

What makes a Broad Green movie? “We’re fairly agnostic across all types of genres,” said Daniel, who grew up on sci-fi and speculative fiction. “We’re always looking for something new. Whether we’re distributing it or whether we’re making it, we never want to do something that we feel we don’t bring something of ourselves to — not necessarily Gabriel and I, but someone on our team that has some edge in doing it better. If another studio can do that film and bring that level of insight to it, there’s not as much excitement for us in doing it. So it’s something new. Whether it’s the way it’s filmed, the writing, a new type of story, or whether you look at that trailer or poster and say, ‘I know exactly what that movie is. I want to see that movie.’ You go in and come out saying, ‘I was wrong. I’ve never seen that movie before! I’ve never seen anything quite like that.’ That’s what we want our audiences to always walk out feeling.”

“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. The ability to create something that runs on a totally different ethos–my brother and I worked together for ten years together building a couple of financial service companies. I think everybody imagines we were behind some trading desk on, like, eight Bloomberg terminals, I don’t know, algorithmic trading or such. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. It was one of those situations where we set out to be a first mover and build a brand, build a culture, over a decade-long time frame. That’s what we’re doing here.”

“One of the things we’re proudest of,” he continued, “is that we created a place where people loved coming into work every day, that they didn’t consider an office. That’s even harder to do in finance, because it’s not really driven by the same type of intrinsic passion that drives the creative focus of film. And there’s a special opportunity to do that here. So the ability to pick whoever we work with — both internally as a culture, but also who we choose to associate with, whether it’s a talent agent or legal side or otherwise — based on how they treat us or one another is a different way to build something that, ultimately, is going to create a very safe creative haven for filmmakers, because it’s going to be a different environment with a different group of people than you’ll find anywhere else, and a different way of treating one another. It’s an opportunity for all the execs who are joining us, be it from the top level up or the assistants who are coming in and thinking about their future.”

You have to admit these guys have balls. It’s their money and they are willing to risk it. “It’s the stage where we can move out from a creative process, because the decision-makers are seated right here,” said Gabriel. “We can take a certain type of risk that others can’t. Part of it is that we’re spending so much, putting so much time and resource on the technology side, data analytics and the marketing, and we’re going to reinvent that whole side of things. That’s going to be one of the most fun pieces for me, but it goes throughout.”

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