Jeremy Thomas' offshoot is now a top production boutique

In the decade since producer Jeremy Thomas created HanWay Films, the company has evolved from an adjunct to his Recorded Picture Co. into one of Europe’s leading sales boutiques.

The turning point was the arrival of former Majestic and Intermedia salesman Tim Haslam as chief exec in December 2003. Haslam had taken a couple of years out of the business to recharge his batteries, and when he joined HanWay, he was, in his own words, “raring to go.”

The company had already enjoyed some modest arthouse success with pics such as “The Cup” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” But Thomas wanted to unshackle HanWay and give it the impetus to grow.

“I didn’t want to stifle HanWay with my own taste,” Thomas explains. “When Tim arrived, we moved into a wider range of films. My only structured plan is that I must continue making the films I want to make, but Tim could take on more films, he was very experienced, and he could grow HanWay organically with the support of a very strong business affairs team at RPC.”

“Jeremy wanted to give it a bit of kick,” Haslam recalls. “We wanted to arrange financing and sales for other producers and directors, acting as a sales agent or an executive producer, putting the money together and ensuring that we became recognized as an early port of call for independent filmmakers and film-financing entities.”

Thomas remains HanWay’s main shareholder and its presiding spirit. But HanWay now handles the foreign sales for about eight new films each year, of which only one or two are supplied by Thomas himself.

HanWay’s deputy chairman, Peter Watson, who is also chief exec of RPC, is the key figure alongside Haslam in putting together projects from outside producers. “The business plan was always to diversify away from RPC product,” Watson says.

HanWay broadened its slate with movies such as “Away From Her,” which won two Oscar nods; Julian Jarrold’s Brit-lit dramas “Becoming Jane” and “Brideshead Revisited” from Ecosse Films, which Haslam exec produced; and, most successful of all, Woody Allen’s “Match Point.”

“For Woody Allen to break out with ‘Match Point’ and gross nearly $100 million worldwide was really exciting,” Haslam says.

“Quality, not quantity” is HanWay’s mantra. Taking its cue from Thomas, the company is European, rather than narrowly British or trans-Atlantic, in its sensibility and focus. It leans toward the kind of marketable auteurs and upscale filmmaking favored by specialized distribs and the festival circuit. Yet it also has a sharp eye for the kind of commercial hooks that such pics need to stand out from the crowd.

“We have five priorities — script, script, script, director and cast, in that order,” Haslam says. “A great script is the hardest thing to do, and if you get one, then a director will attach themselves because they want that story, and a cast will follow the director.”

Paul Brett of financier Prescience, which backed “Tideland” and is in talks to invest in several new HanWay titles, says, “They have carved a very strong brand for themselves. Every film is individual, but there is always a hook to hold onto. They are not just in it to make great art, but also for that vision to be seen by the largest possible audience.”

That attempt to balance art with commerce — and the ambitions of the filmmaker with the needs of the distributor — reflects the values that have sustained Thomas in business for more than three decades.

“HanWay is separate from me, but it has my spirit still,” Thomas says. “I try to make sure everyone working there loves films. That statement is romantic and naive — I know it is — but this is a group of people that wants to get results and have those films delivered to as many territories as possible.”

“Our aim is to enable the filmmaker to retain as much equity as possible in their film,” Haslam says. “It’s in our blood, because we have a producer as our senior shareholder whose natural inclination is to retain as much equity in his own films as possible, and we have a team of business affairs executives with the skills and experience to achieve that.”

That team is headed by Watson and Stephan Mallman, who serves as COO of both HanWay and RPC. Watson argues that HanWay’s core strength lies in the quality and continuity of its middle management. “We have a solid bedrock of really good people, and so much of our effort has gone into getting them to stay with us.”

HanWay has also built up its library from zero to more than 300 titles in the space of five years. Alongside the RPC catalog, it reps collections from Wim Wenders, Merchant Ivory, Peter Weir, and the British Film Institute.

Gazing into the digital future, Watson is convinced that HanWay needs to aggregate its rights with those of other similar library owners to compete effectively in the coming world of online distribution. That thinking lay behind last year’s attempt to merge HanWay with sales outfit Celluloid Dreams. The deal foundered, but the principle still holds. “We are seeking now to build a partnership with one or several complementary rights holders,” Watson says.

Apart from Thomas, Ecosse has become HanWay’s most prolific supplier. They are now working together on John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy,” medieval chiller “Black Death” and an adaptation of “Wuthering Heights.”

Ecosse topper Robert Bernstein says: “Tim has an extremely keen eye for the openings in the market, but he doesn’t overinflate your expectations. Their head of development, Matthew Baker, is very good on script. Many producers don’t realize that sort of delicate financial and creative relationship is imperative to give the best possible opportunity to sell your films.”

That keeps on getting harder for everyone in the indie biz. Even Thomas admits that, after his years in the ’70s and ’80s as “king of the arthouse,” which culminated in his 1988 Oscar for “The Last Emperor,” he is trying to become more commercial, with projects such as sci-fi drama “Franklyn” and thriller “High Rise.”

That move toward the mainstream, albeit on his own terms, can only strengthen HanWay’s hand as it embarks upon its second decade.

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