Meyer model leans on scale, shared risk and making a splash

Nick Meyer, a former Paramount Vantage and Lionsgate exec, launched Sierra Pictures in 2009, and merged with Affinity in early 2011, taking advantage of the majors’ retreat from the midrange and specialty business. The company is the exclusive sales agent for films developed and produced by Sidney Kimmel, OddLot, Bold Films and Incentive Filmed Entertainment. It gained notice at the Cannes market in 2011 with sci-fi pic “Ender’s Game” and Jason Statham starrer “Parker,” both of which nearly sold out across most territories. It’s also producing films, including “Shark Night,” “Parker” and “Wer,” from the producers of “The Devil Inside.”

Meyer spoke with Variety’s Dave McNary at Sierra/Affinity’s Beverly Hills offices, and discussed the maturing of the company’s slate, the growing opportunity of midrange films, the importance of film festivals like Berlin and Cannes, and why sales is still dearer to his heart than producing.

Dave McNary: Did you expect to be at this place when you started?

Nick Meyer: In some ways, I expected to get there earlier. Early on, I was asking, “Why is it taking so long?” But it takes awhile to get good movies and scale and go into the marketplace. And it was the worst economy since the Depression. So it kind of looks what I thought it would look like, which is kind of cool.

DM: Are you impressed that there are more sales-production companies?

NM: I don’t have the hubris to say I came up with the idea. I think every company has its core in the way it’s capitalized and structured, the partners it brings in. We have our story and they have theirs. But is the space rife with a lot more players? Absolutely. I started my business when it was time of contraction, and over the past 12 months, it’s proven to be a time of expansion. You’ve got to keep your nose to the grindstone and do the work. Doing the work is finding the movies, servicing the movies, selling the movies, serving your customers — and to use the sports term, to leave it on the field. I’m not going to win every battle, but if I lose, it’s not going to be because someone was willing to outwork me.

DM: Why was Cannes 2011 such a big deal for you?

NM: Cannes of two years ago spoke to the business and now we’re starting to reap the benefits of what that was. “Drive” was playing in the festival. That came from our partnership with Bold. We brought to the market “Ender’s Game,” “Parker” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” So you had movies from the partner companies, Kimmel and Incentive. You had “Enders” from Gigi Pritzker. That was kind of like our coming-out party. And now those movies are coming out. So we have one with FilmDistrict, one with Summit and one with Focus. Three different suppliers. That’s where I envisioned taking the company.

DM: How “Ender’s Game” looking?

NM: When we showed elements of the movie to the distributors at AFM in November, their response was fantastic. It was the first time that they’d seen what they’d bet on 15 months earlier. Summit’s a great partner on the movie.

DM: Are you pleased that adult dramas are stepping up and traveling well outside the U.S.?

NM: Absolutely. If you look at the Oscar list this year, I feel like there’s respect for A-level directors with adult-themed movies. Those really have a global reach. It got doubted here; most of international really never doubted it. Every studio’s had one big success over $100 million. “Argo,” “Flight,” “Lincoln,” “Le Miserables,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Life of Pi” — these are movies with big ideas, and not just for kids.

DM: What about “The Impossible”?

NM: People tended to dismiss it because it was a Spanish story, but it’s going to do $100 million worldwide. People are saying we need movies. People want the good ones. People would rather buy fewer movies and put more money on them, and turn them into event movies. It has to be a viable theatrical proposition. That’s the biggest barrier to entry. You can’t rely on the DVD. You have to believe that the DNA of the project is that it’s going to be a motion picture.

DM: What does that mean for people like yourself?

NM: You’ve got to get the good ones. People are going to see the good ones in droves and droves. The hardest thing is finding those scripts, the ideas, the pitch. Everyone’s looking for that one. It’s across all sectors — Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Bob Zemeckis.

DM: How did it work out for Paramount in selecting Sierra to sell some of the foreign markets on “Flight?”

NM: They mitigate their risk. It worked out well for everyone. It gives the studio the comfort that they can continue to make good risky movies. Great for the entire industry, great for the consumer.

DM: Let’s talk about Berlin.

NM: I think it’s going to be strong, because there are a lot of people who haven’t filled up their slates and need to start. AFM wasn’t as big as people had hoped. We’re going out with a couple of projects in the next few weeks. I think people are looking.

DM: Where do you see the company going? Where would you like it to go? How do you want it to change over time?

NM: The only thing that’s going to be permanent is that it’s going to be different in a few years. I don’t necessarily know what that is. I know that the core values that keep this place going — integrity, hard work, love of movies — is going to be a part of that.

DM: What about the TV division?

NM: We spent almost a year putting (that) together. We started Sierra Engine at the end of last year. We’ve got new shows coming in. We’re doing some stuff in the scripted space and non-scripted. I believe that’s a very good growth area for us.

DM: What about features?

NM: On the feature side, we’re sticking to what we’ve been doing. We’ve got a bunch of movies that we haven’t even announced. We’ve been gathering up some IP and working with our partners on their slates. I haven’t landed a big (young adult) series, if that’s what you’re asking. (We’ve got) small scripts, (with) a couple of really good filmmakers (and) good producers attached. It’s so competitive that you have to be further up on the food chain. You can’t wait for packages to fall into your lap.

DM: How do you feel about “Parker” now that it’s ready to come out?

NM: I feel like we executed on what we said we were going to execute. We’ve got a great partner in FilmDistrict; I’m confident that they’re killing it for us. We have a solid filmmaker in Taylor (Hackford), and he executed on the money. We have Jennifer (Lopez) and Jason (Statham) out promoting the movie. It’s a great piece of IP, (by) Donald Westlake, one of the greatest crime novelists in the past 100 years in America. Budget is in the mid-30s; that’s pretty good, given the caliber of the movie. It wasn’t easy — the financing, keeping it on the rails. We started work about three years ago. We had the script; there were a lot of different elements attached to it. We were the sales agent, and then Incentive and us became the production company. Sometimes you got to bet on yourself.

DM: Are you going to do more production?

NM: We’re going to try a little bit, but sales is still the core of who we are.

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