‘Elle,’ ‘Toni Erdmann’ Producer Michel Merkt Back in Cannes With More Eclectic Titles

Michel Merkt’s moviemaking credits reflect the vision of a clear-headed nonconformist with the courage of his convictions and a global reach that is unique for an indie producer of his generation: The total opposite of the isolationism you might expect from a Swiss producer based in the tiny principality of Monaco.

While deliberately keeping a low profile, Merkt, who will be honored with Variety’s Creative Producer Award at Cannes, has been crucial to bringing an eclectic batch of some 50 titles to the big screen in less than 10 years.

The slate of his KNM shingle — the letters are an acronym for Kate (his wife) and Michel — boasts the creme de la creme of recent European arthouse hits, “Elle” and “Toni Erdmann”; pics from David Cronenberg and Xavier Dolan; Walter Hill’s “The Assignment”; plus some of the hottest auteur pics out of Latin America, including “Aquarius” by Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, and standout titles that hail from Asia and the Arab world.

“It’s always amazing to have access to new cultures; to new ways of thinking, of working,” Merkt says. “And that’s the first step of creativity: Being open-minded and ready for the unexpected.”

In roughly a decade, Merkt has gone from being on a regular on the Croisette as a film journalist for French paybox Canal Plus, which is how he made first contact with Cronenberg, to attending the fest as a producer with a whopping eight entries in 2016. This year he has five titles unspooling in various Cannes sections.

Cronenberg’s 2014 acerbic Hollywood sendup “Maps to the Stars” was Merkt’s first “big movie” and a real game changer, he says.

Besides being his first pic in competition at Cannes, where star Julianne Moore took actress honors, “Maps” also marked the start of his professional relationship with Paris-based producer Said Ben Said, whom he met through Canadian producer Martin Katz. Merkt and Said have since gone on to make a half-dozen films, including “Elle.”

Their second collaboration was on “Valentin Valentin,” by French auteur Pascal Thomas that, sadly, was released in France in 2015 on the same day as the ISIS attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Terror of this type is a subject Merkt had tackled in 2010 with the first feature he produced, “The Miscreants,” by Moroccan helmer Mohcine Besri. That film was a thriller about Islamist kidnappers that aimed to “to show that behind a burqa or a miniskirt there is always a human being.”

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy changed his priorities, Merkt says, making him focus more on his wife and three kids.

“Michel is always burning to produce something he considers a work of art, but at the same time he always says the place he is the happiest is at home with his family,” notes Said, who is his closest collaborator within a circle of production partners that Merkt calls a “tribe.”

The Merkt tribe comprises Nancy Grant, with whom he teamed for Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” and upcoming “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan”; Joslyn Barnes, who brought Merkt on board Yance Ford’s recent Sundance prizewinning doc “Strong Island”; German director-producer Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”); Arte France Cinema’s Remi Burah; and German sales agent Michael Weber.

“I don’t know many other producers who work with directors from so many different parts of the world,” says Weber, who heads Cologne-based the Match Factory.

Merkt and Weber first met in Cannes two years ago regarding “Arabian Nights,” a six- hour-plus triptych by Portugal’s Miguel Gomez that Merkt produced.
Their collaboration intensified with “Toni Erdmann,” with Match Factory handling international sales. Merkt was the one pushing the hardest in terms of the marketing, Weber says, “really believing that we could go all the way and be a big success.” They teamed up as producers for the first time on Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s “Jupiter’s Moon,” in competition at Cannes this year.

Weber points out that Merkt got to “the level where he is today because he stayed in the shadow. … He’s not doing it for himself; the project and the talent always comes first.”

Merkt’s business savvy — he has a background in private equity and “very good lawyers,” he says — has also been a big plus. Though he’s secretive about financing sources, Merkt usually boards projects at the development/pre-financing stage and also invests his own money into films — about 10% to 20% of the budget.

The essence of Merkt’s business model? “Five movies a year from five different countries with the goal for each one to be the one selected to represent their country at the Academy Awards for best foreign-language film,” he says.

He attained that goal this year with “It’s Only the End of the World” (Canada), “Elle” (France), “Toni Erdmann” (Germany), “My Life as a Zucchini” (Switzerland) and “Letters From War” (Portugal), which all repped their countries in the Oscar foreign-language film race. Is an Oscar win next? Merkt doesn’t want to go there right now. “Let’s talk about it next season in February to see if I was creative enough!” he says.

But Merkt this year is also on the Cannes jury that will award the Camera d’Or for first film. He considers being selected for “such an important jury of the number one festival in the world a real recognition.”

Upcoming movies unspooling on the Croisette that Merkt is involved in are Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s supernatural refugee drama “Jupiter’s Moon,” playing in competition; and Bulgaria-set “Western” by Germany’s Valeska Griesbach, unspooling in Un Certain Regard. Merkt also has a trio in Directors’ Fortnight: “L’Amant d’un jour” by veteran French auteur Philippe Garrel, “Frost” by Lithuanian master Sharunas Bartas and Abel Ferrara’s “Alive in France,” which follows the filmmaker and his band on a recent tour across France.

Says Merkt: “So I’m super happy and looking forward to it like a boy in front of the Christmas tree, ready to unwrap his presents.”

Merkt’s Milestone Moments
2008

Produces a Wim Wenders-directed segment of portmanteau pic “8,” inspired by the United Nations’ fight against poverty

2011

First feature, “The Miscreants,” by Moroccan helmer Mohcine Besri, a thriller about Islamist kidnappers that aimed to “to show that behind a burqa or a miniskirt there is always a human being”

2012

Director Nicolas Wadimoff’s 1970s leftists militants docudrama “Operation Libertad” goes to Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight.

2014

“Maps to the Stars,” Merkt’s first film in Cannes competition; Julianne Moore scoops actress award. Also his first project with Said Ben Said.

2015

“Valentin, Valentin” is released the day of the ISIS attack on Charlie Hebdo. “My children and this event will always remind me of my priorities in life,” says Merkt.

“Walter” by Anna Mastro is Merkt’s first U.S. movie. Since then, “I’ve always tried to do at least two U.S. projects per year.”

2016

“Aquarius” by Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho screens in Cannes, where cast and crew mount a protest about what they consider a coup in their country. He will never regret the protest “even if it cost us the selection for the Academy Awards.”

“It’s Only the End of the World,” Merkt’s first collaboration with director Xavier Dolan and producer Nancy Grant.
“Toni Erdmann”: “Perhaps the hard way to learn that finally prizes are not always the most important thing, since everybody will remember this movie for not having won the Palme d’Or and the same thing with the Oscars,” Merkt says.
“Elle”: “How a project can go perfectly from beginning to end … and the beginning of a new friendship [with director Paul Verhoeven]”

2017
Five films in Cannes; pipeline also includes Nadine Labaki’s “Cafarnaúm” and Anup Singh’s “The Song of Scorpions”

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