Graham King and Tim Headington’s new company FilmDistrict extends their footprint and gives industry vets Peter Schlessel and Bob Berney a chance to build a new distribution venture that will take advantage of a slowdown in studio releases.
Announcement of FilmDistrict’s formation Monday ended months of talks and answered the crucial question of where Berney will land after abruptly leaving Apparition in May.
Many had speculated that FilmDistrict would put out specialty fare. But Schlessel and Berney made it clear they will instead focus on wide commercial titles. They plan to release four to eight such movies annually.
FilmDistrict is a separate entity from GK Films, the production company launched in 2007 by King and Headington, a Texas oil magnate. Berney’s title is FilmDistrict president of theatrical distribution. Schlessel, who left Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions in June to become prexy of GK Films, will serve as CEO of FilmDistrict while continuing day-to-day management of GK Films.
“It has always been a goal of mine to be involved in all aspects of filmmaking and distribution,” King said. “I’ve known and worked with Peter for a long time, and there is no one else I would rather take this step with. Bob Berney has a fantastic ability to connect with filmmakers, and he orchestrates very creative marketing campaigns.”
FilmDistrict furthers King and Schlessel’s relationship with Sony. Studio already had an output deal with GK Films, which Schlessel helped engineer before he left the studio.
Of the four to eight films FilmDistrict will release annually, it will distribute up to six itself. The rest will released through Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar and Triumph labels. Sony will have home entertainment and TV rights to FilmDistrict titles.
Also, Schlessel continues to consult for Sony Worldwide Acquisitions, which he led.
Berney will remain based in New York, while Schlessel will work in L.A. FilmDistrict intends to hire 20-30 staffers.
Armed with sufficient coin, FilmDistrict will market the films it distributes as well as those titles going out through Triumph. TriStar will market titles it distributes for FilmDistrict.
FilmDistrict won’t have a production staff. Rather, Schlessel and Berney will acquire finished films or make pre-buys.
Schlessel and Berney are widely respected in the indie world.
Berney has founded or operated a handful of indie distribs or specialized studio units, including Newmarket Films and Picturehouse Films.
FilmDistrict gives him the chance to further hone his skills at releasing crossover indie fare. His was the distrib behind such films as “My Fat Big Greek Wedding” and “The Passion of the Christ.”
At Picturehouse and Apparition, Berney didn’t always have the resources to do a wide opening, so he had to rely on platform releases, which have become more and more difficult. His brief tenure at Apparition was marked by frustration at not being able to do wider releases, according to insiders. He founded Apparition in 2009 with Bill Pohlad.
Schlessel’s dealmaking acumen includes closing a pact to acquire sleeper B.O. hit “District 9” for Sony. He spent 21 years at Sony Pictures Entertainment, where his titles included prexy of worldwide affairs and prexy of Columbia Pictures.
In an interview with Daily Variety, Berney and Schlessel said there is tremendous opportunity in the marketplace right now for a company like FilmDistrict, since studios are focusing more and more on the biggest projects.
Operating in the arena FilmDistrict hopes to crack are Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment. Another newcomer is Relativity Media, which recently acquired distribution arm Overture Films.
“It’s very tough out there right now, and there is a huge chance for us and exhibitors to be real partners. We are a new buyer and there are all sorts of ways we can maximize our company, including through Sony. It gives us flexibility to work with producers and filmmakers around the world,” Berney said.
Both men referenced the recent success of “The Last Exorcism,” a micro-budgeted pic that Lionsgate acquired out of Sundance this year. Film has grossed nearly $40 million at the domestic B.O.
But Schlessel cautioned that FilmDistrict isn’t looking to release certain kinds of films. Rather, the driving force will be whether a film can reach a wider audience. “The release pattern is more of the definition,” Schlessel said.
Sony Pictures chair-CEO Michael Lynton said in a statement that Schlessel has one of the best eyes in the business for quality films, as evidenced by “District 9.”
“We will miss having Peter here at the studio, but we’re thrilled to be working with him in his new role at FilmDistrict,” said Lynton, a sentiment echoed by Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal.
GK Films is in good financial shape and boasts strong talent relationships in Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. GK Films is in theaters with Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” which Warner Bros. is distributing. Film has overperformed at the B.O., grossing north of $48 million domestically in its first 10 days.