Naming rite: art & inspiration

Studio execs reveal the reasoning and motives behind shingle monikers

LONDON — A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But would a company by any other name be as successful?

In recent months, the indie film business has seen a flurry of ventures launched by well-known executives who left big corporate jobs, whether voluntarily or not, to strike out on their own.

Along with drawing up business plans, putting together financing structures and worrying about where to find decent projects, you can bet these people spent many hours lying awake at night wracking their brains about what on earth to call themselves.

Their solutions range from the bland and generic to the quirky, creative and downright obscure.

“It’s really freaking hard to come up with a name for a company, because you want something that means something, and everything is already taken,” confides one company founder.

Personal preferences must be balanced by practical considerations, such as search engine optimization, ease of pronunciation by non-English speakers and the risk of being confused with a porn website.

Some names signal a deliberate change of image, such as David Linde’s Lava Bear and Joe Drake’s Good Universe, shedding their studio armor to reveal the hippie within. Others, such as David Garrett’s Mister Smith and Camela Galano’s Speranza 13, represent execs taking the chance to define their own mantra after years of corporate duty. Some, such as Will Clarke’s Altitude or Lisa Wilson and Myles Nestel’s Solution, are a statement of entrepreneurial ambition.

So where do these names come from, what do they signify, and what do these brands tell us about the aspirations, values and personalities of the people who dreamed them up?

Mister Smith Entertainment

“A nice mixture of conservative but cool, like a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses” is how former Summit exec David Garrett describes the name of his new London-based sales company.

“You want to come up with something distinctive, different and memorable, but it’s particularly difficult in the entertainment business because so many are already taken,” he says. “You think of every conceivable constellation, animal, vegetable, mineral or color, and put them together in every combination. I even went through Shakespeare quotes and movie titles.”

His choice was inspired by the Frank Capra classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and came to Garrett in an epiphany when he was lying in bed one Sunday morning. “I liked the fact that Mr. Smith is man of singular moral probity, fighting the good fight,” he says. “And in a business of giant egos, it has a nice ironic anonymity to it.”

The name has a long movie pedigree, from Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic senator to “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (one of Garrett’s most successful sellers at Summit). “Smith is also a name for a craftsman, a silversmith or a blacksmith,” Garrett notes. “It’s a name that tells a thousand different stories.”

Spelling out “Mister” is important, he explains, because the brand has to translate around the world, and “not every country knows what ‘Mr.’ means.”

Lava Bear Films

When he was 7 years old at summer camp in the wilds of Oregon, David Linde was warned to watch out for lava bears. “The counselors said the lava bears may look cute and cuddly, but they will get you,” recalls the former Universal topper. “And I believed it for a long time. In fact, when I was 16, I went back with the high school ski team, and I was trying to impress some girl at a party, so I told her I’d really like to see a lava bear. She looked at me like I was an idiot.”

The lava bear, of course, doesn’t exist. It’s a local legend, a breed of ferocious dwarf grizzly whose sightings have never been verified. After ankling as co-chair of Universal, Linde considered more prosaic names for his new venture, but opted instead for something personal and distinctive. Lava Bear is disconcertingly cuddly and even somewhat camp, but for Linde, it signifies the magic and power of the imagination.

“The lava bear can be what you want it to be,” he says.

Speranza 13 Media

“My favorite word in the world is hope,” says former New Line and Warner exec Camela Galano, who launched her sales company at Berlin. “I especially love the word in Italian, and I always used ‘speranza’ for passwords and aliases.” She adds that although 13 is thought to be unlucky in America, it has always been her favorite number. “So when I started my own company, I thought, I can name it what I want.”

But there was one snag. Despite its apparent obscurity, a clothing company in Asia already owned the Internet domain. “That’s why we had to add Media to the title,” Galano says.

Embankment Films

When Tim Haslam ankled as CEO of HanWay Films (named for the London alley in which the outfit is based), he wanted a brand for his new sales shingle that sounded “physically and financially stable, a bit of a Steady Eddie.”

He says the name came to him one day on the Tube. “I was daydreaming on the London Underground one day, and drawing a mental matrix of all the train routes I had used in 47 years living in London. I realized the focal point was Embankment Station, because I always lived and worked on the District Line or the Northern Line, and that’s where they meet,” he says.

“I’m much happier on water than on land, so I liked the relationship with water but also the stability of what an embankment is.”

Sierra Pictures

“The focus was to find something impactful, meaningful to me, and frankly easy to pronounce in a lot of languages,” says Nick Meyer, who founded his sales outfit Sierra Pictures in 2009 after leaving Paramount Vantage.

“Because of my Swiss parentage, mountains have always been important to me,” he explains. “I vacation every year with my family in Tahoe (in Sierra Nevada). It’s where I feel most at peace, and I wanted to bring some of that feeling into my daily working life.”

Sierra Pictures ticked all his boxes. When he checked its availability, Meyer was also pleased to learn that it also brought a dash of Hollywood history, as the name of Ingrid Bergman’s production company in 1947.

The Solution Entertainment Group

“You spend a long time trying to come up with names, and you realize, hey, every name is already taken,” laughs financier Myles Nestel, who joined forces with sales veteran Lisa Wilson to launch the Solution Entertainment Group in February.

“I think I had a dream about it, and woke up in the middle of the night with my name in my head,” he recalls. “I realized that’s exactly what we are — the solution to what producers need to finance, sell and put together their projects.”

He adds that the article “the” is very important to the name.”I get annoyed when people call us Solution. We’re not a solution, we’re the Solution.”

Red Sea Media

“Rather than name the company after the street I grew up on, the creek nearby or some dictum word or action or power phrase, as seems to be the current trend, I wanted a name that invoked history and depth,” says Roman Kopelevich, who launched his own sales shingle last November after 20 years working for outfits including Bleiberg and Morgan Creek.

For him, the Red Sea represents “one of the most fertile places in the world, where different cultures come together.” That reflects his vision for a company that is about “the quality of the films rather than strictly the sale.”

Water, he says, is “the essence of life,” and the word “red” also alludes to his family roots in the former Soviet Union, and to the Russian investors behind the company.

“I thought it would be a great way to remind my colleagues, friends, producers and buyers that Red Sea is a company where creativity is treasured, and at our heart we are a source of fun where creative, new and interesting films are nourished,” he says.

Radiant Films

Ex-Hyde Park sales exec Mimi Steinbauer wanted something sunny and positive, to reflect her taste in movies. “I don’t expect to handle horror or slasher films, which I am too scared to watch and/or sell,” she says.

But there was one snag. Several names that she liked turned out to be already taken — by porn sites. “I didn’t know, of course!” she insists demurely. “But they too apparently go for happy upbeat names. Luckily my friends know these things.”

In the end, she found Radiant, which provided the warmth and optimism she wanted, and had been somehow overlooked by the triple-X merchants.

Altitude Film Entertainment

When Will Clarke founded U.K. distributor Optimum Releasing, he chose a vaguely aspirational abstract noun to name it. Since that worked out so well — he sold the company to StudioCanal for a reported £35 million ($56 million) in 2006 — it’s no surprise he adopted the same strategy for his next venture, which he launched this year.

For Clarke, it was important to choose a name that wouldn’t restrict his entrepreneurial scope. Altitude is a film production and sales company, but that’s just the start of Clarke’s ambition. The name must be flexible enough to encompass a much wider field of possibilities. “I’m creating a media company, not a personal production company,” he says. “Altitude gives me room to grow. It’s about the ambition of growth and the potential of growth.”

Good Universe

Having launched Mandate Pictures together, Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane had already chosen a company name jointly once before when they set about picking a brand for their new venture.

“Joe won the argument last time, and I won it this time,” laughs Kahane, whose choice of Good Universe was prompted by “Stranger Than Fiction” writer Zach Helm, referring to a poem by E.E. Cummings that ends with the line, “Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go.”

“We loved the sense of inspiration that cummings suggests,” Kahane says. “It has a punk energy to it, though it’s actually quite a dark poem, and it represents our desire to be provocative, and outside the system.”

So a name that seems entirely sunny and even Pollyanna-ish actually has an edgier meaning for Kahane and Drake. “It does have a private meaning for us, but it’s also a mission statement about remembering to make a good universe for everyone who works for us and with us.”

But as Kahane points out, it’s futile to worry too much about a name, though it’s hard not to. “Joe and I sat for hours and hours to think of names we felt defined us, and always ended up just laughing at the ridiculousness of the process,” he says. “The name only matters if the films are any good. If you make bad films, then it doesn’t matter if you chose the best name ever; it becomes a bad brand.”