FilmNation: Art, Commerce and Staying Alive

FilmNation launched during the worst recession since the '30s but thanks to a flexible business plan and indie insider smarts, it celebrates five years of growth

Glen Basner and Steven Samuels

Five years ago, Glen Basner and Steven Samuels took a leap of faith and started sales company FilmNation as the world’s economy went into a nosedive.

“It was a terrible time to start,” Samuels admits. “Everyone was in a preserve-and- protect mode and wanted to get out of their obligations. The silver lining is that we wound up revisiting all aspects of our (business) plans.”

Basner agrees, emphasizing that FilmNation needed to be flexible to get past the past — mainly by backing a few less-than-obvious projects rather than the panic approach of going for volume.

We started to operate in different ways that made better sense for the new world order,” he says. “We were focused on having a diversified slate of films — a mixture of commercial wide-release films like ‘Sanctum’ and specialty films such as ‘The King’s Speech.’”

In the five years since FilmNation debuted, the movie business has undergone deep changes, with Hollywood majors focusing more on tentpoles, opening up screen doors to the indie sector, which has seen a steady growth in sales-financing-producing shingles. Those outfits have also seen a greater ability to nab stars and material — once the domain of the studios — and to finance, make and sell serious worldwide hits such as “The Hunger Games,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Taken” and, of course, the “Twilight” films. FilmNation has also changed over the past five years, and can now board a project as a producer, financier, sales agent, international distributor or marketer and at any stage, including development.

FilmNation is celebrating its five-year anniversary with three films in Cannes’ official selection: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in competition, Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” opening Un Certain Regard and J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” screening out of competition. At Cannes last year, FilmNation had two competition players, John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era drama “Lawless” and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” which marked the company’s first foray into production. Last year it came onboard Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” which world-premiered in competition at Venice, and Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” which opened Toronto. True to its philosophy of mixing commercial and specialty items, FilmNation also scored in 2012 with global hit “Magic Mike.”

Notably, both “Looper” and “Magic Mike” went into production without U.S. theatrical distribution deals — a choice that reflects the willingness of FilmNation to strongly back projects in which it believes.

“Glen recognized how special “Looper,” was early on,” recalls Endgame Entertainment topper James Stern. “They have a very clear understanding of the foreign value of a film. On “Looper,” it was good to hear how much Glen thought the ending worked from a commercial standpoint. And he was very supportive of the notion of shooting in China.”

Basner notes that FilmNation is set apart by its choices. “We very carefully select the films that we believe in, just like we did with “Bling Ring” and Lawless. We don’t look at it as risky or being flexible. It’s just conviction. And that’s a feeling that translates to producers and filmmakers.”

Basner believes that approach helped in coming onboard “To the Wonder.”

“We had tried to get on to “Tree of Life” and failed miserably,” he says. “Terry had really felt like he needed the freedom so we came up with the idea that he should be one of the financiers and we were able to pre-sell the world. The trade off was that it had to be made at a lesser budget.”

Malick is now working with FilmNation on “Knight of Cups” with Christian Bale.

CAA’s Rick Hess introduced Basner and Samuels in 2007. Basner had worked at Good Machine and the Weinstein Co. and Samuels had produced and financed “Michael Clayton” and “In the Valley of Elah.” The two clicked and FilmNation was born as a foreign sales company with five employees.

“No one had seen a downside to this business in 2007, right before the recession,” Samuels says. “It’s been a very slow build, very conservatively to build a deep customer base.”

Besides Samuels, shopping mall developers Dominic and Anthoni Visconsi of Visconsi Cos. invested all the initial working capital required and remain partners. Modi Wiczyk and Asif Satchu’s Media Rights Capital and James Stern’s Endgame Entertainment were the first significant companies to select FilmNation as their international partner.

“Modi and Asif have also been tremendous sounding boards for me as I go through the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur,” Basner recalls. “In fact, when I told them what I was doing, they Fed-Ex’d me a life vest.”

The company showed up in Cannes for the first time in 2009 with only one film for sale: 3D action-adventure “Sanctum,” produced by James Cameron.

“It was very instructive to be selling it with the economic collapse going on,” Basner says. “But we really believed in the picture and Cameron really took a leap with us.”

The worldwide gross for the pic wound up over $100 million — and put FilmNation on firm footing.

“There’s nothing like delivering success to build confidence,” Basner says.

In that same year, FilmNation came on board The King’s Speech.

“We came on to ‘The King’s Speech’ at the script stage with Tom Hooper and Geoffrey Rush attached with Iain Canning and Emile Sherman producing. We saw it as a fresh take on the British monarchy but we never expected it to do over $400 million. I still can’t believe it. I am forever grateful that Iain and Emile took a chance on us.”

FilmNation’s move into production has been marked by its commercial/specialty mandate: besides “Mud,” which was released April 26 and has grossed $5 million-plus, it also has Mark Tonderai’s “House at the End of the Street” and is investing coin into projects such as David Michod’s “The Rover” and Dan Beers’ “Premature.”

Aiming to increase production, FilmNation obtained $50 million in additional capital via an equity-backed revolving credit facility with Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Union Bank on May 7.

Along the way, the shingle has stressed providing filmmakers with transparency, and does so via its Basecamp Intranet tool, which shares info with distribs and filmmakers. Basner credits his tenure with David Linde at Good Machine and Focus with instilling in him a premium on building trust with filmmakers.

“I remember that I had congratulated a filmmaker about his Russian opening, and he didn’t know anything about it,” Basner says. “Filmmakers deserve to know what’s happening with their films. And if they have a question, they can actually ask a detailed question.”

Richard Baker, exec VP of marketing and distribution at FilmNation, believes that Basecamp has been a key in exemplifying how the company works. “Our ethos of doing business is underpinned by that technology,” he says.

“When a studio is distributing, they have their own system; when it’s an independent, you can have 30 different distributors with 30 different agendas,” Baker says. “Basecamp has been engineered to show our partners what we’re doing at every step; we encourage the interaction between distributors, so if someone has a fantastic idea for an outdoor campaign, it can be shared. It’s a ‘shared best practices’ method with studio-grade information dissemination.”

Echo Lake topper Doug Mankoff says he finds it easy to be in business with FilmNation, where he worked with Basner on The Joneses. “Glen has a real win-win attitude; he’s not trying to kill the other guy,” Mankoff says. “I like that he’s not too sales-y. He’s a huge New York Jets fan, so every time we talk, we have to talk about my being a Cowboys fan.”