“The greatest challenge that we face is to keep evolving,” he said in a recent interview as his company prepped for Cannes with 20 completed titles for the marketplace, including “The Secret in Their Eyes,” directed by Billy Ray and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts; “The Free State of Jones,” helmed by Gary Ross and toplining Matthew McConaughey and Keri Russell; and “Silence,” from Martin Scorsese with Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson.
Indeed, IM Global is among the top tier of sales-financing-production outfits along with FilmNation, Sierra/Affinity and Mister Smith Entertainment. 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 such 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 the “Twilight” films.
“ ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ potentially feels like a big commercial (film), but at the same time, very upscale movie,” Ford said. “It could be a landmark for us.”
IM Global can now board a project as a producer, financier, sales agent, international distributor or marketer and at any stage, including development. That’s a far cry from the early days in which Ford left First Look to launch IM Global. There was early sales success with “Religulous” after a special presentation in Cannes; the company stayed afloat during the 2008-09 financial crisis mostly selling titles like “A Single Man” and “44 Inch Chest.”
But 2009 turned out to be a turning point for the young company with the breakout success of “Paranormal Activity” after Ford and a few colleagues had watched a rough cut of it on a TV screen.
“We launched in the midst of a global recession, and so at that time, we were just trying to get in the game and stay in the game,” he recalls. “ ‘Paranormal Activity’ was a turning point, completely out of left field.”
And in April 2010, Indian conglomerate Reliance — fresh off its funding of Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks — decided to make an investment in the independent film arena, becoming a majority shareholder in the company, with Ford remaining as the only other shareholder.
“Reliance was looking to invest in talent, and I told them that the best way to do that would be to acquire a sales company, because you need to know what’s going to happen in the marketplace,” recalled Reliance’s Deepak Nayar. “We looked at all the foreign sales companies and narrowed that down. I told Stuart that he need to come to India, so to his credit, he did, and we got the basic structure done in two or three days and, by the time he left, it was a done deal.”
The Reliance backing allowed IM Global to begin financing its own films and dividing its sales business into four distinct labels: Opus for wide release commercial films, Octane for genre films, Acclaim for arthouse titles and Anthem for foreign-language pics. The expanded company has handled international sales on over 100 films.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10,” Nayar said. “He’s quadrupled the size of the company.”
In 2011, Ford was diagnosed with Stage 3 testicular cancer. “It was a huge personal and professional challenge for me,” he said. “My family got me through the former and my wonderful colleagues through the latter. Both myself and IM Global came out stronger.”
There have been disappointments, such as 2012’s $50 million “Dredd,” on which IM Global was a producer. The actioner took in only $35 million worldwide.
Ford has decided in recent years to focus on less risky/high-reward genre films, such as 2013’s “A Haunted House,” which grossed $65 million worldwide on a $2 million production budget, pushing the production financing business into the black.
It also closed a senior credit facility with Silicon Valley fund White Oak Advisors late last year to be used for corporate expansion.
“One example of (our) strategies (is that) we will have four urban films wrapped by the end of the year,” Ford said. “We believe that expanding digital distribution opportunities internationally can help monetize this content more effectively. Our mindset is as much Mumbai, Mexico City or Shanghai as it is L.A.”