LOCARNO, Switzerland — When Participant Media CEO David Linde began his career, the international market was “almost an afterthought to the American market,” he said.
Some 32 years later, Linde was at Switzerland’s Locarno Festival on Thursday night to receive the Locarno Festival’s independent producer Raimundo Rezzonico Prize for a career which has been distinguished by his affinity and passion for international, not only its markets but the production of some of its greatest filmmaking voices.
Some examples: Good Machine Intl., which Linde launched with James Schamus and Ted Hope in 1997, produced Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” still the highest grossing foreign-language film in the U.S. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y tu mama también” was picked up by Linde for most of international when at GMI and was the first film to be marketed under its Uncensored Cinema label. Focus Features, at which Linde served as president from 2002-06, produced Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”
It was typical of Linde’s ken for overseas filmmaking communities that, after his stint as chairman of Universal Pictures, when he went independent again in 2010, he set up Lava Bear Films with the backing of India’s Reliance Entertainment. One of the films he executive produced while at Lava Bear was Baltasar Kormakur’s “The Deep”; another was Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s “Biutiful.”
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Directors whom Linde has produced, executive produced or sold earlier in his career, when he headed up international sales at Miramax and GMI, include some of the most significant names in international filmmaking, who have crossed over to global audiences and Oscar glory.
A conversation with Variety’s Jay Weissberg at Locarno largely focused on Linde’s career as an independent producer, the reason for his award. But Linde’s belief in the potential of international plays out in the present. He was appointed CEO of Participant Media in October 2015. One reason, Variety argued: Participant Media founder Jeff Skoll’s desire to enhance Participant Media’s push into foreign markets and its global impact.
“Jeff’s vision was never confined to only speaking directly to American audiences,” Linde told Variety at Locarno, pointing out that Participant Media has made some 75 films that have grossed over $2 billion worldwide.
“It’s absolutely our ambition that we control the worldwide rights of our films on a larger basis, and the impact work that happens around our films be felt everywhere,” Linde added.
In practical terms, that means working with sales companies to work with distributors to bring even larger audiences, “not just one which will be entertained but also one that is engaged by a film’s issues.”
There is still an air of modesty about Linde, who portrays himself as a boy from Oregon who happened to be at the right place at the time.
“I was fortunate,” he said in Locarno. He lived in Europe while growing up, he told Weissberg. Having studied at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, he moved to New York in the ‘80s. “Suddenly I was able to participate in this fantastic, new level of filmmaking, working to find filmmakers a home in a rapidly expanding commercial world, which was overseas.”
Linde added: “That really came together at Miramax, where we were given the opportunity to jump on a racehorse, and engage in this tremendous growth.”
Typically, Linde also lays his passion for international at the feet of his parents. “I was raised by my parents to be interested in, and appreciate, culture. I pursue different perspectives and cultures,” he said.
He added: “It connects directly into Jeff’s understanding that we are all a community. Storytelling speaks to the betterment of community.”
Joining Participant Media “really feels like a very connected step in my career.”
By the mid’-90s, as markets such as Mifed wound down each year, it was a custom for Linde and Rick Sands to announce that it had sold out on Miramax’s whole slate of sales titles: It was not a question of whether a film sold, just if it were included in output deals Miramax held down worldwide.
Movies by Todd Solondz, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers were “tremendously popular overseas. The majority of the financial support the movies received came from Europe,” Linde said.
One of his largest pleasures in a four-decade career has been “ongoing relationships built with filmmakers,” Linde said. He cites China as a case in point. He began selling films to Bill Kong’s Edko Films in Hong Kong. They went on to produce movies by Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and others. “This kind of holistic relationship that embraces production and distribution is valuable, by definition, not to mention the incredible friendships it’s brought.”
Many of the distributors he works with today, he began relationships with in the ‘80s.
Nowadays, however, only a clutch of top titles close the world at markets. But one of the words that Linde used most, when describing the state of the current film industry during his conversation, was “opportunity.” He remains an optimist about the future. One reason, again, is international.
“As the markets in Africa and Asia mature, the appetite for more sophisticated or alternative voices will grow,” Linde said, noting that an estimated 5 billion people will come online for the first time in the next 5 years.
International markets can surprise also, he told Jay Weissberg.
“Five years ago, you would have found pundits who would have said that there is no market in China, because piracy is dominant. Five years later. you have movies grossing hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“It’s an independent producer’s responsibility to understand such change, Linde argued, fielding questions from the audience.
“I learned a long time ago that we love the word ‘global’, but what we really mean is local. Countries and cultures are different, they change and adapt. China is not Indonesia, Indonesia in not South Africa, South Africa is not Germany,” Linde added, in one of his most forceful statements of the conversation.
All the more reason for the industry to need executives like David Linde. And there are very few with such a rich experience and diverse C.V. of movies around.
DAVID LINDE: A BRIEF BIO:
1984-88 Paralegal, Paramount Pictures
1988-91 Assistant, co-head of international department, Fox Lorber Associates
1991-97 VP, co-head of acquisitions, EVP for intl. sales, Miramax Intl.
1997-2002 Founder, partner, Good Machine Intl.
2002-06 Co-founder, president, Focus Features
2006-09 Chairman, Universal Pictures
2010-15 Founder, CEO, Lava Bear Films
2015-present CEO, Participant Media