After a 26-year gestation, “Silence” — Martin Scorsese’s passion project about Jesuit missionaries in feudal Japan — is set to hit U.S. theaters Dec. 23. Gastón Pavlovich, the little-known Mexican financier behind the production, is hoping that its arrival will herald his own.
Pavlovich rescued “Silence” from pre-production purgatory after its previous financing deal fell apart. He followed that up with the announcement in May that he would fully finance Scorsese’s mob movie “The Irishman,” starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, to the tune of $100 million. The news made Pavlovich the talk of the Cannes Film Festival — and he wasn’t even there.
Now the former government official is attempting to turn that buzz into real Hollywood clout. It’s a tall order: The annals of showbiz are filled with tales of deep-pocketed outsiders who believe they can reshape the business through money and determination, only to sink without a trace. And Pavlovich already has much to overcome. Earlier this year, the first two U.S. films he was involved in failed spectacularly: “A Hologram for the King” proved a major flop for Tom Hanks, grossing just $4.2 million in the U.S.; and “Max Rose,” with Jerry Lewis, was rushed to Cannes and severely panned.
But few Hollywood newcomers have a giant like Scorsese in their corner. The director says he and Pavlovich established a rapport that was crucial to getting “Silence” off the ground.
“He listened carefully as I explained the project to him, and he understood exactly what I had in mind,” Scorsese told Variety in an email. “I’ve had a lot of experiences where I sit in a meeting, everybody talks, and then somebody says, ‘Great, let’s do it,’ and I have to say, ‘Hang on — we need to make sure that we’re all making the same picture.’ There was, and is, a clarity of understanding between us, and I’m thankful for that.”
Pavlovich, 48, heads the production company Fabrica de Cine, shuttling between its offices in Mexico City and Los Angeles and his estate in Hermosillo, northern Mexico, where he lives with his wife and three children. He says he does not want to be perceived as just a rich dreamer throwing money around.
“I’m a very passionate filmmaker, but I’m very aware that this has to work business-wise,” he says. “I do understand that this is a risk-oriented industry, so the best I can do is mitigate that risk.”
Pavlovich’s personal fortune comes from his wealthy ranching family, who are of Yugoslav origin. The family has ample holdings in Mexico’s agriculture and real estate sectors and connections in government; a cousin is the first female governor of the state of Sonora.
For his master’s thesis, Pavlovich set up a chain of movie theaters across small cities in Mexico, called Xtreme, which he later sold to Mexican exhibition giant Cinepolis. Starting in 2002, he spent several years as a midlevel official in the government of President Vicente Fox, including heading a department within the interior ministry.
It was during that time that Pavlovich got his cinematic calling.
“I began to see in those years a series of films that angered me, films that, as a Mexican, as a Catholic, and as a family man, I saw as depicting Mexicans to the world as though we were a completely dysfunctional society,” Pavlovich said in 2010.
He wrote and released his first movie, “El Estudiante,” in Mexico, then quit his government job to become a full-time producer.
The failures of “Max Rose” and “Hologram for the King,” he says, were a learning experience that helped him establish a reputation.
“We proved that we could produce, that we could put up the money, and that we were ready for the next step.”
A production deal for “Silence” between the director and Emmett/Furla Oasis films (a deal that included Pavlovich as a small investor) fell apart when another backer dropped out a few weeks before principal photography was to start, leaving a gap in the financing. Pavlovich and Scorsese, who were connected via the William Morris Endeavor Agency and agent Rick Yorn, met in Scorsese’s New York apartment and talked about the novel on which the movie is based.
“It was a defining moment because it was a fantastic conversation — very personal,” says Pavlovich, who decided to increase his investment significantly to cover the sudden shortfall.
The following day, Pavlovich took over the project. He remembers someone from Scorsese’s camp telling him: “This is Marty’s passion project…. If you’re able to make it happen, you’ll have Marty’s support for a while. But if you don’t, and you cause the project to fall through again, you’ll probably never work in Hollywood again.”
It was a risk Pavlovich was willing to take. “I thought, ‘Bottom line, nobody knows me anyway in Hollywood,’” he recalls. “If I want to be a contender, I’ve got to take these challenges.”
In December 2015, two weeks before principal photography began, he hired line producer Manu Gargi to take control of “Silence,” with strict orders to rein in costs.
“We had to kick out a lot of people,” says Pavlovich. “I had to go legal on a lot of people.”
The day before cameras were supposed to roll, a building on the set collapsed, killing a worker. Tropical rains in remote locations meant many hours of overtime, and the originally planned 55 days of shooting grew to 73. Still, Pavlovich boasts that he brought “Silence,” which stars Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield, in at the “bonded net budget of $46.5 million.”
“The Irishman” is a bigger gamble, in terms of both money and reputation. Pavlovich and Gargi worked hard to get the long-in-the-works mobster movie out of turnaround at Paramount, which owned the rights and will distribute the title in North America. A bidding war for foreign rights culminated in a $50 million pact with STX.
Pavlovich closed the deal while in Hermosillo tending to his wife, who needed surgery; he and Gargi, who was in L.A., negotiated madly by phone to seal the deal in time for an announcement at Cannes, with “lawyers on one side, financial analysts on the other, Manu in the middle, and Paramount on one phone practically all the time,” Pavlovich recalls.
L.A.-based sales agent Gordon Steel notes, “There are lots of billionaires out there who can put some money in the movie business. But Gastón, the risks he takes, and the courage he’s got to do it — he is pretty unique.”
Pavlovich owns a 55% stake in Fabrica de Cine, with the rest divided between four unnamed partners. The board includes members of northern Mexico’s most prominent business families, such as the Coppels, who own a department-store chain with annual sales of more than $5 billion, and the owners of Cemex, the world’s second-largest cement maker.
In addition to Pavlovich’s foray into big-budget Hollywood films, he’s involved in smaller productions, including the Mexican baseball movie “108 Costuras,” which he wrote, and French film “The Price of Desire,” his first European movie, about modernist designer Eileen Gray. Two U.S. productions are in the works: “Waiting for the Miracle to Come,” starring Willie Nelson and Charlotte Rampling, which executive producer Bono asked Pavlovich to board; and “Sun Dogs,” the directorial debut of actress Jennifer Morrison. A biopic of Mikhail Gorbachev is also being developed.
“I will always be looking at the bigger ‘Silence’ and ‘Irishman’ kinds of projects,” Pavlovich says. But “we want to show that we can produce anywhere in the world.”
Andrew Paxman in Mexico City contributed to this report.