AFM: Dylan Leiner Expands Sony Pictures’ Horizons, Talent Pool Across Borders

Since joining Sony Pictures Classics 22 years ago, Dylan Leiner has contributed to breaking the barriers for subtitled movies in the U.S. and paving the way for the next wave of filmmakers across a couple of continents.

On top of his sourcing and acquisition duties, Leiner, who serves as exec VP of acquisition and production at SPC, is now increasingly involved in programs aimed at fostering and sustaining film culture among diverse communities in the U.S. and most recently in Israel, where he has enlisted the prestigious Jerusalem-based Sam Spiegel Film & Television School to launch a program with the Marcie Bloom Fellowship in Film in the U.S.

Born in London, raised in Los Angeles and educated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Leiner, who now lives in New York, is passionate about foreign cultures, contemporary art, design, and architecture, which enriches his critical appreciation of movies. “I grew up in a very literate household where there was a strong international cultural aesthetic. My mother is a writer and my stepfather, who raised me, was a record producer and film composer who created scores for films ranging from ‘La Bamba’ to ‘Footloose’ to ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,'” said Leiner.

Kicking off this winter, the Bloom/Spiegel alliance will see four Marcie Bloom fellows and up to four Sam Spiegel grads exchange skills and ideas in entrepreneurship and contemporary storytelling. Participants will then meet in the spring during the Tribeca Film Festival, where they will be introduced to U.S. industry players.

“Today, there is tremendous competition for people’s attention, so more than ever it has to be our mission to maintain and sustain this film culture, foster that passion in young filmmakers and ultimately help educate them about who and what came before them,” said Leiner.

The Bloom/Spiegel fellowship program came about after Leiner met the school’s director, Renen Schorr, over the summer while serving on a jury at the Jerusalem Film Festival to give grants to script-stage and works-in-progress projects.

Leiner, who also recently served on the jury of the first young sales agent competition at this year’s Cannes, has been spearheading the Marcie Bloom Fellowship in Film, which mentors four young filmmakers each year.

“It turns out seven of the eight fellows over the last two years have been women, so without designing it as such, the program is mirroring changes we’re hoping to see in our filmmaking community, which is extremely exciting,” said Leiner.

Leiner has also oversaw the launch of a new program called the Young Filmmakers Initiative, which will be an extension of NYFEST, the annual New York Film and Entertainment Soccer Tournament that takes place during Tribeca. Co-founded by Leiner in 2011, NYFEST brings together people from the entertainment world to play soccer to raise money for organizations helping underserved youth in New York.

While SPC’s founders, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, have traditionally been the ones in the spotlight, Leiner has played a pivotal role in most of the company’s high-profile U.S. acquisitions, including Laszlo Nemes’ Oscar-winning “Son of Saul,” “Inside Job,” “Still Alice,” “Whiplash,” current foreign-language Oscar entries “Elle” and “Toni Erdmann,” and Paolo Virzi’s buzzed-about project “The Leisure Seeker.”

Although SPC has been a driving force behind foreign-language movies — most recently “Wild Tales” and “Amour” — the company’s business is more than ever defined by English-language specialty films such as “Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner” and “Maggie’s Plan.”

Yet many of the high-profile English-language films handled by SPC today are multinational. “The Leisure Seeker,” for instance, is produced by French and Italian companies, directed by an Italian filmmaker and featuring British (Helen Mirren) and Canadian (Donald Sutherland) stars.

“‘Still Alice,’ ‘Searching for Sugarman’ and, most recently, ‘The Leisure Seeker’ are films with multinational production teams reflecting the nature of my personal and SPC’s network of relationships around the world,” Leiner said.

In many ways, SPC has been thriving by sticking to its basics: remaining fully filmmaker-driven and pursuing films that have strong theatrical potential.

Leiner’s role is to identify promising projects, make the deals and help integrate the projects into the SPC team. He said that SPC is picky when it comes to the directors it works with, likening the relationship to “getting married — both side have to have similar viewpoints.”

The company is increasingly pursuing projects at an early, pre-completion stage. Some of its most recent acquisitions include Michael Haneke’s “Happy End,” Taylor Hackford’s “The Comedian,” and Joseph Cedar’s “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”

“We don’t board projects at concept stage, and even when there’s a terrific script, we need a director attached,” Leiner said. “Every film we acquire plays in theaters first in order to establish its reputation and profile and to make sure it can have a long run in ancillary markets. We play the long game.”

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