Gabriel Hammond was frustrated.
After “The Infiltrator” — a thriller about an agent trying to bring down drug kingpin Pablo Escobar — collapsed at the box office, Hammond assembled the staff of his Broad Green Pictures in the sleek corporate headquarters he’d spared no expense outfitting. The gleaming offices in the heart of Hollywood, which include a commissary and screening room, have inspired envy and gossip among the chattering classes, who say that Hammond and his brother, Daniel, are profligate moviemakers in danger of losing their shirts.
But Hammond’s message that day in July was different. There was no reason “The Infiltrator” shouldn’t have connected with consumers, he said. After all, it featured Bryan Cranston in a showy role, and had arrived with critical raves. But after Broad Green had spent $20 million to buy, market, and distribute “The Infiltrator,” the film netted only $15.1 million at the box office.
“Audiences love it — it tested through the roof. We knew we had something special on our hands, and we blew it,” Hammond says, weeks after that staff meeting. “I’m really disappointed in myself and our team with the job we did with that movie.”
Hammond, who made billions in the mutual-fund game, noted that he has faced darker times. As he told staffers that day, in the midst of the Great Recession, he and Daniel weren’t sure if they could keep their businesses going, but they emerged from the economic downturn stronger.
“The point I wanted to make was that the success we’ve had in any of the other businesses that we’ve started together has come as a result of constraint, out of failure, out of things going incredibly, totally, desperately wrong,” says Hammond. “It was in having to find solutions to those problems and work through them that we actually built the businesses that we did.”
Having found success in high finance, the Hammonds entered the entertainment business in 2014 with barely any experience in making movies. It has been a bumpy transition. Since its launch, Broad Green has faced hurdles. The studio has struggled to carve out a clear identity in the crowded studio market, and most of the films it has released, such as the dark drama “99 Homes” and Terrence Malick’s meditative “Knight of Cups,” have failed to resonate. Only “A Walk in the Woods,” a geriatric comedy with Robert Redford, was a clear hit, making nearly $30 million domestically.
“They never really got their footing,” says one agent. “It seems to me that they don’t quite have a plan.”
Last month, Broad Green laid off 6% of its staff of roughly 90, triggering a new wave of murmurs that the company is in trouble. Hammond denies that he and his brother have lost their stomach for the volatile movie business. He says there will be no more staffing cuts, and he hits back at suggestions that he’s going to trim staff perks, including gym memberships and on-site chefs. Hammond notes that he was inspired to replicate the culture he found when he visited Pixar Animation’s Emeryville campus.
“If there were a bunch of Googles and Pixars in this industry, we probably wouldn’t feel the desire to really create something different and special,” he says. “I don’t think there are enough places where people can enjoy themselves and innovate and express their opinions and have creatively safe homes.”
The perks of being a Broad Green employee may be here to stay, but the studio is attempting to shift its focus away from art-house movies toward more commercially minded fare, such as next fall’s “Bad Santa 2,” a sequel to the raunchy Billy Bob Thornton comedy, and “Villa Capri,” an action thriller with Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones. Hammond’s goal is to have six to eight wide releases annually; he believes that with this strategy, Broad Green will be profitable in 2017. The studio has between 40 and 50 projects in development.
“We’re genre-agnostic, and we’re more about picking stories we think are going to be exciting and entertain a lot of people,” Hammond says.
That selection process is both science and art. Whereas other studios have launched with a promise to better exploit big data or advanced marketing technologies as a means of gaining a competitive edge, Hammond seems to believe that the best solution is to marry creative risk-taking with research. “Anyone that tells you that they have a formula, or some mathematical equation or Monte Carlo simulation to predict box office success, is full of it,” he says. “The flip side of that is that anyone who tells you that you can’t intelligently use market data and audience research to optimize your decisions also probably isn’t giving you very good advice.”
From Relativity Media to DreamWorks, Hollywood has seen its share of studios launch in recent years promising to revolutionize the business, only to collapse under their ambitions. Relativity has just re-emerged from bankruptcy; DreamWorks has shrunk down to a glorified production company; and other new players, such as STX Entertainment and the Weinstein Company, are struggling to maintain their footing in a shifting marketplace. But Hammond insists he sees a path forward for Broad Green in a business that has hobbled other entrepreneurs.
“We’re pretty relentless,” he says. “And — knock on wood — that’s going to pay off.”