Locarno: Raimondo Rezzonico Prize Winner Michel Merkt on 12 Strategies for Producing

A Locarno Raimondo Rezzonico Prize recipient, following on David Linde, the Swiss producer (‘Elle,’ ‘Toni Erdmann,’ ‘My Life as a Zucchini’’) talks in Locarno about the fine art of producing

Michel Merkt
Courtesy of Lacorno Film Festival

LOCARNO, Switzerland — Some producers have strategies, but fewer execute, and far fewer still achieve their goals. One of the remarkable things about Swiss producer Michel Merkt (“Elle” “Acquarius”), the Locarno Festival’s Raimondo Rezzonico Prize winner for independent producer of the year, following on David Linde in 2016, is that he walks the walk.

Merkt wants to be known “as someone who brings projects to big festivals,” he told Variety at Locarno. In 2016, his company, KNM, had eight entries in Cannes, this year five. He entered the film business nearly 20 years ago as an intern at Belgium’s Canal Plus, becoming a film critic. But he has also worked in private equity, before setting up his company in Monaco with his wife Kate: Hence its moniker KNM. Few producers have such a combination of financial acumen plus a passion for the creative side of film. Merkt has been a name in the international business – far more than in his native Switzerland –  since he took a producer credit on David Cronenberg’s “Maps of the Stars” in 2014. Two prizes – Variety’s Creative Producer’s Award at Cannes, now Locarno’s – have ended his discretely maintained low profile. Variety chatted to Merkt at Locarno. He was then interviewed more formally by Variety reviewer Jay Weissberg at an onstage Conversation at Locarno on Monday Aug. 7 to mark his receipt of the Raimondo Rezzonico Prize, whose prior U.S. recipients take in Christine Vachon. Here are 12 pieces of advice from Merkt about the fine art of producing:

1.Ring your financing options

Sometimes Merkt puts money up front for development or to buy IPs. “With the money  you can save a lot of time in development. You don’t have to ask [for state financing], you just go.” Or he may take production equity, or put in money not as a producer but investor, which gives him a first recoupment position. “That way, I can recoup on both sides and limit the risk.”

2.Select what you focus on as a producer

You can’t do everything. David Puttnam, the legendary U.K. producer and Columbia studio head, once said that there were two kinds of producers: Creative producers and others whose passion was more market-minded: To package a movie’s financing and then market it when complete. “The easiest way to describe me is to say that I don’t do the shoot part of the movie. Other people do that better,” said Merkt. He added: “I prefer to work on other projects at the same time. I’m more implicated in reading, buying IPs, and spending time on script.” Then he’ll work on editing and release strategy, choosing an agent, festivals, awards.

3.Handpick the people you want to work with:

Merkt first made a splash with 2010 “The Miscreants.” But he really broke through in 2014 with David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” which won Julianne Moore best actress and which he boarded thanks to Canada’s Martin Katz. That was his first film with Paris-based Said Ben Said, a very well connected and discerning Paris-based producer with whom Merit produced Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius,” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” and now “Blessed Virgin.” Merkt also has a close working relationship with The Match Factory’s Michael Weber, Xavier Dolan’s producer Nancy Grant and German director-producer Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”).

4.Have skin in the game

Merkt normally puts up 10%-20% of a film’s budget. Of that, at least half will be his own money. That way, I can show other people I am taking a risk. More than just the risk of investing state money. That’s not a risk.”

5.Get involved in potential Academy Award submissions

“Even being on the shortlist is amazing and gives amazing visibility for the project,” said Merkt. Last year, Merkt had five foreign-language Academy Award submissions from around the world: “It’s Only the End of the World” (Canada), “Elle” (France), “Toni Erdmann” (Germany), “My Life as a Zucchini” (Switzerland) and “Letters From War” (Portugal). This year round, he has about seven foreign-language title in with a shortlist shout: Lucrecia Martel’s awaited “Zama” (Argentina), Sharunas Bartas’ “Frost” (Lithuania), Deepak Rauniyar’s “White Sun” (Nepal), Samuel Maoz’s Venice-selected ”Foxtrot” (Israel), and Valeska Griesbach’s Cannes player “Western” (Germany), Kornel Mandruzco’s “Jupiter’s Moon” (Hungary). As a documentary contender, there is Sundance (and now Locarno) screened “Strong Island,” produced by Josyln Barnes.

6.Be simpatico 

“Honest, generous but not too much, passionate and professional,” said Merit. “But if you want to keep just simpatico, that O.K. with me,” he added. On the other hand, if you’re just simpatico, that’s no ground for Merkt or any other producer to do business with you.

7. Don’t follow trends

“I won’t do anything that is trendy because what is trendy today is not trendy tomorrow,” Merkt told Weissberg at Locarno. “My father once asked me: ‘Why aren’t you making movies like others are making?’ I said: ‘Exactly because they are making them.’

8. Clarify Investors’ Rules of Engagement

“The first thing I ask someone who wants to invest is why on earth they want to put your money into the movie business. Some people just want the red carpet, others jobs for their kids, or to meet stars, or a name on a movie. Know the rules of the game for each person, and see if I have a movie which could suit them. You can tell an investor that certain movies are just not for them.”

9.Nurse talent

“I like to have both sides of the picture, work with renowned talent and with the new generation.” Merkt still tries to watch first feature competition titles, and do jury duty twice a year. He produces two shorts a year which he fully finances,  knowing that of 10-15 new directors, perhaps only one will succeed, and using them as a business card and test. On some deals, he asks for a first look on the next project.

10.Focus on the screenplay

“I think that’s a problem now – spending more time on development, working on better scripts and stories,” Merkt said in Locarno.It’s a particularly European problem too.

“Screenwriters are not recognized in Europe. In the U,S., they are, they’re on the top and make big money. Here, they are often people who want to become directors.”

11. Co-produce

“Co-production is the future. It gives the opportunity to broaden audiences,” Merkt told Weissberg. “Three maximum” is the ideal number of co-production partners, he added. Ease of co-production varies from country to country, he added. The U.K. is “quite difficult” to co-produce with, because of the amount of paperwork involved. Canada is great, in contact, for working with first-time directors.

12.Be original

For young filmmakers, originality – and a screenplay. is almost all that they have. “There are too many movies but not enough good ones,” Merkt said in his Conversation at Locarno. 80-85% of movies are not boring, but I have the sensation of having already seen them. Filmmakers write for commissions or TV stations, not audiences; data is also killing creativity. I am looking for brand new stuff. I wan’t to be shaken from my chain, be wowed.”