Likely Story Turns 10: How ‘The Circle’ Producer Carved Out a Niche at a Tough Time for Indie Film

Anthony Bregman
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Most days, producer Anthony Bregman makes the long trek down Manhattan’s flank, winding his way from his home on the Upper West Side to his office in Soho. He’ll make calls to filmmakers or business associates as he navigates the city’s thoroughfares, keeping track of the various film and television projects that he’s juggling at any one time.

It’s that kind of commitment that’s made Bregman and his company Likely Story a favored home for filmmakers such as Nicole Holofcener, Charlie Kaufman, and John Carney, all of whom have several films and shows in various states of development with the company. It’s also the kind of daily calisthenics that give Bregman the liberty to enjoy an afternoon cookie as he settles down in a midtown coffee shop to talk about Likely Story’s tenth anniversary. Over its decade in the business, Likely Story has established a reputation for producing lower-budget to mid-budget fare for the smarter set such as “Enough Said,” “Indignation,” and “Foxcatcher.” They’re films that are about widely different topics, from relationship comedies to period dramas to true crime meditations, but they share connective tissue.

“I like things that have humanity and real emotion, not ironic emotion,” said Bregman. “I want it to be intellectually challenging. I don’t like things that are super fringe-y. That are made for five people. But I’m not making broad comedies or ‘Fast and Furious’ movies, for better or for worse.”

Despite having just six employees, Likely Story is impressively prolific. It will go into production on three films in January and is working on television projects with the likes of IFC and FX. Its next picture, “The Circle,” a sci-fi drama with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, hits theaters on April 28.

Likely Story’s success has come at a difficult time for the indie film business. Most of the major studios folded up their arthouse divisions several years ago, while other independent players such as Broad Green and Relativity have struggled to find their footing. History is littered with production houses and companies that flickered briefly and flamed out. At the same time, the rise of Netflix and other streaming services have been a double-edged sword, providing a platform for more idiosyncratic and challenging fare, but also upending the old way of making money. While there’s more entertainment available to a wider audience than ever before, much of it is instantly available with a few clicks of the cursor, it’s also created a bit of a content glut. With so many options, it can be a struggle to lure audiences to the theaters to see smaller, more personal dramas. Even “Collateral Beauty,” Likely Story’s most recent film about a grieving ad executive, failed to do big business at the box office despite having Will Smith in a starring role.

Bregman rejects the idea that the indie film business is in decline or that there’s no longer an appetite for movies that aren’t about superheroes. “It always felt like it’s never been harder to make independent films,” he said. “The process of making a movie, there’s a pregnancy aspect to it, where you forget how much pain it is.”

What has changed, Bregman says, is that theatrical performance is no longer the only measure of a film’s success. He points to “Sing Street,” a musical comedy about an Irish boy’s band that got rave reviews, but only earned $13.6 million globally. “Theatrical performance is definitely the right metric for ‘Captain America’ or ‘Zooptopia,'” he said. “But is that the right metric for this film? There are other ways to judge it. We got a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, an A CinemaScore, we’re a big hit on iTunes, we’re now on Netflix. I get waves of emails from people saying I just saw your movie on a plane. I love walking back from the bathroom on a plane and seeing how many people are watching ‘Sing Street’ on a flight.”

Studio executives and filmmakers are prone to wax rhapsodic about the communal experience of cinema. Yet Bregman doesn’t feel any preciousness about having people watch a film on a tablet or a mobile device as opposed to a theater.

“I’d rather they watch them on a phone than not watch my movies at all,” he said.

Bregman got his start working at Good Machine and This Is That, where he was reared by indie film veterans such as Ted Hope (now at Amazon) and James Schamus (formerly the CEO of Focus). Producing has always been his interest, he says, and he does not inspire to literally call the shots by becoming a director as Schamus did recently with “Indignation.”

“I love the way that producing uses everything that I have,” he says. “My storytelling, my visual knowledge, my understanding of editing, and my love of music. At the same time I love numbers. I love negotiating. I like the salesmanship aspect, because that’s a lot of what I do.”