Producing and financing films, rather than just taking a fee to sell them, has always been an important part of Sierra/Affinity’s blueprint since the company launched in 2009. Nevertheless, it took several years for the company’s ambitions beyond sales to be fully realized.
The company has produced and financed several titles over the past couple of years and is pushing hard in that direction. As company founder Nick Meyer, who is being honored at Cannes with Variety‘s Achievement in International Film Award, sees it, “a key part of our growth as a company is that we are a production entity.”
Set for release this July via Focus Features is “Atomic Blonde,” the graphic-novel adaptation starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Recent titles also produced and financed by Sierra include the critically hailed “Lost City of Z” by director James Gray, 1960s melodrama “A Kind of Murder,” John Hillcoat thriller “Triple 9” and genre romp “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Two Jason Statham projects formed the original foundation for Sierra/Affinity’s expansion into production: 2011’s “Parker,” and “Wild Card” in 2015. Another early effort was “Wer,” a horror title from William Brent Bell and the creative team behind “The Devil Inside.”
“As we move forward, we have been focusing on filmmakers and movies that we consider filmmaker-driven movies, meaning they are elevated in some form,” Meyer says. “That could be comedy, that could be action-drama, that could be sci-fi. We’ve been acquiring projects for a while now.”
Recently announced have been the topline cast of “Poms,” a comedy starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver as two members of a retirement community cheerleading squad; and “Snow Ponies,” a Gerard Butler actioner. Based on a screenplay that was on the 2006 Black List, “Ponies” is the feature directorial debut of second-unit veteran Darrin Prescott.
There are many reasons the company has been able to shift resources fairly smoothly into production, including the fact that it now has roughly 25 employees, up from a handful when it launched in 2009, and another is the integration of departments that Meyer has made a priority from the beginning.
“We understand our production business through the lens of our sales and distribution business,” says Marc Schaberg, co-president and chief operating officer. “That allows us to take full advantage of all of the opportunities that we are discussing across the entire company.”
As Meyer sees it, “the need to finance and acquire is high. For us, we have the ability to play in several budget ranges and genres and we have developed some important creative relationships.”
The recent investment in Sierra/Affinity by film and TV powerhouse eOne has clearly provided a shot in the arm. But eOne’s boutique production division, which had a hand in best picture Oscar winner “Spotlight” and “Trumbo,” is separate from the team-up.
Jen Bolton, senior VP of international sales, says organizational decisions made by Meyer when he was setting up the company played an important role in how divisions collaborate and make the most of opportunities in the marketplace.
“One of the most important things Nick has done in terms of structure is that departments are involved with each other,” she says. “We all work as a team. Sales and distribution work hand in hand, on a daily basis, with production.” She adds that the culture is open. “There is a real emphasis on mentorship here that Nick really fosters. We’ve had interns get promoted. It’s very open as long as people work at it.”
Meyer’s organizational thinking was shaped by his time at Lionsgate, where he spearheaded significant growth in the 1990s and 2000s, building out its international arm. He then joined the Hollywood specialty film world as it was exploding as president of Paramount Vantage.
When he exited Paramount amid major layoffs at the end of 2008, he had time to consider the kind of corporate environment he wanted to join — or create.
“I was an executive at an independent company and a studio for 15 years before I founded this company with Marc,” he says. “And one of the advantages is that you can have a small company where everyone is invested. Everyone is moving in the same direction. You have to. You’re a startup.”
One example of the scrappy roots of the company paying off, Schaberg says, is that as a sales entity one of the tenets the company had was to be filmmaker-focused. “One of the core things we do as a company is to meet with filmmakers and discuss their vision,” he says. “We want to make sure that we know how to articulate that. And there are tons of examples where that ability to work closely with filmmakers on the sales side has positively affected our efforts on the production side.”
The one distinct difference, Meyer says, was time. Selling a film in a market is a deadline-pushing, moment-to-moment ride, whereas producing a film can involve gaps of six, eight, 10 years or more between when material is optioned and it finally reaches the screen.
“I just really try to remind everyone that it does take time.”