In 2014, after financing features and TV shows for some three decades, Haim Saban was ready to establish a North American film label of his own. “With the very rapid expansion of distribution platforms, we want to be in the supply chain with as many types of programs as we can,” he says.
Yet when former RLJ Entertainment exec Bill Bromiley approached the billionaire’s L.A.-based investment firm Saban Capital Group with the idea for Saban Films, it took a bit of convincing.
“I pitched a business plan based in the premium VOD world, and there were many people that I had to get through in order to get Haim to approve it,” says Saban Films president Bromiley. “He was concerned that the film business could be very volatile, and wasn’t interested in taking huge chances, so he asked lots of questions.”
Bromiley sold him on a business that now uses a premium VOD release strategy for roughly 80%-90% of its acquisitions, some with an exclusive 30-day pre-theatrical window on DirecTV, some day-and-date, and all with a theatrical component. About 10%-20% follow a traditional theatrical strategy with Saban’s distribution partner, Lionsgate.
Virtually all of Saban Films’ features since their first acquisition, such as the 2014 western “The Homesman” starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, and Meryl Streep, are star-driven titles with genre appeal. The company has released 21 films to date, has 16 more set for release through next year, and acquire North American or U.S. rights to around a dozen titles annually. Bromiley says the films’ budgets range from $5 million to $30-plus million.
In the fall, Saban Films tried a new approach by partnering with Fathom Events for a nationwide two-night release of the horror film “31.” The premium-priced screenings, which preceded the film’s ultra-VOD, VOD and proper theatrical releases, took in around $900,000 and earned them a fan in cult rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie.
“We didn’t do any TV or print ads, it was almost free,” says Zombie, who worked closely with sales, marketing and distribution VP Jonathan Saba. “Virtually everything [was promoted] through my Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter. The main thing I liked about them was that it seemed like everything mattered. There’ve been times I’ve wanted to premiere a trailer at a concert, and the feedback I’d get would be, ‘What’s the point of that?’ The point is that there are 18,000 kids in the room! With Saban, they’d be like, ‘Fuck, yeah. Let’s do it.’ They were into everything, which creates excitement.”
Since the Los Angeles-based company launched in Cannes nearly three years ago, it’s remained a lean operation with seven employees, led by Bromiley and his fellow RLJ vet, CFO Shanan Becker. Saban’s son, Ness, serves as its director of business development, and Haim generally takes a hands-off approach.
“All Saban Capial Group cares about is our bottom line, and that we are doing what we say we’ll do,” Bromiley says. Another division, Saban Brands, handles the “Power Rangers” franchise and the upcoming Lionsgate film of the same name.
Just how successful they’ve been is an open question. While U.S. box office figures are available for 2016’s “A Hologram for the King,” a Tom Tykwer-directed co-acquisition with Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions ($4.2 million), “The Homesman” ($2.4 million) and the two-night Fathom run of “31” (around $900,000), Saban hasn’t released theatrical data for any of its other titles — something it can keep private since the films are typically four-walled (in rented theaters). And so far, it has only released VOD figures on one title: the 2015 John Travolta-toplined thriller “The Forger.” After Saban nabbed U.S. rights for $2.5 million, the film reportedly earned nearly $3 million on VOD platforms and theatrically. In lieu of data, one of the few apparent signs of Saban Films’ success is the confidence Haim Saban has in it.
“I have allowed the division to be completely independent because it has a pristine management team that we back 100%,” he says. “And they have over delivered so far.” In February, he re-upped Bromiley and Becker’s contracts through 2020, claiming the division was entering “its second year of profitability” and that the extensions showed Saban Capital Group’s “confidence in their ability to guide the company into its next stage of growth.”
Bromiley says the label is changing its strategy from acquiring completed films to a 50/50 split between films that are finished and unfinished, from the script stage to post-production. The slate has elicited a wide range of critical responses, from their recent thriller “The Girl With All the Gifts,” which scored 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, to Sean Penn’s drama “The Last Face,” starring Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron. “It’s going to be a premium VOD release,” Bromiley says. “We’ve worked with Sean and convinced him that that is the best way to go, and we all believe that it’s going to do very well in that space.”
Other upcoming releases include the sci-fi film “Kill Switch,” starring Dan Stevens; apartheid drama “The Forgiven” starring Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana; and thriller “Hunter’s Prayer” with Sam Worthington.
“Today we are primarily U.S.-centric, [but] we might expand to be a worldwide distribution company in the future,” Bromiley says.