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London Calling: Phil Hunt Rocks the Casbah With Head Gear Films

Upcoming titles include Amma Asante’s romantic drama 'Where Hands Touch,' starring George MacKay and Amandla Stenberg

Where Hands Touch controversy
Courtesy of Tantrum Films/Pinewood Pictures

Phil Hunt’s London-based film-financing house Head Gear Films, which launched 15 years ago, has been ramping up its dealmaking activity in recent years. The company provided funding for 55 movies last year, up from five in 2012. Movies backed have included Johnny Depp starrer “Black Mass,” “Trespass Against Us,” starring Michael Fassbender, and John Michael McDonagh’s “War on Everyone,” starring Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena. Hunt tells Variety about how he balances his punk-rock ethos with a careful assessment of the risks inherent in the independent film business.

Hunt, who also co-heads 10-year-old sales company Bankside Films, started out as a photographer in the advertising business in the early 1990s. A punk rocker and Clash devotee at heart, he started to shoot music videos for bands like Big Audio Dynamite, as well as corporate films. From there he pogoed into producing micro-budgeted feature films, starting 20 years ago with “Fast Food,” starring Gerard Butler. The film was picked up by sales company Vine Intl. Pictures — thanks to the support of sales exec Stephen Kelliher — and it was then shopped to buyers at Cannes.

Hunt’s approach then as now has stayed true to the original spirit of punk. “My whole ethos has always been the punk D.I.Y. philosophy, which is: anything is possible; do it your own way; question authority; question everybody’s way of doing things; and come up with new and innovative ways of doing things,” he says.

Having caught the movie-making bug, Hunt followed up with another ultra-low budget feature film, Greg Cruttwell’s “Chunky Monkey,” starring David Threlfall and Alison Steadman. The iconoclastic comedy was perceived to mock both Jesus Christ and Julie Andrews, and managed to upset EMI, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the owners of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, with the latter three threatening to sue. This happily combined to generate oodles of press coverage.

In 2002, Hunt was introduced by Cruttwell to Scottish oil-industry entrepreneur Compton Ross, who agreed to bankroll their newly formed film company, Head Gear. Its first feature was a Mexican-U.K. co-production, political thriller “Rabbit on the Moon,” which was sold by Capitol Films. Hunt had promised the filmmaker, Jorge Ramirez Suarez, to fund the three-week shoot in the U.K. and — even though Hunt had failed to raise external financing — honored his end of the bargain by using the company’s own funds.

“The really important thing to understand about Head Gear is that we stick to our word,” Hunt says. “And we’re in control of cash.” Thanks to the backing of Ross’ company Metrol, Head Gear doesn’t need to raise funds from other investors or banks. This is in contrast to most other financing houses, which will go out to borrow for each film or rely on a revolving fund.

“I’m about serving the producer and giving them the solutions that they need, which are adaptability of the deal and speed,” Hunt says.

Ten years ago Hunt set up Bankside with Hilary Davis and Kelliher, which offers another means for producers to finance their films. Kelliher had moved from Vine to Beyond Films, where he and Davis worked with Hunt on a couple of films. “While I have been in the film business for 20 years that was the start of my real education in the [film business],” Hunt says.

War on Everyone

John Michael McDonagh’s ‘War on Everyone,’ starring Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena

Since 2012, he has focused primarily on Head Gear, and this has coincided with a dramatic increase in movie deals from five a year to 55 last year, of which only half a dozen or so go through Bankside.

Among upcoming titles backed by Head Gear, whose chief operating officer is Tom Harberd, are political drama “Churchill,” starring Brian Cox, Amma Asante’s romantic drama “Where Hands Touch,” starring Amandla Stenberg, and post-apocalyptic thriller “Cargo,” starring Martin Freeman, which was acquired worldwide by Netflix. Going forward, Hunt plans to ramp up the number of U.S. movies Head Gear handles, and at a higher-budget level than its U.K. and Australia pics, without reducing its lending for lower-budget movies.

The increase in deals in recent years has been partly driven by a growing gap in the market, Hunt says, and the rising number of producers looking to sign finance deals against unbankable collateral. “There is less and less [bankable collateral] because productions are now going into prep and principal [photography] before they close [financing] more and more now,” Hunt says. Actors are increasingly attracted to high-end TV drama series and don’t want to book themselves too far in advance in case a juicy TV role is offered, so producers increasingly have to move film projects into production at short notice to fit in with the stars’ availability, often before the financing is in place, which is where Head Gear comes in.

So as the independent film business has become tougher for producers, Hunt has stepped up his lending to meet the increased demand. “Because the market is becoming more fractured and harder for producers, there is an opportunity for a lender who can act quickly, efficiently and honestly,” Hunt says.

He says his first-hand experience of production helps him manage the risks of lending to producers. “I am really great at assessing and managing risk, and that’s the key to being a great lender,” he says. “There are so many variables: there are the risks associated with the people [attached to the project], such as the producer, line-producer and the production accountant; and the risk of the paper you are lending against, whether it is a [pre-sale] or tax credit; and then the mix and computation of all of that put together; combined with the risk associated with each stage of production.”

Given the unique nature of each movie, every one has to be looked at with fresh eyes and in detail. “What I love about the business is there are a multitude of computations to analyze each deal and each film independently, and most lenders don’t do that. They have one computation,” he says.

“One of the things I look at when I analyze risk is the worst case, and this is crucial to how I manage my business. I put all my energies into retention of capital, rather than how much money I can make,” he says. “I’m not interested in making big bucks; I’m interesting in serving producers and filmmakers, and not losing money.”

Notwithstanding the obvious importance of financing, creative talent is king for Hunt. “For me, the real heroes of film are the writers, directors and the creative producers – I can’t do any of those things, [but] I enable people to live their dreams,” he says.

War on Everyone

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