On May 21 in Cannes, Sierra/Affinity president and CEO Nick Meyer will receive Variety’s Achievement in International Film award.

“Nick’s earned a place in our business that very few achieve — as an expert in the international marketplace,” says Entertainment One president and CEO Darren Throop. “He’s our main source of advice and information when it comes to selecting and curating content for our platform.”

But the long-term success of his or any production/finance/sales outfit seemed far from certain when Meyer launched Sierra Pictures in 2009, right on the heels of specialty division closings — including one he ran — at the height of a global recession.

“It was the worst economy since the Depression, when the Dow was at its lowest,” Meyer says today. “But if you’re prepared to do the work, there are going to be opportunities.”

So while many were predicting doom and gloom, Meyer brainstormed plans for a new company. “My COO Marc Schaberg and I were sitting in my house, trying to figure out what it was going to look like and how we were going to construct it,” he recalls. “We saw an opportunity to be amongst the best-in-class sales operations for companies that wanted someone to be their foreign sales partner, to deliver on the commitment to unbelievable service, and grow into a great filmmaker business.

“We started lean because the times were lean,” Meyer continues. “I had every base covered, with one person for each department of a sales company — one in servicing, one in marketing, I had a lawyer, my market person was my assistant. … We built it brick-by-brick, and we were blessed to have [apparel business mogul, philanthropist and founder of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment] Sidney Kimmel as our first big producer client.”

Following a partnership with the Incentive Filmed Entertainment fund and successful wide release sales of “Shark Night 3D” in 2010, Meyer says he “looked strategically at what we needed to do to evolve, which was — No. 1 — to be able to make movies and not just sell movies.”

Sierra/Affinity has been on board specialty hits such as “Whiplash,” “Drive” and“Spotlight.”
Courtesy of Sony/FilmDistrict/Open Road

Its first major turning point came in early 2011, when the company merged with Affinity Intl. to form Sierra/Affinity. Its new role as the exclusive sales agent for films developed and produced by then-equity investors OddLot Entertainment and Bold Films — along with exclusively repping third-party films for Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Blumhouse Intl. — turned it into a new sales powerhouse. Critical and commercial hits such as “Whiplash,” “Flight,” “Drive,” “The Way Way Back,” “Nightcrawler” and this year’s Oscar best picture nominee “Manchester by the Sea” followed.

Not every move was a success: After a shaky start with the 2010 thriller “Mother’s Day,” White Knuckle Entertainment — a budget genre production label Meyer announced with Brett Ratner — fell by the wayside. And Sierra/Engine Television, a joint TV venture between Sierra and Engine Entertainment that launched in 2012, was quickly shuttered when Meyer felt it took away from its focus on films.

But by the end of 2015, Sierra/Affinity received another big boost when Entertainment One made a strategic equity investment in the company.

As part of the deal, Sierra now handles sales and distribution of films produced and acquired by eOne, as well as eOne-distributed films from the Mark Gordon Co. (outside of territories in which eOne self-distributes: Canada, the U.K., the U.S., Benelux, Spain, Australia and New Zealand). So far, the biopics “Molly’s Game” (based on Molly Bloom’s bestseller) and “Stan & Ollie” (with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly playing the seminal comics of the silent screen era) are among several solid features that have resulted from their pact. “[eOne is] here to help us grow our productions — to develop and finance more content,” Meyer says.

“As we were ramping up our internal production and development efforts, we needed the ability to exploit and distribute films outside of our direct distribution platform,” says eOne Global Film Group president Steve Bertram.

“We’ve been buying from Sierra/Affinity for a long period of time, so that relationship gives you a look into the way they run as a company and how they negotiate every step of the way,” Throop says. “These guys are top-drawer, so it was a pretty easy decision.”

Both execs note Meyer’s strategic partnerships with producers they respect. “Our territories tend to lean towards higher-end, prestige, award-caliber content,” Bertram says. “And as Nick has moved into that over the past several years, given where our marketplace is going, that stood out.” And, Throop adds, “he’s delivered a number of award-winning, commercially successful movies over the years.”

Leading a company through high-stakes mergers and partnerships in a tough marketplace makes Meyer stand out in the industry, but these are the kinds of challenges this high school athlete from Scarsdale, N.Y., has pursued throughout his career.

Meyer’s Swiss parents helped introduce him to international cinema, leading the Wesleyan grad to a volunteer job with the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival. Soon he was getting his masters in French at Middlebury, taking on a translating job for a Gallic director and writing his thesis on French indie film distribution in Paris. A paid internship at the Cannes festival paved the way to his first “real” industry job at Sony Pictures Classics.

“We’ve been buying from Sierra/Affinity for a long time, so that gives you a look into the way they run
as a company.”
Steve Bertram

His move to L.A. to work at other Sony divisions led to one of his biggest breaks: joining Lionsgate, where he eventually rose to president of international. “It was publicly listed then, but a much smaller company,” Meyer recalls. “I was there for this unbelievable run of growth and had an opportunity to do so much”— including the acquisition of future two-time Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature, “Amores Perros.” In addition to that film’s “transformative [impact] on how Latin American cinema was perceived in the world,” he says, its success changed the studio.

“The international business was tiny at Lionsgate, and when I left it was 10 times that size in terms of gross sales,” he says. “I learned so much from everyone I got to work with there. From Joe [Drake] at the beginning to my other mentors and colleagues back then, it was an amazing time for someone who had an entrepreneurial spirit and loved movies.”

Their success positioned him to take over Paramount’s revamped specialty division Paramount Vantage in the mid-2000s, first as co-president, then as president.

And though industry economics sidelined this and other highbrow studio shingles, “I think we did really well for Paramount with what we did there,” he says. Indeed, critics have labeled at least two of his films as classics: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” each co-produced with Miramax.

Applying his strengths behind a more economically viable operation, Meyer has turned his own company into a much stronger entity than when it launched eight years ago. The outfit now has a robust 25 employees, and recently acquired OddLot and Bold’s equity stakes while retaining them as exclusive sales clients.

The next big gamble he’ll be taking is “Atomic Blonde,” toplining Charlize Theron, which screened at SXSW to a lot of buzz. “We hope it’s going to be the movie that will break through the noise this summer,” Meyer says of the project, which he optioned 4½ years ago. “It’s part of our emphasis on premium content that’s distinctive and fresh — the idea of an action spy thriller world we know with a female protagonist — and we found a director [David Leitch] who elevated it to something that was unique.”

It also speaks to his strengths as an exec. “Developing that IP and taking a large equity stake on a picture of that size is a pretty big risk,” Bertram notes, “and it certainly seems to have paid off based on what we’ve seen of the film and its early response in the marketplace.”

“When I look back, one of the things I’m most proud of here is our repeat business,” Meyer says. “Sidney Kimmel, Odd Lot and Bold have been with us for many years. We’ve done multiple pictures with Black Bear Pictures and [its CEO] Teddy Schwartzman. The fact that we have a culture people want to come back to speaks to the ethos of our company.”

For Meyer, it all comes back to the company’s “commitment to service, and the fact that we deliver on what we say we’re going to do consistently,” he says. “Whether it’s supporting a filmmaker on a tour, making sure a financier understands the risk associated with a project, or helping to measure and mitigate that risk —those are the best definitions of a brand that we could hope for.”

As for where he sees Sierra/Affinity in another eight years, Meyer says his goals are “to stay committed to the ethos of the company, which is delivering for the talent and the producers and giving our distributors a consistent supply of A-level programming — that’s number one. And to also grow our content creation capacity, stay committed to the creative community, and to keep this as a place where artists, producers, managers and agents want to bring their work.”