Sierra/Affinity Masters Its Pitches for Maximum Marketing

During the 2000s, Nick Meyer, who as the head of Sierra/Affinity, is the recipient of Variety’s Achievement in International Film Awards at this year’s Cannes festival, experienced a career’s worth of film-market fluctuations, a heady period when he headed international for Lionsgate and then led Paramount Vantage.

When Meyer decided to form Sierra Pictures in 2009, he faced even stiffer headwinds, as the global financial crisis and dramatic changes in technology and audience viewing habits rewired the industry.

Transition gradually revealed openings for his new company, though, as major studios stepped back from the very films that Meyer knew how to mount: mid-budget prestige and genre fare. It wasn’t that those kinds of films had ever gone out of fashion; it was their financial model that no longer made sense for large multinational backers. Eventually, Sierra/Affinity (rebranded after a 2011 merger with OddLot-Bold Films sales outfit Affinity Intl.) would move to the front ranks of the global sales and production sector and nimbly affiliate with a range of profitable and decorated projects.

On the sales front, it has repped breakouts such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Whiplash,” while its own production slate has matured to yield titles like this summer’s spy adventure “Atomic Blonde,” whose world premiere at South by Southwest drew raves.

“We don’t often take a moment to look back,” says Meyer “On occasion, we say, ‘This is what we built.’ The company to some extent resembles what we talked about eight years ago, after making it through all of the vicissitudes and challenges.”

Marc Schaberg, the company’s co-president and chief operating officer, says seeing the original business plan to fruition “has taken a little bit longer than you’d hope, but that’s the way things always are.”

Sierra/Affinity is heading into its busiest venue: the Cannes market. It will offer a handful of titles for sale, using a meticulous approach to presenting films to buyers on the Croisette as well as in other key international film markets.

“We really make a point to meet with filmmakers and understand their vision.”
Marc Schaberg

“A big part of our job is helping filmmakers articulate what they are trying to accomplish,” Meyer says. “That’s something we consider essential for our own team as well as for the film’s prospects.”

Last year, Sierra/Affinity closed significant deals around the world for Aaron Sorkin’s feature directing debut, “Molly’s Game.” It also had “Tully,” Jason Reitman’s reteaming with screenwriter Diablo Cody and star Charlize Theron, and the Steve Coogan/John C. Reilly-toplined biopic “Stan & Laurel.”

This year’s lineup will consist of exclusive titles from key partners, including OddLot, Bold, SK Global and eOne. The strategy behind promoting sales titles to buyers will build on the company’s approach in past years. For “Molly’s Game” last year, it brought together Sorkin, star Jessica Chastain and producer Marc Gordon for an exclusive market screening, Q&A and cocktail party.

A more complicated push in 2011 came together for “Ender’s Game,” the literary adaptation positioned as a potential blockbuster successor to “The Hunger Games.” With a budget well north of $100 million, the very upper reaches of indiedom, plus Lionsgate/Summit already on board to distribute in the U.S., Sierra/Affinity wanted to explore global possibilities. It planned an elaborate presentation for foreign buyers at the Olympia, a familiar market venue.

“We had no stars,” Schaberg recalls, as Harrison Ford and other cast had not yet been confirmed. “But we laid out what we thought was important, including the CG work, which we knew would be amazing.”

Digital Domain, an equity investor in the film, spent just shy of $1 million, Schaberg says, to produce a sequence highlighting the visual effects. Flanked by the producers and director Gavin Hood, “Nick sort of P.T. Barnum-ed it,” he says. The result was strong buzz and a wave of territory deals.

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” which won two Oscars from six nominations, sold well around the world for Sierra/Affinity.

For the 2014 drama “Nightcrawler,” a more intimate gathering for Toronto buyers was held, with star Jake Gyllenhaal and first-time director Dan Gilroy discussing the project and showing footage.

“We take a bespoke approach to each film,” Schaberg says. “We really make a point to meet with filmmakers and understand their vision. Twenty years ago, you could slap together a one-sheet and sell stuff. But that doesn’t work anymore, certainly on quality projects.”

One of the key interpreters of directors’ vision is Joey Monteiro, senior vice president of international marketing and publicity. He will often be the first exec to see dailies and rough cuts of films, usually ones that are either still shooting or not even. Sifting through each frame, he will look for elements that could generate interest: a look, a music cue, anything.

“Our audiences have usually read the script and they’re pretty familiar with the projects,” Monteiro says. “So we want to give them a wide breadth of what the film is: beginning, middle and end. We’re not afraid of spoilers.”

Adds Jen Gorton, senior VP of international sales: “Our job is filling in blanks for buyers and helping them understand the vision of what the finished product will be.”

Cannes marketing is often driven by PR stunts big and small — like Sacha Baron Cohen in that iridescent thong, plugging “Borat.” But the reality of the sell today is a lot more subtle and business-focused, given that “buyers have gotten incredibly sophisticated,” Schaberg says.

Heading into this edition of Cannes, the roster of buyers looks markedly different from the one that greeted Meyer and his team at the end of last decade. Plenty of distributors have come, gone, rebranded or recapitalized. Then there is the incursion of deep-pocketed streaming services Netflix and Amazon, which have competition titles screening and acquisition teams ready to pounce.

“Everybody is really interested to see how it’s going to play out with the streaming services,” says international sales and distribution president Jonathan Kier, who joined Sierra from Weinstein Co. in 2011. “It’s having an impact. For some of the distributors we’re talking to, they’re a welcome presence. I don’t know territories where they are having major problems, honestly. They are filling a void on home-entertainment revenue.”

For “Manchester by the Sea,” the Kenneth Lonergan film that premiered in Sundance en route to two Oscar wins and a worldwide gross of $62 million, the involvement of Amazon prompted questions from international buyers. Would there be theatrical guarantees? What would Amazon’s involvement mean about marketing support? “We don’t hear that anymore,” Kier says. “People know.”

Another shift has been the demand across territories as the film business becomes less globalist and more attuned to local ticket-buyers’ tastes. “Territories are becoming more differentiated,” Kier says. “American films used to occupy a greater percentage around the world. By no means is it a crisis but in Japan, for example, Japanese and Korean films occupy a much greater share than they used to.”

For all of the transformation of his company and the business writ large, Meyer keeps preaching the importance of fundamentals: focusing on details, keeping materials crisp and stories engaging.

“The movie business is 100 years old and the independent business is half that,” Meyer says. “It always finds ways to continue. Storytelling has always been both global and local. Local production has been rising and everyone’s been a part of that. I look at it as opportunity for us to have new venues and ways to get stories told. We’ve always thought globally.”

Agrees Schaberg: “Well-told stories can and do break through.”

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