The team at Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions will get a lot of mileage out of their tuxedos at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Michael Helfand and Joe Matukewicz, the division’s two co-heads, are hitting Canada with eight films in tow — a collection that includes Oscar-hopefuls such as “The Front Runner,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Wildlife.”
Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions will focus on distributing these largely indie pictures in foreign territories. They usually leave the U.S. release to other studios. That may be part of the reason that, for all its activity, the division remains something of an enigma to most people.
“We’re a little under the radar,” said Matukewicz. “People sometimes don’t understand what we do because all our movies are different. No one is alike and we have a very diverse slate in terms of budget range or genres.”
They may not be a household name, but they do get points for being prolific. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions releases as many as 40 films a year. Its productions range from lavish popcorn fare such as “The Tourist” to intimate human dramas like “Hearts Beat Loud” and “Disobedience.” The company sometimes buys finished films. It picked up foreign rights to Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” out of Sundance, for instance. But it also boards projects such as the Tom Hanks World War II movie “Greyhound” at the script stage.
“As a general goal, we look for universal storytelling,” said Helfand. “These are films we think can find an audience around the world.”
A few major studios, such as Paramount and Universal, have separate, foreign-facing divisions. Sony is rather unique in its emphasis on auteur-driven arthouse fare. Nor is Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions the only division within the entertainment company that’s focused on the indie space. There’s also Sony Pictures Classics, the Oscar-winning shingle behind “Call Me By Your Name” and “Still Alice.” Despite the similar emphasis, Helfand and Matukewicz say they play well with Sony Pictures Classics’ heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. They’ve even collaborated on films before, working to release the likes of “The Meddler” and “The Bronze” on a global basis.
“We never want to prevent one or the other of us from doing business,” said Matukewicz. “If they’re pursuing something, we won’t.”
At a time when Hollywood is being criticized for its lack of diversity, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions has also banked heavily on female directors and filmmaking talent from underrepresented groups. The division has championed the likes of “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women,” which is directed by Angela Robinson, an African-American female LGBT director; “Searching,” which is directed by Aneesh Chaganty, a Southeast Asian-American man; and “Grudge,” a horror film with Mexican-American and Asian-American leading men. At the same time, the division has tapped Alex Almogabar Zahn, a vice president at the company, to curate a slate of Latinx films and to create a larger Latino content initiative for the studio.
“We’re not doing it for political reasons,” said Helfand. “We’re just looking for a range of projects that speak to us.”