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FilmNation’s Glen Basner on Diversifying Beyond Movies by Focusing on Storytelling

Glen Basner lives to make deals. 

Be it Toronto or Cannes, Sundance or AFM, you’ll find the FilmNation founder in the throes of negotiations over pricing and marketing plans, schmoozing and working every angle to nail the best pact. Director Armando Iannucci, who worked with FilmNation on the upcoming “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” recalls seeing Basner in action after he presented the Charles Dickens adaptation to potential buyers at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. 

“He was running from booth to booth, having all these conversations, and he just kind of lit up with this infectious smile,” says Iannucci. “Fundamentally, all of the things he’s doing on the business side are borne out of a love of film. That what makes him so good at what he does.” 

Basner will be on hand at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival for the world premiere of “David Copperfield,” with Dev Patel in the title role, and the screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” starring Antonio Banderas, for which he sold the international rights. He will also likely be selling yet-to-be-revealed packages to buyers at the market. 

His genuine enthusiasm for moviemaking has well served Basner, 52, and the company he founded in 2008. In the decade since FilmNation opened its doors, it has established itself in the top ranks of film production and sales companies. Its résumé includes critically acclaimed box office hits such as “The Big Sick,” “Gloria Bell,” “Arrival” and “The King’s Speech.” The company has also been responsible for some of the biggest sales to come out of festivals and markets, partnering with 30West and CAA to sell domestic rights for “Late Night” to Amazon at Sundance for a record-setting $13 million, and working with CAA to sell rights to “Down Under Cover,” a Chris Hemsworth and Tiffany Haddish comedy, at Cannes for more than $40 million.

“Our taste, aesthetic and our approach to doing business is to be best in class in our execution,” says Basner. 

At a time when many indie films are faring poorly at the box office and some smaller companies are struggling financially, Basner has also seized upon a simple but effective creative strategy for making movies. Don’t bore people. “Movies have to be entertaining,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they have to be light and fun and breezy. They can be serious and sad. But you have to deliver an emotional experience that satisfies people, and if you don’t do that, you’re done.” 

Now, FilmNation is taking an approach that’s served it well in the features business and applying it to other mediums. Two years ago, as part of a larger diversification strategy, the company branched into theater, television and podcasting. And though it’s early days, the moves appear to be paying off. 

Onstage, the company invested in “The Band’s Visit,” which won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical, lead actor and actress, director and score; a revival of “True West” with Kit Harington that was a hot ticket when it ran in London; and “The Sound Inside,” a Broadway-bound drama with Mary-Louise Parker. On the podcasting front, it produced sci-fi anthology series “Hyper-Thetical” for subscription service Luminary. And in television, it has started production on “I Know This Much Is True,” an adaptation of Wally Lamb’s best-selling novel that stars Mark Ruffalo and will appear on HBO. It’s also preparing TV series adaptations of Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits,” Daisy Goodwin’s “American Heiress” and John Updike’s “Rabbit Run,” the last a co-production with U.K. outfit Lookout Point.

“Our decision to diversify was all about storytelling,” says Milan Popelka, the company’s chief operating officer. “There are a lot of stories out there to be told, and not all of them work as movies. We want to be a place where anyone with an idea can come, regardless of what form that story ultimately takes.” 

FilmNation is backing “Promising Young Woman,” the feature directing debut of Emerald Fennell (second from left), on set with DP Benjamin Kracun and stars Sam Richardson and Carey Mulligan.
Courtesy of: Merie Weismiller Wallace/FilmNation

One of those new avenues for storytelling emerged out of FilmNation’s unique corporate culture. Seven of the company’s 40 employees, ranging from assistants to senior executives, cooked up the pitch to go into podcasting as part of something the company has dubbed InnovationNation. It’s an initiative that’s been in place since 2014, one that enables employees to take time off to explore business opportunities or come up with proposals to do things more efficiently. FilmNation’s startup vibe is further fostered in the many retreats it hosts for staffers, as well as its insistence on calling workers “citizens” as opposed to employees. 

It’s a warmer, friendlier sensibility that’s in keeping with its founder. There’s something low-key about Basner. He’s certainly got a natural way with people, and has a salesman’s knack for putting them at ease. Yet, he doesn’t have the hard-charging, bare-knuckle persona that characterizes other Hollywood players. 

“Oftentimes people mistake being tough with being nasty, or being nice with being soft,” says Basner. “I don’t know if people consider me nice or not nice, but I’m going to be true to myself. I didn’t get into the movie business until later in life, so I didn’t carry any of the baggage or insecurities that I may have if I started when I was in my early 20s.” 

Indeed, Basner’s entry into the world of moviemaking wasn’t conventional. After college, he got a job working for his father’s clothing business in New York’s garment district. But he didn’t feel fulfilled. His career pivot began when his friend, filmmaker Edward Burns, enlisted him to help with production on “The Brothers McMullen,” a 1995 indie comedy that broke out at the box office. From there, Basner got an entry-level job at Good Machine, the influential film production company behind Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” and Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” He loved the atmosphere, and relished the chance to watch Nicole Holofcener huddling over the editing bay on “Walking and Talking” or arranging last-minute private plane travel to ensure that Good Machine executives could circumvent a snowstorm to make a Sundance premiere. But it was only after David Linde, one of the company’s co-founders, tapped him to help out with international sales that Basner found his calling. 

“I knew he would be great,” says Linde. “If you can sell sweaters, you can sell anything.”  

“You have to deliver an emotional experience that satisfies people, and if you don’t do that, you’re done.”
­Glen Basner

After Good Machine, Basner had a stint at The Weinstein Co., where he founded its international sales operations. Through it all, he nursed ambitions to create his own company, one that would enable auteurs to direct the movies they wanted to make at a time when studios were shuttering their independent film labels and concentrating more aggressively on franchise fare. He launched FilmNation with backing from real estate developer, film producer and financier Steve Samuels and developers Dominic A. Visconsi Jr. and Anthoni Visconsi II. (Roadshow Distribution would buy a 30% stake in the company in 2014.) 

The business plan, calling on Basner to tap into his network of foreign distributors to finance productions, may have been sound. However, the timing was not propitious. FilmNation launched in the fall of 2008 just as the financial markets began to teeter and the global economy slid into recession. The company scaled back plans to hire more staff and became more conservative about the number of films it backed. Ultimately, it was able to survive, and announced itself as a major player in the space with the release of “The King’s Speech,” which went on to win the best picture Oscar and gross more than $400 million globally. 

 “Things happened for us because we were able to navigate those strong headwinds and actually get movies sold and financed and made when others couldn’t,” says Basner. “That allowed us to move up the food chain years ahead of when we might have.” 

From that rocky start, FilmNation has expanded beyond its New York headquarters to install offices in London and Los Angeles. The company has established itself as a haven for filmmakers who make quirkier and more offbeat fare that studios shy away from. When Universal punted on “The Big Sick” or when Fox 2000 put “Late Night” into turnaround, it was FilmNation that swooped in and put the projects together. Often it will reach out to filmmakers it admires such as Iannucci or Emerald Fennell, the “Killing Eve” showrunner who will make her feature film directing debut in the FilmNation-produced “Promising Young Woman.” 

FilmNation’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” stars Dev Patel.
Courtesy of: FilmNation

“Often producers will try to make a film in their own image, but they [FilmNation] don’t interfere unless you need their help,” says Fennell. “My film is quite an odd one that is sitting across a lot of genres, but there was never any pressure to make it more mainstream. On the contrary, they were like, ‘Lean into it. Make it more crazy.’”  

Not every film has gone as planned. FilmNation made money selling movies such as “Late Night” and “Life Itself” to Amazon, but both movies failed to resonate with audiences, flopping badly when they were released in theaters.

“When a movie, regardless of how great the sale is or how much money we made on it, doesn’t connect with audiences theatrically, it’s soul crushing,” says Basner. “You feel terrible for the filmmakers and the cast and for your distribution partner.” 

FilmNation is privately held, so it doesn’t disclose its financial performance, though executives say it has been profitable since 2010. Revenues and profits have grown each year, they say. The company also boasts a $120 million credit facility from Bank of America and Union Bank that gives it the capacity to make four to six movies a year. 

FilmNation executives take pains to stress that even as they move into podcasting, theater and television, they’ll continue to make feature films, such as the upcoming Cold War thriller “Ironbark” and an untitled documentary about pornographer Larry Flynt’s presidential campaign. But the reality is that independently financed movies are being brutalized. “Late Night” wasn’t the only festival favorite to collapse at the box office in recent months — “Blinded by the Light,” “Vox Lux” and “Wild Rose” are just a few of the movies to score big deals at Sundance or Toronto before going on to bomb. That could depress prices for movies at future festivals, since distributors are likely to be wary of overspending for something with murky commercial potential. 

To that end, FilmNation is making some concessions to the new ways that movies are being released and monetized. Going forward, the company plans to make two to three films annually that will forgo a theatrical release in favor of debuting on streaming platforms such as Netflix or the soon-to-launch HBO Max and Disney Plus. “There’s an amazing proliferation of new buyers,” says Ben Browning, president of film and television production at FilmNation. “We took a pitch out in July to six of these services, and we realized that three of them haven’t even launched yet. But they need content, and they need it now.” 

There are some things Basner does appear to be ruling out. He’s not interested in self-distributing the movies he makes, nor is he gearing up for any kind of public offering. And while he’s willing to produce short-form video for, say, a Quibi, he doesn’t have anything in the works yet.

“When you’re building a business, there’s always these shiny, exciting things, and you think why don’t I do this or why don’t I do that?” says Basner. “On the creative side, we like that. We don’t want there to be boundaries. But on the business side, if we want to last for another 10 years, we need to remain disciplined.” 

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