London-based Pulse Films has built its business on a steady diet of slick rock docs by the likes of LCD Soundsystem and the Beastie Boys, music videos including Beyoncé’s transcendent “Lemonade” and Andrea Arnold’s feature film “American Honey.” As it readies for a transformative year, the Vice Media Group-backed outfit is rolling out its first major scripted series, Sky and Cinemax’s dizzyingly violent and stylish “Gangs of London.”
Pulse CEO Thomas Benski is as much a rock star as the veteran musicians he’s immortalized through his 16-year-old production company. The Brazil-born French executive, who works closely with creative partner and Pulse chief creative officer Lucas Ochoa, is synonymous with the edgy brand, whose early music docs have evolved into evocative non-scripted fare, including films on U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning (“XY Chelsea”), nefarious hot yoga founder Bikram Choudhury (“Bikram”) and missing toddler Madeleine McCann.
“In our business, a lot of people say, ‘We want to be different,’ but as soon as you try to challenge what being different is, the money shrinks because people get scared,” Benski tells Variety. “We’ve been able to see those opportunities early, and we’re not afraid of being left field. Also, the market has now moved closer to us than 15 years ago, when things were a lot safer. The challenges we face as an industry have made people think, ‘Actually, being able to cut through is probably the right commercial avenue.’”
Finding the parameters of Pulse’s signature edge — a heady combination of emerging auteurs and counterculture fare — is a process Benski doesn’t take lightly. “There’s a very fine line between progressive, culturally relevant work and indulgence,” says the executive.
“Gangs of London” walks the razor’s edge. The drama, which was inspired by the eponymous video game, opens with “Peaky Blinders” star Joe Cole (playing protagonist Sean Wallace) suspending a screaming man over the side of a high-rise. He proceeds to drench the man in gasoline and set him on fire in an unforgettable scene.
Made alongside “Chernobyl” producer Jane Featherstone, a titan of British drama Benski brought in three years ago to guide the project, the long-gestating 10-part series centers on a prominent crime family bereft of its patriarch and struggling to control the warring gangs in its orbit.
A co-production with Comcast-backed pay-TV operator Sky and HBO sister channel Cinemax, “Gangs of London” debuts April 23 on Sky Atlantic and a few months later on the WarnerMedia-owned cable network.
“This is escapism,” Benski says plainly. “‘Gangs’ exists in a slightly heightened reality — a signature of the filmmakers we work with. Hopefully we’ll provide a very intense distraction for a big audience.”
Sky drama executive Gabriel Silver boarded the project with Pulse almost three years ago and describes a sense of “bedding in with a fully stylized brand.”
“Pulse hasn’t learned the bad lessons of TV-making,” he notes. “They came with an incredibly fresh, energized perspective on how to make something very big and splashy — something that’s loud.”
Pulse’s backing from Vice — enfant terrible of the media world made good via A+E Networks supremo Nancy Dubuc, who took the reins in 2018 — further bolsters the brand, says Silver, who notes Vice’s eager exploration of the “niches of British life.”
Benski, however, is quick to highlight that Pulse exists as a standalone studio within Vice, which took a majority stake in the production outfit in 2016. “I hope that by now, [people see that] Pulse has a distinctive brand and operates a set of relationships that are very bespoke,” he says. Vice “is very aware of the power of Pulse as an independent brand.”
Benski promises the next 12 months “are going to be even more crazy for us,” underlining that the business is in a “completely different place.” Yet, thanks to steady commercial work and summer months light on production, the company will be relatively unfazed by the coronavirus’s destructive toll on the industry.
The producer won’t get off scot-free, however. The pandemic’s impact on distribution will see the Pulse-produced film “Mogul Mowgli,” starring Riz Ahmed, deviate from the traditional distribution route, with options now including a streaming or straight-to-VOD play for the film. “We’re looking at the restrictions and realities to try and create a very unique release campaign,” Benski says. “The idea is not to be restrictive about platform. We think that this film has cultural relevance and its audience may want to engage in many different ways.”
Pulse is also looking ahead to its next high-end series, “Atomic,” an adaptation of Vanity Fair journalist William Langewiesche’s book “The Atomic Bazaar,” on the world of nuclear trafficking. And it’s moving forward with casting on Olivia Wilde’s gymnastics drama “Perfect,” which sold to Searchlight Pictures out of the Berlin Film Festival.
“It’s quite overwhelming, the amount of momentum [behind us],” says Benski. “Our focus, though, is on the quality of our projects, and the process.”