By forging key partnerships with filmmakers, financiers and distributors through the years, The Exchange, founded by veteran sales executive and CEO Brian O’Shea, has grown to become a leading worldwide sales and finance company. Together with VP of acquisitions & production Caddy Vanasirikul, and the rest of the team, The Exchange has backed a diverse slate of films that include three Bruce Willis movies, a Sesame Street documentary and a movie with a transgender woman in the lead, “Monica,” by Andrea Pallaoro. They have formed a new development/production company, Next, backed by Canadian investors, which Vanasirikul will be heading. The Exchange’s current line-up includes Liev Schreiber’s “Across the River and Into the Trees,” Oliva Munn-led “Replay,” “The Thicket” with Peter Dinklage and Noomi Rapace, and acclaimed documentary “Welcome to Chechnya.”
The Exchange has handled a pretty diversified slate. What are the advantages and, if any, caveats, to handling such a varied slate?
O’Shea: Having a varied slate of quality projects allows us to lean into the changes happening in distribution. To be clear, there are not fewer buyers/distributors, but more of them. However, old and new buyers/distributors alike are being more specific in what they need. For example: there are platforms paying meaningful prices for horror/thriller titles only. On the other hand, there are new doc channels and LGBTQ+ platforms dedicated to quality content and paying strong numbers for windows. So having a diverse slate of quality films is a good thing right now. What we do best is choosing quality projects to be involved with, regardless of size or type.
How has the collapsing of exhibition windows impacted your business, if at all?
O’Shea: It makes us focus on content even more. Today, films are having a hard time getting a theatrical window so there is less chance for breakout potential on a grass roots level. So we now focus on the marketability of the content that we produce, finance and sell. We look to the above-the-line talent, but also source material. At the company we’ve made substantial investment in the strong IP that has global recognition. Our plan is to continue to do so and grow our base of talent relations. To effectuate this plan, we have to double down on development and production capabilities, thus creating Next. The strategy of being not only the financier and sales agent but also the rights holder strengthens our relationships with these key buyers as well as our existing distribution partners.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
O’Shea: In some ways it made it very challenging. Not seeing co-workers in person, not being able to travel to markets, and shut down of movie theaters definitely made things difficult. However, having a number of pictures in post-production at the end of 2019 and being able to finance and sell films that were non-bonded allowed us to grow in the last 12 months. Again, our eclectic slate of quality independent features has served us well during these difficult times.
We’ve also been able to take this time to move into development and production. The pandemic has allowed us to focus on this new aspect of the company. The shift to creating content in addition to financing and distribution can be attributed in part to the challenges brought about by the pandemic.
What kind of projects will Next be seeking to develop? In what budget range?
Vanasirikul: Every film starts with a story and a screenplay. Too often we are dependent on packages that are brought to us and our creative impact is limited. The idea behind Next is to be able to tell the stories we want to tell and shape the creative elements behind each project. We want to create a tribe of writers and content creators who we can closely collaborate with from concept to execution. Our development philosophy is to have an honest and open line of communication with the creatives to avoid development hell and because The Exchange is in direct contact with the marketplace; we will focus on developing projects for which there is a path to production. We are looking to develop 10 new projects with a budget ranging from $5 million-$30 million. We want to focus on compelling universal stories as well as genre-driven projects.
I imagine that the advent of deep-pocketed streaming services has made it more difficult to acquire the most coveted films in the market. What strategies have you adopted to counteract their advantage?
Vanasirikul: We cannot and will not compete for the latest best-sellers. Instead, our goal is to focus mainly on the “next” generation of talent from all around the world, and for established writers, we can provide more creative freedom than in the studio system. As an independent company, we’ve always learned to look where no one else is looking and we do it with passion. Our dedication has enabled us to attract great talents in the past and this development fund puts us in an even more competitive position.
Growing up in Thailand and being raised in the Chinese culture, I’ve always focused on inclusivity and diversity in stories and people. The success of “The Farewell” and “Moonlight” has taught us that new generation of global audience will always find universality in good stories even if the subject matter is foreign to them.