Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch come from around the world and have tackled an array of topics in their movies, a number of which are screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Others have made waves at festivals including Sundance and Berlin; a number of them have worked with female filmmakers and tackled serious social issues. Variety’s Producers to Watch, originally launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998, returned to the Croisette in 2017 and will again be presented there this year.
Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral
“Les Miserables,” “Litigante”
Ayadi and Barral bonded over shorts at Les Films du Worso, where they oversaw those productions for Sylvie Pialat’s shingle. But they saw the potential for longer running features as well and in 2016 set up their own shingle, SRAB Films, to produce them. Before long, they had produced Ladj Ly’s feature-length “Les Miserables,” in competition at Cannes.
Inspired by the 2005 riots in France, the feature began as a short at Worso. When it gained traction in 2017, the producing duo sensed an even greater opportunity for the story. “Things moved very quickly because we could really anticipate the short’s success,” says Barral, who grew up watching the films of Godard and Chabrol. “We figured, it’s now or never, and used [the short’s strong reception] to quickly finance the feature.”
They were working on the adaptation before the short got nominated for a César. “We took the film to the Césars in February 2018, and by February 2019 we had already finished the feature,” Ayadi says.
Beyond their Palme d’Or contender, Ayadi and Barral will also open Critics’ Week with “Litigante” from director Franco Lolli – another filmmaker for whom they produced shorts.
As they put the finishing touches on their upcoming Netflix original “Banlieusard,” the producers will continue returning to their existing stable when developing new features, and maintain their highly collaborative approach.
“We work with our directors together,” says Ayadi, who was weaned on American thrillers and 1980s action movies before starting in the biz as a PA. “We discuss a lot between ourselves right at the beginning, because it’s important that our projects express a unified vision. But whatever discussions we have remain between us — because when we speak with our directors, we speak with one single voice.”
— Ben Croll
“The Traitor,” “Tommaso”
Gattoni will bring two feature films to Cannes this year: Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor,” in competition, and a special screening of Abel Ferrara’s “Tommaso.”
Though very different films — one a big-budget biopic of Cosa Nostra’s first high-ranking member turned informant; the other an experimental drama starring Willem Dafoe as Ferrara’s alter-ego — both are by quintessential auteurs. The type of directors Gattoni is drawn to.
Gattoni describes auteurs as directors for whom a film “is a mirror of themselves” and strives “to allow them to be as carefree as possible.” But he is also always “crystal clear,” about what can and can’t be done, which has occasionally led to differences with “Marco and Abel.” “Though not fights,” he adds. “It’s always in the interest of the film.”
Gattoni’s cinematic calling stems from fortuitously studying film history in high school in his native Piacenza. He then got a production degree at university in London. Back in Italy, Gattoni got into a yearly workshop that Bellocchio holds, and, at age 24, started producing shorts by his maestro, one of which was the basis for Bellocchio’s bold “Blood of My Blood,” involving vampires and nuns.
They’ve since become partners in Rome’s Kavac Film and, besides making two subsequent Bellocchio features (“Sweet Dreams” and “The Traitor”), are mounting projects by other auteurs, including veteran Gianni Amelio and newcomers Adriano Valerio and Nicola Sorcinelli.
In tandem with the Match Factory chief Michael Weber and critic Laura Buffoni, Gattoni more recently set up a separate shingle called Simila(r) to support “more extreme experimental cinema” such as Ferrara’s “Tommaso.” With Simila(r) they are “negotiating” to produce a film based on a timely unpublished Michelangelo Antonioni screenplay “about the relationship between man and nature.”
— Nick Vivarelli
Xavier Gens and Gregoire Gensollen
The Ink Connection
Gens and Gensollen formed the Ink Connection to make challenging and unique projects that evoke the spirit of ’70s cinema. Their inaugural effort, “Where Is Rocky II?” (2016), was a documentary about the search for a fake rock hidden in the California desert by artist Ed Ruscha in 1979, and they followed with the Gens-directed horror film “Cold Skin” (2017). Now they’re going to Cannes with “Papicha,” directed by Gens’ wife, Mounia Meddour Gens. It tells the tale of a female student staging a show of forbidden fashions in Algeria in 1997 as Islamic terrorists hunt down unveiled women.
“Our main intention is to tell a strong original story and take some risks,” says Gens.
The producers are both natives of France, but their professional backgrounds are quite different. Gens is a director with credits that encompass horror sci-fi (2017’s “The Crucifiction”), action (2007’s “Hitman”) and comedy (2018’s “Budapest”), while Gensollen is a veteran film exec with a background international finance and distribution who joined Tucker Tooley Entertainment as COO in 2016, following stints at FilmNation Entertainment and Lionsgate.
They have a full slate of projects in development at Ink Connection, ranging from the animated feature “The Panda Project” to “Vanikoro,” a TV show about 18th century explorers, but they aren’t quitting their day jobs. Gensollen remains at Tooley and Gens is directing several episodes of the upcoming Cinemax series “Gangs of London.”
Says Gensollen: “I think it is the unique flavor of our company that we both have [other] main careers.”
— Todd Longwell
“Honey Boy,” “The Farewell”
The day after “Honey Boy” wrapped, Gou hopped on a plane to China for “The Farewell.” And both films premiered at Sundance on the same day, in the same theater, back to back. “It’s an interesting double feature for my life,” Gou says.
“Honey Boy,” written by Shia LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el, explores the actor’s relationship with his father, while “The Farewell,” penned and directed by Lulu Wang, centers on a Chinese family’s grief and stars Awkwafina. Both Sundance films found buyers, with Amazon acquiring “Honey Boy” and A24 snapping up “The Farewell” for a July release.
Gou didn’t seek these projects because they were female- or identity-driven, drawn instead by the filmmakers’ approaches to personal stories.
“I look for that little nugget of something that hasn’t been done before and can start conversations, and it’s agnostic to genres or anything like that,” says Gou, who runs a production company called Kindred Spirit.
Gou, who was educated at NYU and previously worked in the Taiwanese film industry, is now based in Los Angeles, and calls the American market the “tried-and-true system” in achieving international reach.
“What we’re trying to attempt with ‘The Farewell’ is to make what normally is considered a quote unquote ‘foreign-language film’ to work domestically, and also globally,” she says.
“The floodgates have been opened in the past year for filmmakers, for stories, and for on-screen talent, that don’t fit the old mainstream molds. It’s a trend that I really want to keep fostering, and make sure it doesn’t go away, because it makes the entire ecosystem of cinema or just content in general healthier.”
— Rachel Yang
“Matthias & Maxime,” “A Brother’s Love”
Cannes has loomed large in Grant’s burgeoning film producing career: She first contacted director Xavier Dolan after seeing “Laurence Anyways” at the festival in 2012, and has already brought his competition titles “Mommy” and “It’s Only the End of the World” to the Croisette. This year, she’s back with another Dolan competition title, “Matthias & Maxime,” along with Monia Chokri’s “A Brother’s Love” at Un Certain Regard.
Grant describes her working relationship as Dolan, a fellow French Canadian, as “constantly mutating” and as creative as it is financial. “We admire each other and we challenge each other constantly,” she says.
She sent him a private Facebook message after “Laurence Anyways,” but her message was met with radio silence.
So, like any good producer, she persisted and sent another note. This one informed Dolan that she wanted to invest $100,000 of her own money into his next film, “Tom at the Farm.” That message got a response.
Grant went on to serve as an executive producer on the film, and produced Dolan’s “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” which screened at Toronto last year, in addition to the three Cannes competition titles.
Her style varies depending on the director’s needs: While she works closely with Dolan in the editing room on the final cuts of his films, Grant worked with Chokri, an actress-turned- director, more closely during the writing process. “Each project dictates how I get involved creatively,” Grant says.
“Mommy” won the Cannes Jury prize, but in true indie producer style Grant considers financing it in less than three months a greater accomplishment. Her recipe for all of her recent success? “Instinct, guts, good partners and a great therapist.”
— Addie Morfoot
Judith Lou Levy and Eve Robin
Les Films de Bal
“Atlantique,” “Zombi Child”
Lévy and her production company Les Films de Bal are off to a strong start in 2019: Its co-production “So Pretty” screened at the Berlinale’s Forum section, contending for a Teddy and best first feature, and now it has two films going to Cannes: Franco-Senegalese director Mati Diop’s debut feature, “Atlantique,” which will be competing for the Palme d’Or, and Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama” (2016) follow-up, “Zombi Child,” in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.
“I set up my company because I wanted to work with filmmakers who have a truly distinctive voice, like Mati Diop,” Lévy says “She offers an innovative point of view, that isn’t ethnocentric and that transcends the traditional portrayal of Africa in cinema. She makes you question your perception of the world and of reality.”
“It’s the same with Bertrand’s film, which is set between France and Haiti,” says producing partner Robin, who joined Les Films du Bal in 2015. “Both our films in Cannes are highly topical; they tell stories that are very important but that you don’t hear about, that people don’t want to talk about.”
Adds Lévy: “That is what gives sense to our work as young producers: there are already so many amazing films being made: what do we have to offer? We want to propose a new, unique perspective.”
The timing of the Cannes screenings is perfect, she adds, with four projects in the works, including the next feature by 2019 Golden Bear winner Nadav Lapid. Les Films du Bal is also teaming up again with regular filmmaking partner, director Benjamin Crotty (“Fort Buchanan”, 2014), for his comedy “Pipolojumbo,” adapted from Joshua Cohen’s short story “Emission.”
— Lise Pedersen
Girish Narayan Pawar and Omkar Shetty
Pawar and Shetty owe their producing collaboration to the Indian politician that introduced them four years ago. Pawar, who works in real estate and construction, was interested in film producing; Shetty, who had several TV credits on the directing side, needed a producer. “He said, ‘I’m interested in producing, but I don’t know how to do it,’” Shetty recalls.
It took several tries before they found the right project: “Aaron,” about a rural teen, who travels to Paris with his uncle to find his mother. “He said, ‘we should do this, this sounds like something to me,’” Shetty says.
Pawar financed the movie, but was on set only a couple of other times, leaving the bulk of producing chores to Shetty, who also directed the story, with Laokoon Film Group of Hungary serving as line producer for the European shoot.
“Thanks for giving such an honor to us,” Pawar says, preferring to let Shetty speak for the movie otherwise.
This hands-off approach had its benefits for the filmmaker.
“I had to work a little extra, but had zero interference,” Shetty says of the production.
“Aaron,” released in December to decent box office, was one of three pics selected by the state of Maharashtra for Cannes Market. Shetty had submitted it last year, but had not heard from the authorities, and figured that, with 150 films vying for three spots, “Aaron” was not selected. Then he got a call from the ministry.
“I am super excited,” Shetty says. “It’s like when I submitted the film there was a possibility and now it is happening.” Citing the plot of his film, he adds: “A local from a Konkan village goes to Paris, same thing.”
— Shalini Dore
Schiller’s second teaming with director Joanna Hogg has proven especially felicitous: “The Souvenir,” a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner boasting Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, has spawned a sequel, going into production next month.
Due for U.S. release May 17 through A24, the first “Souvenir” is a semi-autobiographical tale about a quiet film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) who finds her voice while navigating a relationship with an untrustworthy man (Tom Burke).
Tilda Swinton, Honor’s mother, popped in for a few scenes and will appear in the sequel, along with Robert Pattinson, with Scorsese back on board as executive producer.
“Marty loved ‘Archipelago,’ which Joanna directed, and called her up. She didn’t believe it was him,” Schiller recalls. “He was a strong supporter of the project, and to have his name on a film I’ve produced is a dream come true.”
Schiller served as line producer on that 2010 film, which helped launch the career of Tom Hiddleston. The experience came in handy on “The Souvenir”: Hogg is renowned for working without scripts. “She likes to retain flexibility and keep us on our toes,” says Schiller. “There’s no dialogue; everything is improvised. She would just say to Honor, ‘walk in and there’s going to be a surprise’.”
He’s now busy prepping the sequel. “We’re due to start shooting on June 3 in Norfolk, England, at an abandoned aircraft hangar the size of Pinewood’s Bond studio,” says Schiller, who runs his own Atlas Films shingle. “We’ve converted it into the flat and film studios for the movie, while also using it as a studio ourselves. It’s a multi-purpose set, very Joanna-esque.”
Also in the works: a political thriller TV series about greed called “A Barren Land,” with director Marc Jobst, and a documentary with “Almost Heaven” helmer Carol Salter about the current Brexit strife.
— Chris Evans
Jakob Weydemann and Jonas Weydemann
In February, producing siblings Jakob and Jonas Weydemann got a big boost when Nora Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” won a Silver Bear at Berlin. That film, which revolves around a 9-year-old girl with severe behavioral problems, was also in contention for best first feature and neatly fits the Weydemann Bros.’ mandate: to make films that are socially relevant.
With offices in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg, the dynamic young company, which also includes producers Milena Klemke and Yvonne Wellie, works regularly with up-and-coming filmmakers. Three more Weydemann Bros.’ films are hitting screens this year: Carlos Morelli’s mesmerizing family drama “Many Happy Returns”; Sabrina Sarabi’s coming-of-age story “Prélude,” featuring Louis Hofmann (“Dark”) and Liv Lisa Fries (“Babylon Berlin”), two of Germany’s most popular young stars; and Sarah Winkenstette’s “Too Far Away,” about the friendship between a German boy, whose town was razed to make way for brown coal mining, and a young Syrian refugee, who likewise lost his home.
The Weydemanns are also active on the international front, producing Damian John Harper’s U.S. drama “In the Middle of the River” and Ana Felicia Scutelnicu’s “Anishoara,” about a girl growing up in a Moldovan village.
“It’s very important for us to look beyond Germany and venture out to tell stories from other countries and societies,” says Jonas Weydemann. “All of these stories are relevant to our own society, they reflect developments in our country, reveal parallels.
“It’s incredibly exciting to rediscover, with every local story, how similar we humans are in our behavior, our feelings, our dreams and longings, all over the world, and how much our diversity can enrich each other. That’s a deep humanistic conviction that we want to pursue in our filmmaking.”
— Ed Meza
Zangro, whose full name is Sylvain de Zangroniz, grew up in a Franco-Spanish household between Spain and Morocco before moving to France at age 16, when he experienced a culture shock that inspired his future filmmaking.
“It was like discovering a new country,” Zangro says. “It’s probably what allows me to rise above the fray. France is an amazing place because there’s so much going on, there’s a film to be made on every street corner: films are conflict, and conflict is everywhere…”
After graduating from university with a sociology degree, he learned to shoot with a friend and started making films in prisons and social centers in his Bordeaux suburb. In the wake of the violent urban riots of 2005, Zangro decided to use comedy to show what life was like in the suburbs with his collective “En attendant demain.” Spotted by Canal Plus, he was commissioned to produce what became a hit TV series and film.
It wasn’t long before he set up his own company, Bien ou Bien Productions, producing award-winning shorts at films festivals around the world, notably “Maman(s)” (2015), by his protégé Maïmouna Doucouré, which won 68 prizes including best short at Toronto and Sundance.
“I saw how Maïmouna worked with children,” he says, describing himself as a craftsman of stories with a universal reach. “I believed in her — it’s part of our company’s DNA to give a chance to this kind of talent, filmmakers with a distinctive view of the world.
“She is our stallion, our race horse, we are planning a big international career for her,” he adds proudly. Production has just wrapped up on Doucouré’s feature-length debut drama, “Cuties” (aka “Mignonnes”), due out late 2019, and plans are under way for her second feature, an English-language project.
— Lise Pedersen