AGC Studios Founder Stuart Ford Leads Indie Powerhouse Into New Era of Entertainment Business
To this day, Stuart Ford’s mother would prefer that her son had used his Oxford University degrees to build a career as a top lawyer or as a member of the U.K. parliament, representing the left-leaning Labour Party.
But if the career choice of the founder of indie powerhouse AGC Studios is a source of regret to his mom, her son’s approach to life and business has every chance of making her proud.
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Variety will be feting Ford with the Billion Dollar Producer honor at a May 19 cocktail reception
Ford has built AGC on policies of calculated risk-taking, diversity, diversification and integrity. He’s betting that these qualities position the company well for the globalized streaming era.
AGC’s divisions have completed 36 film and TV productions in five years. They have been for many of the major Hollywood conglomerates and streamers — Paramount Global, Peacock, Lionsgate, Netflix and Amazon, as well as overseas players Studiocanal and the BBC. At Cannes, AGC Intl. will launch sales of “They Found Us,” from writer/director Neill Blomkamp with Joel Kinnaman attached to star; AGC Studios fully financed the thriller while UTA Independent Film Group is co-repping U.S. rights.
AGC’s finance unit claims $1 billion available capital raised in conjunction with third-party partners. And the sales division has notched $500 million transactions. Ford has credits on films with upwards of $1 billion in box office.
Ford’s academic and workplace training has enabled him to speak at times like a diplomat intent on a mission to change the world — “entertainment and popular culture can play an incredibly important role in building bridges and alliances and for cultural assimilation” — and as a business leader who has learned how to get things done. “I’ve had the privilege of being able to hire highly capable, respected executives in key positions,” he says of his current AGC executive team.
Five-year-old AGC is an evolutionary upgrade from his previous sales and finance company, IM Global, and an iteration of Ford’s personal journey from young lawyer through film sales to being an intellectually curious, serial entrepreneur.
With a staff of 35, AGC is small enough to be agile, but big enough to now straddle three segments of the industry and make $150 million bets on shows like the upcoming “Those About to Die.” Similarly, while based in Hollywood, the company is active in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.
Those characteristics would appear to make AGC — short for Accelerated Global Content — readier than most for the globalized era now being ushered in by streaming, subtitles and a generation of digital natives.
Brought up in Liverpool, Ford had no showbiz plans when, after university, he found himself working for Olswang, a London law firm that had an entertainment practice. In 1997, he was recruited by client Harvey Weinstein to work for Weinstein’s Miramax in New York.
Ford quit the company in 2004 after it had been sold to Disney. A brief stint at sales outfit First Look Intl. came to an end when Ford took many of the staff to launch IM Global in 2007.
IM Global specialized in commercial, often offbeat star- or director-driven projects that could be pre-sold to the international independent sector. Company highlights included Tom Ford’s directorial debut “A Single Man,” Oren Peli’s genre-defining “Paranormal Activity,” Madonna’s “WE” and Martin Scorsese’s religious side trip “Silence.”
Significantly, IM Global straddled both sales and production funding, though not always both roles on every project. IM Global was less spendthrift than studio-level producers and took a hands-on role in marketing. All are business traits that AGC retains.
Under Ford’s internationalist approach, IM Global set up an outpost in China and a pact with Reliance Big Entertainment, an Indian conglomerate then trying to expand into Hollywood. In 2010, Ford sold a majority stake to Reliance, while retaining a piece for himself.
When Reliance later retreated, IM Global was sold to U.S.-based Chinese entrepreneur Donald Tang in June 2016. The move was accompanied by fresh funding for IM Global’s expansion in television and a TV deal with Chinese tech giant Tencent.
Barely a year later, in August 2017, Ford was forced out the company he founded after what was then described as a “major blow up” with Tang over the wisdom of buying a U.S. theatrical distributor. Ford’s exit came on the same day that Tang announced the acquisition of U.S distributor Open Road.
“I’m definitely a relentlessly positive human being,” Ford says of himself. And the setback did not last long.
Just months later, in February 2018, while Tang’s rechristened Global Road was overreaching with a mega-slate, Ford was launching AGC. He did it with close colleague Miguel Palos as COO and the backing of three strategic investors: Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Latin American private asset management firm MediaNet Partners and leading Silicon Valley entrepreneur Greg Clark.
(Tang’s venture was forced into bankruptcy in September 2018.)
Ford amassed fresh capital in the “low-eight-figure” range in a Series A investment round, allowing AGC to debut with three divisions: productions, capital and international sales.
Financial resources were supplemented in 2021 by a round of internal funding that permitted the launch of the unscripted division AGC Unwritten, a YA/family initiative and to expand content financing.
“The business model from the get-go was fundamentally based on wearing multiple developer, producer, financier and seller hats across all of the different film and TV formats and then remaining platform agnostic with all of that content,” says Ford.
Management seeks to operate film, scripted TV and unscripted/factual as three separate production hubs that are responsible for their own profit and loss accounts. But they lean on and and TV formats and then remaining platform agnostic with all of that content,” says Ford.
Management seeks to operate film, scripted TV and unscripted/factual as three separate production hubs that are responsible for their own profit and loss accounts. a common backbone of internal support across business affairs, finance, accounting, sales, marketing and publicity.
The scripted TV business is expected to overtake feature film by 2024.
To address global talent and content, AGC sought diverse staff and projects from the beginning.
These include Netflix’s upcoming romantic comedy “The Perfect Find,” starring Gabrielle Union; Spanish-language “News of a Kidnapping,” which was made for Amazon, has already won awards and aims for International Emmy recognition; and 2021 release “The Ambush,” co-produced with ImageNation Abu Dhabi and directed by Pierre Morel.
“We helped develop and produce ‘The Ambush,’ which was far the biggest-budget Arabic-language film ever made, and probably the most ambitious Arabic-language film ever made as a cross-pollination between international talent and local talent. It was a huge success for ImageNation. I therefore consider that to be a huge success for AGC as well,” says Ford.
The multi-pronged mix of business activities, genres and languages means that AGC has been able to “opportunistically shift back and forth” between producing for end-users and speculatively self-financing; between domestic and international-facing projects; and between film and TV as first the streamers and then the pandemic have re-written the industry rule books.
The 2021 film “Locked Down” is among AGC’s most emblematic productions. It was brought to the company as an unfinished draft script early in the pandemic, when production was generally at a standstill. Using historical relationships with writer-producer Steven Knight (“Serenity”) and star Anne Hathaway and leveraging the coincidence of director Doug Liman and Ford sharing the same lawyer, the film was quickly financed and shot in London. It was sold via (then) Warner Bros. senior executive Toby Emmerich some seven weeks into post-production and played on HBO Max within six months of being pitched. “Fast decision-making, appetite for risk and maximizing deep talent relationships is how I aspire to operate,” says Ford.
Those traits were also displayed in 2022, when AGC financed Chris Pine’s directorial debut, ”Poolman.” “Stuart Ford and AGC have been amazing partners,” says Pine. “A passionate and supportive collaborator, Stuart stepped in at a time when our previous financing fell apart and the film was in jeopardy. He took a risk on a first-time writer/director and has championed of my vision from day one. I’m proud of the partnership and the film we made together.”
AGC backed Anna Kendrick’s step into the director’s chair on “The Dating Game,” after helmer Chloe Okuno dropped out.
“This project came together slowly at first, and then impossibly fast. I was attached as an actress for a long time. And suddenly we had a start date, but no director. When I had the terrifying thought, ‘What if I pitched myself to direct?,’ I didn’t know what the reaction would be. I might have even tried to talk them out of it mid-pitch. But AGC and Stuart Ford offered me so much support,” Kendrick tells Variety. “Maybe this is corny, but he understands that commitment and passion are the qualities that matter most. They surrounded me with an incredible team and gave me the ability to focus on honoring this story that I care about so deeply.”
While Ford raves enthusiastically about his colleagues, there can be little doubt that AGC is Ford’s creation and that he is the captain of the ship. He would not disagree.
“I’m definitely of the old school, roll-up-your-sleeves mentality when I’m in town. I believe in leading from the front, in being present, being there. Most people would say I’m a person of choice, strong opinions, forcefully articulated,” he says of himself.
“I’m nothing if not an all-rounder. I touch everything. I’m actively involved in all of our business decisions and dealmaking activity. I’m actively involved in all of our development and production activity. I’m very hands-on when it comes to creating marketing and publicity materials either for the company or for projects. And, I worked extremely hard on evolving our relationships with the financial community, banks, private equity and so forth,” says Ford. “I really had to educate myself over television in the last five or six years. My background was more film. But it’s very important to me to continue to build those relationships, particularly in such a fast-evolving environment where actually all the bets are off and there’s a lot of people who are new to the game.”
Within the company, Ford has had to evolve. “I have some very seasoned and also strong personalities within the company. [Delegating] is something I’ve learned over the years. I am much better at delegating than I was in the IM Global days,” he admits.
Bonnie Voland, AGC’s head of worldwide marketing and publicity who started with Ford at IM Global and is now retired, will be in Cannes to applaud him.
“Working with Stuart over 16 years was exhilarating, challenging and fun. There are very few people who are knowledgeable across all aspects of our business. Stuart knows how to bring out the best in the people who work with him because he has an understanding of what they do,” says Voland. “You can’t fool Stuart — if you’re not doing your best there’s no place to hide. But the flip side is that he knows when you’re giving it your all and he lets you know how much he appreciates that.”
Voland credits their common northern English roots for aspects of Ford’s approach. “We’re people who are loyal to friends and family. We work hard, play harder and there’s no challenge we back down from,” she says.
Looking ahead, Ford anticipates macro-economic trends (such as the further strengthening of the Chinese economy and the cultural impact of a youthful Middle East population) and predicts more tectonic shifts within the entertainment industry, including major conglomerate consolidation.
But his analyses of how the film industry’s tumult could and should play out are resolutely from an indie P.O.V. — such as achieving a more transparent financial reporting system, a return to content exploitation across multiple windows, including theatrical, and improved terms for talent.
“In film, we need talent and production costs to filter back down to pre-COVID and pre-streamer boom levels of normality. We need the U.S. theatrical business for independent film to enjoy a gradual comeback and we need the pre-sales business in Asia to bounce back,” says Ford. “In scripted television, we need the streamers to further embrace the risk mitigation and flexibility that split-rights deals can offer and to wean themselves off expensive overall talent deals as their primary source of greenlight material.”
While open to the possibility of AGC “uploading” itself into a larger player some time over the next five years — “my feeling is that would be a major overseas media group [as] we add unique value to major media companies that want to be active in the Hollywood business, need relationships and to partnership with a company that has a global sensibility at its core” — Ford is confident that he will still be at the helm.
“I’m still pretty young. It is in my DNA to be doing what I’m doing. I love the culture that we operate under. And I love the global relationships that are at the heart of the AGC business model,” says Ford. “I’m sort of excited to see where we come out.”
“Amidst all of the financial uncertainty and turbulence and changing business models, I think there’s still a lot of solidity that comes from people or companies who are reliable, professional, transparent. Integrity can help sustain you when the waters are choppy.”
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