EXCLUSIVE: As the FilmNation Entertainment team gathered in Santa Monica this week for the American Film Market, some reflection is in order. It has been 15 years since Glen Basner started the venture. Despite the hardships facing everyone at AFM with strikes and uncertainty, what a different a decade and a half makes. The launch happened in 2008, not the most fortuitous time to launch an indie film finance and production company with global ambitions.
“Back then, Summit and Mandate were the two top companies in the space,” Basner recalled when assessing the opportunity to launch a company back then. “Mandate was sold to Lionsgate and became a U.S. distributor, and Summit started their own U.S. distribution company. There was a hole in the marketplace we thought we could fill, and become that leading American international sales agent for feature films that had no connection to the U.S. distribution world. The idea made sense, but looking back, we started in September of 2008, and FilmNation was literally born into the biggest global financial crisis in a hundred years. Since then, we’ve survived the biggest healthcare crisis in 100 years and now through two different guild strikes.”
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The strikes and the general shifts in film have made some wary, but Basner said he and his long-tenured FilmNation team are growing in leaps and bounds.
“I’m always a combination of being extraordinarily optimistic and extraordinarily fearful at the same time,” Basner told Deadline. “I think it’s that balance, that anxiety, that always drives us to look at things differently. I have never lost my faith in the fact that people all around the world love feature films. Now there are so many different ways for people to be watching them both in the theater — which is coming back quite strongly and will continue to grow as the supply improves and increases. People then get to watch movies on all these wonderful streaming services and platforms that make accessibility so exciting. Our job is not to question whether people want to see movies or television series going forward. Our job is to find and collaborate with great artists, find something that feels inspired and then nurture that inspired creative choice into something that becomes undeniable and compelling for everybody. That’s a tall order, but the excitement of setting out to do something aspirational, lasting and memorable, that’s what makes this job so fantastic.”
The results have been undeniable. FilmNation films have grossed more than $3.4 billion worldwide, and won an Emmy out of the gate for its first TV series I Know This Much Is True, and another for The Band’s Visit, which also won a Grammy. There have been 50 Oscar noms including five for Best Picture and nine wins, along with 17 Tony Award noms and 12 wins, 10 for The Band’s Visit.
FilmNation came out of the gate with funding from real estate developer Steven Samuels, who remains principal financier along with Dominic Visconsi Jr and Anthoni Visconsi II, and Roadshow Distribution in Australia. The company’s ambitions have grown despite wariness by many other companies as the business sorts itself.
Known for highbrow fare, FilmNation launched Infrared, a production company headed by Drew Simon, to capture more of a mainstream demo. The company has expanded into podcasting (the Ed Helms-hosted Snafu has been picked up for two more seasons). There are active television businesses in the U.S. and UK, and live theater.
On the film front, FilmNation scored a strong deal from Neon out of Toronto for Babes, the Pamela Adlon-directed comedy that stars Ilana Glazer, Michelle Buteau, Hasan Minhaj and John Carroll Lynch.
The company is shepherding several titles at AFM. One is the buzz title Novocaine, the first homegrown film for Infrared, with Dan Berk & Robert Olsen (Villains) directing Jack Quaid (The Boys, Oppenheimer) playing a man with a rare disorder that prevents him from feeling pain. When his bank is ripped off and his love taken hostage, that disability becomes a superpower as he tries to save her. The Lars Jacobson-scripted thriller has a SAG-AFTRA interim agreement, and franchise potential.
“There is a bit of Die Hard in there, and some great set pieces,” Basner said.
This goes along with Cooler, an action thriller vehicle for Dave Bautista scripted and to be directed by Drew Pearce. FilmNation and Infrared won the package at a pre-Cannes auction, and the company is selling international rights.
FilmNation is also brokering international deals on The Process, the Tara Miele-directed psychological thriller that will star Halle Berry.
Before the strikes and the pandemic, there was a time in New York where Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin were the biggest generators of projects in town. They’ve vacated that space. If you look at the most prolific companies in New York now, FilmNation is right there. Basner’s reputation for civility and living up to his word has stamped the entire company.
The TV business began with an adaptation of the Wally Lamb novel I Know This Much Is True, which won an Emmy for Mark Ruffalo. The second series, in production now in Ireland, is Small Town Big Story, created by actor Chris O’Dowd. A third series will shoot in the spring.
“Here we are, 15 years later with a company that far exceeded the initial dreams we had on day one,” Basner said.
The growth has been deliberately incremental, and built on strong storytelling. FilmNation sales titles have included The King’s Speech, Magic Mike, Looper, and its productions include the Denis Villenueve-directed Arrival, The Big Sick and Promising Young Woman. The company’s first production was the Jeff Nichols-directed Mud, and FilmNation has an experienced team in place to handle the escalation of projects.
“I look at our business from where we started, and one of the most satisfying things is this incredible collaboration I get to have with the nearly 60 people who now work at the company,” Basner said. “It blows my mind that we started with four people in a one-room office with no windows. But the heart and soul of this organization is these motivated, dedicated and passionate people, each of whom brings something unique to make us what we are.
“The average tenure for the leadership team is eight or nine years,” he continued. “That has provided stability; no matter what is going on around us, we adapt and change, while challenging each other. It has been a huge source of strength for the company, as has having the same investors when we started the company. Steve Samuels, Dominic Visconsi Jr and Anthoni Visconsi II, they’ve been great partners. The other has been Roadshow Distribution in Australia, which we’ve had for almost eight years. At a moment like this, you think of the movies, the creative choices, but you don’t do it alone.”
Here are some observations from FilmNation executives, and some of the filmmakers who’ve had success at the company
Lena Dunham, producer: FilmNation has been my partner — trusted, devoted and wise — in multiple projects that were not easy sells or commercial bait. They’re one of the last companies for whom cinema is their higher power, and their notes are not just welcome but integral, as they find the clearest way to sculpt the films so that they can find their audience. I feel very lucky to be partnered with them in new initiatives that will expand their commitment to film as art.” (Dunham is a producer on Iron Box; FilmNation Entertainment acquired worldwide rights and is handling sales excluding France, Germany, Austria and Poland.)
Steve Samuels, FilmNation financier: “Even in those first, early days, I could tell that FilmNation was building something special. In the years since, I’ve been thrilled to see our many films drive the cultural conversation and reach audiences all over the world. But more than any one film, what’s most fulfilling is seeing how the team and culture has been built. Along with my original partners Dominic and Tony Visconsi, I am proud to be part of the first 15 years of the journey and look forward to the next chapter.”
COO Milan Popelka: “We’ve never been growing towards a business plan or growing for growth’s sake. We’ve grown into all these exciting storytelling arenas just from organic love of those stories, and wanting to support those filmmakers. I wouldn’t say there’s a roadmap of what we need to do and how we need to do them, but rather we are flexible and adaptive and pursue the opportunities as we see them. TV is going to be a huge part of our business both in the U.S. and internationally, but if you think about the past of the company when we branched out into these other business, it was always because we were excited about the stories we were telling. Our first step in television happened because we came across Wally Lamb’s book I Know This Much Is True, and it was a sensation and just suited for a longer form of storytelling. We love theater, but got into it because The Band’s Visit came across our desk. I feel like that’s become part of our DNA, go where the exciting stories are, figure out how we can support the people who tell them, and shape them, rather than a predetermined path.” (Popelka was EP on Arrival, Promising Young Woman and Tom Hanks’ WWII epic Greyhound.)
Alison Cohen, General Counsel, EVP of Business and Legal Affairs and a managing partner. She was a partner at the top law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Sells. Basner gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse: the chance to be closer to the creative flame.
“When he started FilmNation, he called and I said I can’t afford to work for you, Glen. I refinanced my house and went to go to work for not a lot and have been there ever since. I absolutely love it and I feel like I’ve grown with the company through the 14 years as the company grew.” (She is an EP on Flora and Son, Graham Moore’s The Outfit, Red Rocket, Arrival and the upcoming Fingernails.)
Conclave director Edward Berger: “It’s hard to find the right home for any film. In the case of Conclave it was easy. FilmNation does not only have the best global sales and market expertise, but also incorruptible creative instincts. To find that in one home is incredibly rare. And when you do, you have to grab hold of it and never let go.”
Red Rocket helmer Sean Baker: “Working with FilmNation has been a true pleasure. It is heartening to know that there are still entertainment companies out there that prioritize quality filmmaking and believe in affirming, supporting and protecting a filmmaker’s vision. Not to mention, they are also wonderful people.”
Ben Browning, President of Production: “I think a watershed moment for us was when Arrival came out in 2016. I had been at the company a couple of years and here was the film that we had been waiting for — one that was a fortunate confluence of exceptional talent working at the top of their game, partnership with best-in-class producers and studios, and a project that allowed for all branches of the company to play their part in the creation and release of a film. What had been a couple of years in the making manifested in the shape of a film we would sell, finance and produce – it was a thinking person’s genre film made at scale and with style that could reach a global audience. Yes it felt like a lot of risk at the time, but its reception with audiences and critics established FilmNation as a significant force in the independent production space, positioned us as a key supplier of specialty film to the best global distributors, and is in many ways the platform on which we built all our subsequent productions. It was a galvanizing moment for all of us at the company at the time, fantastic to be a part of.”
Drew Simon, Infrared Pictures President of Production: “When we founded Infrared, our vision was clear: craft mainstream movies that stand out amidst today’s content deluge. We aimed for “clutter-busters” — films driven by fresh concepts, characters, and talent tailored for a global audience. Early on, we received a package with a very notable star, but the concept felt a little too formulaic. It was undeniably a good piece of business, especially in our early days, but when discussing if it’s something we should do, Glen’s response was very direct: “I don’t care if it’s good business, does it meet our standards? Can it be a clutter-buster? And most importantly, do we love it?” The answer to all those questions was no, so we passed. Looking back almost a year later, I think that set the tone for our slate of 10-plus films in development at Infrared and our ambition to lead with creative concepts that truly feel distinct and best in class.”
Kirstie Macdonald, Creative Director, FilmNation TV UK: “UK television is known around the world for its hugely successful crime shows, but from the moment I met Milan, he encouraged us to approach the stories we tell quite differently. If we develop a crime show, what would the FilmNation version be? How would it speak to an audience beyond the UK, as the films we’re known for do beyond their own territories? That’s why the one procedural show we have in development is a collaboration with our Village Roadshow partners in Australia which tells a police story from a very different perspective — and also speaks to what’s going on in the world today. I think our understanding of the marketplace and what cuts through really stands out — taking genres that audiences are familiar with and giving them a bold new twist.”
Alyssa Martino, Vice President, Podcasting: “In March 2020, we were producing the true crime podcast Murder on the Towpath when the world shut down. As our feature productions came to a halt, Milan and I had to make an important, collective decision about whether to stick to our late May podcast launch date. With a healthy dose of optimism and many late nights, we abandoned the studio and kept recording remotely: from our host Soledad O’Brien’s closet! The whole team did whatever it took to stay on track. By then, Glen and I also developed a little tradition: I would share our newest episode on Friday nights before it aired, and he would listen while drinking his coffee first thing Saturday. As we were all forced to slow down unexpectedly, it was refreshing to continue doing what we love by telling great stories.”
Heta Paarte, President of Marketing and Distribution: “This is a business that’s built on relationships and a big part of FilmNation’s global perspective and expertise comes from longstanding relationships with filmmakers and distributors from around the world. Glen and I started our careers a few days apart at Good Machine and have worked together for most of the time since. We had worked with Village Roadshow in Australia as a distributor for years and they later came in as one of the financiers of FilmNation. Edward Berger was an intern at Good Machine and he has just directed Conclave for us, his follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front. Just this year we’ve had two films produced by our old Good Machine colleague Anthony Bregman: Flora and Son directed by John Carney and You Hurt My Feelings directed by Nicole Holofcener.”
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