EXCLUSIVE: L.A.-based Brit Stuart Ford has operated at the sharp end of international film sales and movie financing for more than two decades.
The AGC Studios boss and former IM Global chief has produced or distributed films with directors and actors including Martin Scorsese, Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Roland Emmerich and Madonna.
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The sands of indie film financing are forever shifting but Ford and his collaborators were set a new challenge this fall when it came to launching three AGC-backed completed features amid the two Hollywood strikes: Richard Linklater’s Venice and Toronto title Hit Man starring Glen Powell, and Toronto movies The Woman of the Hour and Poolman, the directorial debuts of Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine, respectively.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted late last week, we spoke with the one-time entertainment attorney and Miramax exec about the journeys of these three projects, why they don’t have interim agreements (this is the first time someone has spoken on the record about the challenges and opportunities arising from that decision), re-teaming with Roland Emmerich on huge-budget TV series Those About to Die, and what the future holds for AGC.
Since the interview, Deadline has subsequently reported that Kendrick and Pine won’t be at TIFF and that Powell is unlikely to be promoting at fall festivals either.
DEADLINE: It’s a challenging time. How are things going at AGC right now?
STUART FORD: There are obstacles left, right and in the center, but you just keep going. We’re running like the clappers on so many fronts, but you just keep going, just keep navigating them. That’s our modus operandi.
DEADLINE: How did you come to the three movies that are launching at Venice and Toronto?
FORD: Woman of the Hour and Hit Man had been in development at streamers. The former at Netflix, and the latter with Apple. As we know, in the past 18 months, a number of projects have been looking for alternative backers due to the streamer slowdown. We were very quick to pounce on both of them.
Chris’ movie was originated and developed wholly by Chris and his partner Ian Gotler. It was a project that was taken to the market as a package.
DEADLINE: What attracted you to each project?
FORD: Poolman is a fast paced, left-field comedy. It’s a stylish and visually arresting homage to L.A. film noir. In greenlighting the film we were reassured by the terrific supporting cast [Pine stars with Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, DeWanda Wise, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ray Wise] and the commitment of Stacey Sher and Patty Jenkins as producers. We were so smitten with Chris and Ian Gotler’s vision for the film we not only committed to finance the picture but agreed to shoot on 35mm and in Los Angeles. The end product absolutely justifies that financial and creative risk.
Anna Kendrick took a very different path to directing Woman of the Hour. The film’s original director dropped out for personal reasons on the eve of pre-production but the project already had a lot of fans around town and we were pitched a number of proven genre directors as replacement options. After some soul searching, Anna, out of the blue, put herself forward to direct it in order to protect the clarity of vision she had long held about it. After several lengthy discussions, we were convinced by her clear take and passion for telling the stories of Rodney Alcala’s victims. She also had seasoned and reliable genre producers Roy Lee and Miri Yoon. She brought a ferociously intense preparation and focus to shooting and editing the film and has delivered a movie that’s terrifying but also packed with intelligent, nuanced observations on the social and gender mores of the past and today. It’s a stunningly sophisticated piece of genre filmmaking from a first-time director.
Hit Man filmmaker Richard Linklater is the antithesis of a novice, of course. We needed no second invitation to come onboard and finance what’s comfortably his most commercially orientated film since School of Rock. The career breakout here is from co-lead Glen Powell who imagined and co-wrote the script with Rick and has been an extremely hands-on producing partner to us all from start to finish. He’s very much Rick’s creative co-conspirator on the film as well as giving a knockout, chameleon-like performance across from Adria Arjona.
What you really want from a project and from your partners is talent who are committed and passionate, talent who are going to have the determination to work through challenges as the process evolves, and also that will go the distance and promote the film to the maximum when it’s a finished movie. In my experience, big-name actors who are making the leap to writing or directing or producing and who are taking that career risk tend to deliver on all of those fronts for you. When we set out, we didn’t necessarily plan for these movies to all launch at the same time but it just happened that they were all ready at this juncture.
DEADLINE: We’re assuming these are $10 million-$20 million movies, would that be right?
FORD: Yes, all mid-teens.
DEADLINE: After the financial challenge of Moonfall, which was a huge budget for an independent film, is that teen budget now a sweet spot for AGC when it comes to film?
FORD: Every project is different. We take on projects of all shapes and sizes. We just need to believe in the project and believe in the finance plan and the marketing path forwards on each project on its own merits. Having said that, in what has been a very challenging independent financing environment for the last few years, and after the monumental challenges that the pandemic presented, where a lot of films that were brought to market ultimately were not able to get made, largely for logistical but also for financing reasons, we definitely took the view 18 months ago that we needed to differentiate ourselves in the market by backing projects that were going to get made and that were going to deliver on their promise to distribution partners around the world. One of the ways we’ve achieved that is by being very active in this sort of mid-teen budget space. We also backed Brad Anderson’s film Silent Hour with Joel Kinnaman and Mark Strong in this budget range, and we also were the biggest financier of Pierre Morel’s John Cena movie Freelance, which comes out in the fall.
DEADLINE: You mentioned promotion a little earlier. That’s key on all movies, naturally. Amid the strikes, how much will Anna Kendrick, Glen Powell and Chris Pine be promoting these movies in the next couple of weeks?
FORD: Nothing is officially confirmed yet. The sad irony at the time of doing this interview is that we’re about to get underway on these fall festivals and it’s still unclear whether any of that multi-hyphenate talent can be present to take the deserved plaudits for their phenomenal work. The situation is a confused mess. We believe that SAG’s intentions were to support independent filmmakers, producers and financiers in granting waivers for actors to support genuine independent films at the festivals. But the decision to tag on a requirement that those films sign an interim agreement has neutered that good intention because of course amidst the current stand-off between the two sides of the strike the studio and streaming buyers are outwardly baulking at the notion of acquiring films that come with the IA baggage, however “interim” those terms may end up being. So, financiers that have taken meaningful financial and creative risk and talent who have made career-defining creative choices and delivered great work are caught in the crossfire and left with Hobson’s choice — turn up and promote your film under an IA but risk alienating buyers or instead have your key talent stay away from the festival in order to protect the sales prospects on films that are carrying millions of dollars of investment risk.
I don’t think it was the basic intention of either the guilds or the AMPTP companies to put the current crop of completed independent films in such a compromising position. But that’s the reality as of now and it’s hard to be confident that either or both parties are going to take the higher ground and publicly resolve the issue for everyone in the next week or so.
I feel most sorry for the marvelously committed and talented writers, actors and directors across our three films. On a sunnier note, the movies will for sure speak for themselves once the lights go down in Venice and Toronto auditoriums. The audiences will be loudly enthusiastic. Critics will write excited and I hope glowing reviews and I think both independent and AMPTP buyers are going to be highly active despite and maybe in some cases because of the headwinds from the strikes.
Independent film and TV financing has always been about finding a path forwards amidst myriad creative, financial and practical challenges. The impact of the strikes on the fall 2023 festival environment is just another obstacle along the course. There are massively important, existential issues for the industry in play that in truth are hugely impactful on a major independent content studio like AGC. So we’re acutely aware of the big picture scenario and even if some of the shine comes off this festival season we’ll take comfort from the fact that we’ve backed outstanding films, festival audiences will come out in large numbers to see them and distributors starved of great new product will want a piece of that action and will be making deals. We all keep on going. And hopefully when the time comes for films like Hit Man, Poolman and Woman Of The Hour to be commercially released into the wider world, whatever happens at this Toronto the talents at the center of these projects will get to promote their films and take the plaudits they all deserve.
DEADLINE: Have these holding patterns been due to genuine uncertainty among actors, filmmakers and industry, or has there been radio silence as a form of protection?
FORD: Genuine holding patterns, because there’s genuine confusion. As I say, I don’t think SAG intended to burn these movies. I think their intention was to support them, but unfortunately, there has been a lack of guidance and a lack of clarity from both sides. Talent may make last-minute decisions to go or they may not. It really is that sort of mood right now.
DEADLINE: All three of these movies are looking for a U.S. buyer?
FORD: Correct. And they will all find U.S. buyers.
DEADLINE: Each of these movies would qualify, in theory, for an interim agreement, right?
FORD: Absolutely. Yes, they would.
DEADLINE: And you didn’t apply or sign one because…?
FORD: We have not signed an IA on any of them because a number of the AMPTP buyers are indicating that they would be reluctant to acquire a film with the baggage of an IA. When you’ve invested millions of dollars in a film, you have to protect its commercial prospects. So, we’re trying to obtain clarity. We’re trying to find a path forwards.
DEADLINE: Presumably the cast want the best deals for their films too…
FORD: Yes. These are among the most high-profile and hotly anticipated films, commercially speaking, at the festivals.
DEADLINE: So your lead actors, who are multi-hyphenates on these films, accept that negotiations will go on with AMPTP members?
FORD: Yes, they’re all very aware of the commercial realities of the current situation and are every bit our financial, distribution and creative partners.
DEADLINE: Would the optics of such a sale during the strike be an issue, do you think?
FORD: I haven’t had anyone voice any concern as to the optics of that. These were films that went into production around a year ago.
DEADLINE: TIFF was very quiet last year in terms of dealmaking. Do you think there could be a healthy sales market at TIFF and AFM even if the strikes are ongoing?
FORD: I think the community is anticipating a very active sales market in Toronto and talking to the buyers, they seem to be gearing up for activity. It has been a relatively bleak year in terms of buying and selling, both domestically and internationally, but as a whole I think the industry is anticipating action.
DEADLINE: Recognized acting talent is still essential to getting these independent movies made, though, right?
FORD: Absolutely. They drive the foreign pre-sales, and hopefully, they’ll drive the domestic and the international marketing campaigns.
DEADLINE: Are you having to alter sales contracts due to the strike and potential project/delivery delays?
FORD: We haven’t given any consideration to doing that thus far but that could potentially be a relevant topic on pre-sales titles.
DEADLINE: You also have Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget sword-and-sandal TV series Those About To Die in production. Tell us about that…
FORD: It will be in production until November. It went into production at the top of the year and has fallen outside any strike restrictions. At a budget north of $150 million, it’s certainly the biggest independently produced and financed TV show in the world this year, and given the production halt that’s happened in the second half of 2023, it is going to be one of the biggest shows in the world when it launches next fall.
DEADLINE: Did the experience of Moonfall give you pause about jumping into another huge-budget indie like this?
FORD: We had no hesitation whatsoever, because, at the end of the day, a 10-hour episodic TV show is a very different proposition to a $100M+ independent film. From a creative and a marketability perspective, Those About to Die, has such outstanding qualities, that we were hyper-confident when we bought into the project during the development stage that not only would we be able to go on and make it, but we’d be able to set the show up in a way that we and our partners, including Roland, retain ownership and extensive creative control. Thus far, that has proven to be a successful strategy.
DEADLINE: Peacock has the U.S. rights?
FORD: Yes. We took the show out to market and positioned it as something that was going to be a split rights deal. We very deliberately did not look for a worldwide streamer type deal which would’ve been the easier path but the basis of our longstanding and very successful relationship with Roland and his partners has been generating self-ownership and the upside that comes with that.
DEADLINE: How lucrative was the deal with Peacock?
FORD: We fully financed the show based on the U.S. deal with Peacock, a European distribution deal with High End Productions and generous soft money deals. At this coming MIP in October, AGC will be launching sales on the rights in the rest of the world outside of the U.S. and Europe, which will drive the show into profitability before it airs.
DEADLINE: What’s next on the film side?
FORD: In the fall we’ll be launching completed film Desert Warriors. That’s a $100M+ Arabian epic from Rupert Wyatt starring Anthony Mackie and Ben Kingsley.
We’re going to start production on Ron Howard’s film Origin of Species, which we launched earlier this year. We are going to start production in the fall on Neill Blomkamp’s alien abduction thriller They Found Us starring Joel Kinnaman. Justin Kurzel’s The Order, with Jude Law, Nick Holt and Tye Sheridan, will also deliver at the end of the year. I’m very excited about that one.
We are also in production on the second season of Troppo, which is an Australian crime show that we co-financed with Amazon Freevee.
DEADLINE: What needs to happen on Ron Howard’s movie to get it into production?
FORD: It has an IA from SAG, so does Neill’s film. Both have their casts in place. Ron’s film is due to shoot April 23, 2024, and Neill’s film is due to shoot November 6, 2023.
DEADLINE: Is Dave Bautista project Universe’s Most Wanted still happening? There was a lot of interest in that from overseas buyers…
FORD: It has stalled due to casting and creative issues. That’s all I’ll say.
DEADLINE: Bautista is still in?
FORD: No one is in right now. It’s dead.
DEADLINE: Right…In terms of AGC, do you still have the same three backers as before?
FORD: Yes. Our three corporate shareholders remain Image Nation Abu Dhabi; Greg Clark, who is a high net-worth Silicon Valley entrepreneur and private equity maven; and MediaNet from Latin America. It’s a great relationship. Despite all of the headwinds of the pandemic and the streamer slowdown and the strike, we’re onto our 41st production, film and TV, in five years, which is pretty good going. We’ll generate in excess of $200M of revenue next year when Those About to Die delivers, and we continue to grow the company.
DEADLINE: How profitable is AGC?
FORD: We have a profitable business. I think any independent content company that’s profitable in 2023 can consider itself successful, and like I say, it’s a company that’s grown every year since its foundation in 2018. So, we’re very happy with that trajectory.
DEADLINE: Would you like additional investors in the company?
FORD: We carry forward a very entrepreneurial mentality, and we’re open to all sorts of strategic opportunities. We’ve been approached by a number of both institutional and strategic investors. Successes like The Tinder Swindler help.
But we’re in no hurry. Our priority right now is growth of the business, growth of the balance sheet, growth of the brand, and obviously, to try to generate successful films and TV shows,
DEADLINE: What’s your head count and does it need to grow?
FORD: 35. We anticipate our scripted TV business to continue to grow at pace. We launched our unscripted company AGC Unwritten no more than 18 months ago. They have a lot of activity, and that side of the business, we anticipate growing significantly in head count as they start to ramp up into production on multiple shows. But on the whole my business partner Miguel Palos — who I worked with at IM Global and co-founded AGC with — and I want to run a lean and fluid operation.
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