It has been a season of big bets for Namit Malhotra and his Prime Focus World. First, Prime acquired DAX, which provides digital services for the studios. Then it merged with Oscar-winning U.K. visual-effects giant Double Negative, creating what the combined operation calls the world’s biggest VFX, 3D and animation shop. Then Reliance Capital of India jumped in with a $53 million investment, and the potential to bankroll other acquisitions and projects that a deal-minded Malhotra can pull together.
But for all that, Prime’s most fascinating gamble this summer might be the one cooked up years ago that debuts tonight. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For opens in late-night screenings ahead of this weekend’s opening. The Dimension Films project is a sequel to 2005’s Sin City, both directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, the graphic-novel god whose print works helped reshape the way popular culture thinks about superheroes.
For the second Sin City, Prime took on all of the visual-effects work and all the 3D work for a film where every single frame requires visual-effects work and 3D imaging. That’s a whopping 2,300 shots, two times over, a staggering number for a single company to handle. It was also worth a $12.5 million stake in the film, whose budget has been estimated at between $60 million and $70 million.
“The whole film is a green-screen shoot,” Malhotra said. “From our standpoint, there couldn’t be a better calling card for the franchise. From a financial standpoint, it seemed like a reasonably safe bet.”
The resulting deal was greeted with substantial skepticism in Hollywood. After all, how often does a vendor become an investor, particularly at this level?
“As we were building, in order to take next big step, we needed to put some of our money in,” Malhotra told me recently. “There are a lot of very cynical people in the city who said, ‘Oh, it’s not going to work.’ It’s almost like the problem you point out is the solution itself: ‘We don’t have money, we don’t have time.'”
In one of those delicious tidbits that sounds too good to be true, Malhotra says that when he first arrived in Los Angeles from India in 2005, a third-generation movie pro who had built up a small Mumbai shop to buy into the U.S. market, he decided to see a Hollywood movie in a Hollywood movie theater. The film he saw: the first Sin City.
“I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” Malhotra said. “I never saw a comic book come alive on the screen. It was a very personal connect.”
That experience has now come full circle for Malhotra. The second Sin City cobbles together three story lines from Miller’s graphic novels into a single, visually stunning and highly stylized exercise in the noirest of noir tales, a mostly black-and-white rumble of violent men and deceitful (generally way underdressed) women doing awful things in an awful place. Critical reviews have been mixed, though no one’s complaining about the film’s extraordinary look and style. More importantly to the R-rated film’s ultimate success, tracking suggests it has a substantial late-summer audience of adults itching to see what Rodriguez and Miller have come up with.
For Malhotra, taking an investment stake is a natural next step for Prime Focus World, part of a grand plan to grow and thrive in the treacherous business of visual effects and post production. Small shops of artistes long dominated the industry, but the leapfrogging speed of technology (and its extraordinary costs) make it tough for small shops to keep up. The vast scale of summer blockbusters means hundreds or even thousands of VFX shots are required for a film, and can overwhelm even a mid-sized company. That’s why the credits for special effects on a big movie can take 10 minutes to scroll by. Scale matters, in a way it once didn’t.
With $300 million in revenues and more than 5,000 employees — and significant operations in Hollywood, Vancouver, London, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Dubai and China — Prime and DNeg have scale in an epic way. And they can work on a project 24 hours a day, handing the work from unit to unit around the globe, chasing the sun and avoiding some of the pitfalls that can overwhelm smaller organizations. And being in different markets also allows filmmakers to leverage the production tax credits that are popping up in the United Kingdom, Canada and elsewhere, in ways that a small shop can’t do.
“Every step of our business has bolted on new capacity,” Malhotra said. The DNeg deal “sort of checks every box. It brings consolidation from the East and from the West.I call it absolutely transformational in where we are. Because of that ability (to move teams onto different projects as needed) we don’t have a tired crew in one part of the world slogging it out. We found we were able to have that little extra headroom at the end to bring it in nicely.”
The results, Malhotra says, have been “pretty spectacular.” Indeed, alone and with DNeg, Prime has had a piece of many of the summer’s biggest films, including The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Maleficent, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (on the 3D side) and Into the Storm, Hercules and some others on the VFX side. DNeg won an Oscar for its work on Christopher Nolan‘s Inception and is now working on his Interstellar.
“A huge chunk of Hollywood has gone through our pipes in a meaningful way,” Malhotra says. “It’s not just that we got all these things done, but it’s the quality at which we got them done.”
Despite the company’s global reach, Malhotra said Prime will keep a presence on Los Angeles, even though he said studios pushed him to consider facilities elsewhere, and “every state comes to us at different times to pitch us why we should move there.” The company has 60,000 square feet of space in Hollywood, more than it has anywhere in the world but India, and Malhotra said they aren’t leaving. “We are here (in Los Angeles) for long and for life. I live there. My kids go to school there.”
The next step, despite Malhotra’s youthful desire to direct, will be to produce. He’s already an executive producer on Dame, and as a producer, his company can work with the director and other creatives to help shape not just a film’s look but its finances too.
“I want to be in the role of a producer who can help leverage the entire process of making a movie, and be much more smart by leveraging all the global benefits that can accrue from making a film,” Malhotra said. “Making a film here and there (as a director) is great and might bring pleasure, but I’m much more interested in the next generation of making film. I’ve got to be able to say we helped change the game a little bit.”