EXCLUSIVE: From the veranda of their suite on the Croisette, beIn Media Group founder Nasser al-Khelaifi, his general counsel Sophie Jordan and new Miramax CEO Bill Block had a message for Hollywood as it wonders what to expect from a once-heralded film label under new ownership.
“Our message is that Miramax is back,” al-Khelaifi told Deadline. “The day we bought Miramax, we looked at it as a brand with an engine that had been stuck for a couple of years, to be honest. At beIn Media Group, we saw a lot of opportunity for synergy. We were already in the entertainment business, with movie channels, series, sports, and we own platforms in countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey. We started with sports, and entertainment was the thing we were missing. So now we have Miramax, which has an excellent distribution team. They were selling the library for the past couple of years but we see opportunities there, in synergy between the sports and entertainment distribution.”
The company just went through a painful layoff of nearly the entire movie and television production staffs, around 25 people including movie head Zanne Devine. Al-Khelaifi called Devine “a true friend of the family who was very helpful to us through the transaction period. She is going to be an advisor for the company, going forward.” Block said those laid off have been treated well, and described the distribution team still in place that comprised the bulk of the staff as “the true engine under the hood of this company. We have a global distribution operation in television that sells directly to every broadcaster, cable, SVOD outlet. We’ve got four offices around the world, 100-plus people, and we are going to leverage that as we go direct to series on television projects.”
Since Bob and Harvey Weinstein left Miramax at Disney, and the library was sold for $660 million to a consortium headed by Colony Capital, I’ve covered several past attempts to revive the company as a production entity. There was talk of exploiting the development projects left behind, which included scripts by the likes of Anthony Minghella. Nothing much happened, even if the company completed I, Tonya, with Margot Robbie as disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding, and a few other movies. Why, I asked, will this be different?
Block said — and al-Khelaifi agreed — that he took the job specifically because the well-funded parent company beIN Media Group was committing to playing the long game, from a staff overhaul to heavy investment necessary to make TV projects and four high-quality star-driven movies per year. They will not set up a distribution company in film (TV already has a pipeline), but the intention is to show proof of life quickly. They are looking right now to acquire two projects that can be put into production this year.
“The goal is again to make Miramax a home for stars and directors, versus a well-mined library,” Block said. “Big, wide release commercial films. We’re going to become a major content packager/developer, like an Imagine or New Regency, that will feed projects in a major way to a big distributor. We are being asked, what budget can we go to? We can go to $100 million or $150 million, depending on the at-risk capital that is always the key part of the financing equation.”
Al-Khelaifi said the types of movies will not be scaled for compatibility to beIN’s distribution platforms in the Middle East and North Africa. “We’re not looking for special programming for our international platforms,” he said. “This is about hits, hits, hits, that are going to make profit and help grow the company.” Indeed, one of the criticisms when Miramax was placed on the selling block last time was its billion-dollar ask was too high, because the previous owners didn’t do enough to replenish the library. Al-Khelaifi recognizes the opportunity to boost Miramax’s overall worth by infusing the library with value product.
Said Block: “We’re here, meeting everyone, and telling them we want to make four movies a year. Sophie and I took a meeting [Thursday] morning on a picture that will be ready for a September start and we are thinking about it. We like to think we know what we’re doing, we’ve been at this awhile. Part of the overhead reduction we went through, though, is to not have the pressure to make something prematurely to feed a system. The pressure is to make films that turn profit, and in the next six months we’d like to start two movies. But they must be the right commercially minded movies. We will compete at the highest levels for major projects and specs, but ones that are director driven, because that is what brings the stars. We will be a content developer, as well, but we want to see that comedy that Will Ferrell has developed and is bringing to Paramount.”
This is the strategy that Block used when he ran QED and beat out studios with a seven-figure bid for writer-director David Ayer’s WWII script Fury. Brad Pitt quickly signed on as its tank commander. Good material, Block said, is the gateway to such opportunity.
“The advantage is that a Peter Jackson, or Brad or Tom, has that project, they can come to us and we will help them develop it, close their deals and now you have multiple greenlight opportunities,” Block said. “If they take that package directly to a studio, they are subject to when the studio wants to make it, and their distribution needs. That’s the advantage of this for the A-level project. I have autonomy to buy, and I better be right.”
Block and al-Khelaifi said they will re-staff again, quickly.
“First priority is to hire the right marketing executive, followed by the right big television executive and the right feature creative production executive,” Block said. “What informs success in this competitive environment these days is marketing, marketing, marketing. So that will be our first big hire, someone who does that well and who knows digital marketing.”
Said al-Khelaifi: “Digital marketing is very important to us. I think it’s the future. The world is changing to digital.”
Jordan said that beIN already has a mechanism to reach a wide audience. “We have an OTT [over the top] platform present in over 43 countries with all our sports content and that’s something we can grow into the general entertainment business,” she said
All three realize they are in something of a honeymoon period where it is easy to make lofty promises, as has been done in the past. But Qatar-based beIN has invested enormously in its other businesses, and al-Khelaifi said the intention here is to be just as aggressive.
“Miramax was once one of the big studios in this world, and we want to be back, and active,” al-Khelaifi said. “We hired Bill to do that, and the board felt he was the best person for that job. We’re not saying we’re going to make 20 movies a year. But we will make four to five, and take the steps necessary to restore Miramax as a brand with commercial-minded projects that draw big filmmakers and stars. That’s what we’re here in Cannes to say.”