An occasional feature on the thought process behind an exceptionally bold, risky move.
If they gave out Exec Of The Year, it would be hard to overlook IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, who funded Richard Linklater’s Boyhood for a dozen years. Even with the flurry of Oscar fare launched at the fall festivals, Boyhood remains squarely in the awards-season conversation. We’ve written about this crazy gamble before, but as we move into that time of year when quality comes out of risk taking, it seems worth revisiting as a reminder to execs that sometimes you just have to take a leap with a good filmmaker.
DEADLINE: You come to festivals like Toronto to find movies you can release quickly, and turn a profit. Nobody funds a film like Boyhood for over a decade. What were you thinking?
SEHRING: It makes me laugh as I look back on it, because I wonder, what was I thinking? It just made no sense whatsoever, but at the time it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
DEADLINE: That seems a contradiction.
SEHRING: I know. [Linklater] reminded me we were in Venice with Waking Life, when he made the pitch. I only remember Venice if I’m with my wife, otherwise these trips blur. I do remember the pitch, which came after we talked about coming-of-age movies. He said, I want to do a film about a boy, growing up, 1st grade to 12th grade. He saw a natural arc. Right there, I said, we’re in. It was easy for me to conceptualize; my oldest son was 16, and I had one in kindergarten and the other in first grade. I was living it, I got it. I knew it was an ambitious project, which was attractive, but also, Rick always delivered. Put him behind the camera and he’s going to make something good. I also bet on Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.
DEADLINE: What about downside risk? So much could have happened. Your star could have bailed. Things could have happened to your major actors.
SEHRING: I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? If, three or four years into it, something goes wrong, we’ll have three or four years of footage and we’ll do it as a web series, or a TV thing. Now, I look back on it and it seems crazy. As confident as Rick seemed, he has said the hardest things were casting a 6-year-old boy and thinking he would be on board for 12 years, and having an executive stay at a company for 12 years. I look at him, and it does give one pause. There was no precedent. Some say Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, but Rick is adamant this is different, fiction vs documentary. If you want to look at kids growing up on film, maybe Harry Potter, but those books weren’t all out at that time.
DEADLINE: How many times in quarterly meetings did you hear, Jonathan, what were you thinking?
SEHRING: The finance guys would kill me on it. There was plenty of, Why are we doing this? When are we going to see a return? The way we structured the entire thing, it wasn’t like we put $5 million on the balance sheet in one shot. We’d take $200,000, plus or minus, every year, and made it part of the overall operating budget. There were some bad years, and when dollars got tight, it became a bad joke and I would be needled at the forecast meetings, but nothing that bad. Nobody ever took me to the mat or said, what the hell are you doing? We started right before the company green lit Mad Men and Breaking Bad. We had dabbled in investing in content on the film side, so it was a good time. Josh Sapan backed me. The one time the Dolans asked about it over 12 years, when I explained, they said, why aren’t you doing more things like that? I wish I could think of more things like this. That support from above made this the most gratifying thing I’ve experienced in my career.
DEADLINE: There is more fiscal conservatism than ever. Would you make the same decision if Linklater pitched that film right now?
SEHRING: I think it would be easier to say yes. Then, I was pretty naïve. Now, our company places a premium on the value of content that is unique and storytellers speaking to broad audiences because what they’re doing is so unique. Rick, Ethan and Patricia is still a bet I’d make.
DEADLINE: Will there be a plethora of time-lapse dramas?
SEHRING: We’ve asked internally about more, because everybody misses working on that project. The time lapse was really unique and special. I don’t really deal in four quadrant movies, but this has something to say to everybody. You’ve either been a son, a daughter, a sister, a brother father or mother. It tested through the roof, but the place it really exceeded every expectation was young men, our hardest demo. We keep adding screens, and we have young people saying on social media that “this is the movie of my life.” As for seeing more time-lapse movies, who knows?
DEADLINE: What is the takeaway as an executive that might be instructive to others trying to stay true to why they got in this business, but are shackled by earnings reports?
SEHRING: I’m at a point in my career where I can make a smart bet and if it doesn’t pay off, or won’t for 10 years, I’ll be OK. But I’ve always felt I would not be able to do my job right if I am worried about my job and not taking chances on good product and people I trust. I had a track record with Rick and with Ethan, so it was not that huge a leap of faith. They made it more comfortable, but you just can’t spend your day looking over your shoulder. You won’t survive, doing that, or by trying to follow what others are doing. In this business, there’s a lot of imitation, but little of it stands out. I’ve been lucky to have been involved in more than one of these.
DEADLINE: The bottom line?
SEHRING: In terms of what we’ve financed and produced, Boyhood has already surpassed Boys Don’t Cry to become our biggest movie ever. We released My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the second-biggest indie film of all time, and co-released Fahrenheit 911, the biggest documentary of all time, and I’m proud to say I was involved in those. Boyhood, maybe because of the support I got internally all those years, is my single proudest professional achievement.