EXCLUSIVE: Coming into this week’s EFM, Ben Affleck action-thriller Hypnotic was barely on anyone’s radar. However, the movie was quietly one of the market’s X-factors. It’s rare, after all, for a big-budget, finished film with A-list talent and director to still be without a U.S. distributor.
But the Robert Rodriguez-directed project, which wrapped shoot back in 2021, has had one of the more curious and challenging journeys for a big-budget independent film package in recent years.
First announced back at AFM 2019, the $65M project was the flagship package for Mark Gill’s ambitious new mini-studio Solstice, which was due to handle the domestic release. Oscar winner Affleck would play a detective investigating a mystery involving his missing daughter and a secret government program. Pedigree also came from former Warner Bros exec Jeff Robinov who was aboard as producer.
Sin City and Alita: Battle Angel director Rodriguez described the project as “a Hitchcock thriller on steroids…It’s that kind of a movie. A lot of twists, a lot of turns. Very exciting.. It’s one of my favorite stories. I started writing it back in 2002. So it’s one of the ones I’ve had the longest that I’ve been wanting to do.” He teamed up on the script with Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla scribe Max Borenstein.
International buyers flocked to the project, putting up a large portion of its budget. Peacock, we can reveal, also jumped in, committing eight figures in return for domestic pay TV rights. Vibes were good.
“There was a big soiree at the AFM,” a buyer recalls. “Everybody bid hard and it attracted some of the most important international distributors in the market.”
Among cast to join were Alice Braga, William Fichter, JD Pardo, Kelly Frye and Jeff Fahey.
But fast forward three and a half years and one week before EFM Hypnotic still didn’t have a domestic distributor or a release date. Not one U.S. buyer had bitten and the film had been in post since late 2021.
The movie’s international buyers were naturally antsy. They were told when it was first put together that the film would have at least a 2,000 screen release in the U.S. “They better get a 2,000 screen commitment otherwise all their deals will fall apart,” one veteran buyer of the movie told me.
Those buyers had already seen the film delayed by the pandemic, shut down three different times and involved in an insurance lawsuit. They had also seen its main financier and U.S. distributor Solstice implode around the time Hypnotic finally went into production in late 2021. Then the production itself still had to grapple with a raft of Covid protocols. Just getting this movie to camera was a feat (a miraculous or foolhardy one, depending on your view).
Rodriguez hasn’t spoken much about the film since production, but around the time it began filming he described it as having become “a family affair”: “My son now is my full-time composer. My other son is my co-writer/producer. My daughter is doing storyboards. My other son’s doing the animatics, because he’s using his game engine stuff that he designed the sets for Heroes with. And then my other son edits with me. So, it’s a family affair.”
In 2022, the director began filming on the next instalment in the Spy Kids franchise for Netflix, meaning his attention would inevitably be required in other directions.
What would become of Hypnotic, many of the film’s backers rightly worried?
In recent months, buyers had been told that WME Independent would be handling the domestic sale on the film at the EFM. Then this changed more recently to ‘consultants’, including former Solstice and AGC exec Crystal Bourbeau (Bourbeau, Gill and Rodriguez declined to comment for this piece). The film would get a first buyers screening on February 17 in Berlin where international distributors could finally see what they’d bought and potential domestic buyers could be drawn in.
But behind the scenes, when financiers got wind that we were running a story about the film’s journey, anxiety seemed to set in. “There is a plan”, we were told amid PR scrambling. “It’s coming together, just hold on.”
Late last Thursday night, an email went out to international buyers trumpeting that the film’s U.S. buyer had finally been found: Ketchup Entertainment.
Ketchup is a boutique financier-distributor whose last stateside release in 2019 was family film Captain Sabertooth and the Magic Diamond. It has never released a film of Hypnotic‘s budget or screen commitment. The company’s CEO Gareth West was involved in setting up the financing for Solstice Studios and is an executive producer on Hypnotic along with other financiers such as Ingenious Media.
It wasn’t exactly the special sauce international buyers had been hoping for.
The plan is for Ketchup to “release the film in coordination with a number of former Solstice executives” this summer, across at least 2,000 screens.
What has been the reaction among buyers? “We were concerned about this movie being on the shelf for so long, and this has done nothing to allay that concern,” one told us. “I’ve spoken to at least one major buyer who is looking to get out of their deal. I hope it isn’t dumped at the end of August,” they added.
Another simply replied: “A $70M Ben Affleck and Robert Rodriguez action film with Ketchup at the helm? Hmmm.”
Hopefully, everyone is pleasantly surprised come Friday (and the summer release). But there may be one or two plot twists to come.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.