EXCLUSIVE: Prolific independent film producer-financier Michel Merkt is stepping away from producing, we can reveal.
“I told my wife that I would take part in 100 projects and then move on to a new challenge,” the Swiss native told us during the Paris Rendezvous market. “We decided together that it would be 2020 at the latest. I realized a dream and now it’s time to move on and realize another one.”
Merkt, who won Locarno’s Golden Leopard for best independent producer in 2017, has been involved in a staggering 50 movies that have played at Cannes and goes out off the back of an outrageously productive year. He was credited as a producer on no fewer than 31 films in 2019, among them Oscar nominee Les Miserables (as an associate producer) and Berlin Golden Bear winner Synonyms.
His real estate and private equity interests have allowed him to invest more than $25m in the production and distribution of movies in less than a decade, he says.
“I have worked with the heart and not only the bank account,” he says. “It’s easier that way. I picked projects because they were films I wanted to have an audience. I have other ways to make money outside of cinema so that didn’t complicate things. I often didn’t see myself as a producer, more an entrepreneur.”
Merkt, who runs Monaco-based banner KNM with his wife Kateryna, started out as a production assistant at Canal+ Belgium in 1999. He went on to work as a film critic, once interviewing David Cronenberg in Cannes, telling the director he would one day like to work with him. He realized that ambition in 2014 as a producer on Maps To The Stars. The film was one of many collaborations with prominent French producer Saïd Ben Saïd.
As for career highlights, there have been quite a few in a relatively short time span.
“The Sisters Brothers was a movie I’d always wanted to be a part of,” he notes. “It was one of my proudest achievements. That said, that film not getting a Best Picture Oscar nomination was also one of my biggest disappointments.”
“My first Cannes as a lowly trainee in 1999 was magical. As was Julianne Moore’s Cannes Best Actress prize for Maps To The Stars, which was my first movie in competition at the festival. Synonym, Elle, Toni Erdmann and Capernaum were all special. Les Miserables is a gem, too. I was not heavily involved in that one but I am a big supporter of Ladj Ly’s film school and the Kourtrajmé project.”
Despite scores of national film prizes for his movies, an Oscar eluded him, something that remains a frustration.
His exit will be felt in the European sector, especially in France where he was most prolific. Wild Bunch chief Vincent Maraval, a regular collaborator, told us, “Michel is a very smart producer. His notes are always excellent and his support has been extremely valuable. He has taste and he is very strong when it comes to awards strategy. If he said no to a project, you knew there was a problem with the project. It’s a loss for us as a sector but I’m sure he has exciting adventures ahead.”
While Merkt is closing the door on producing, he wants to keep his hand in the film industry.
“The most important thing now is my family,” says the producer, who found himself re-evaluating his priorities after a near-fatal health scare last year when he fell into a coma after contracting septicaemia.
“My investment now needs to be in my kids. I want to stay in the movie business but in another field. Perhaps it will be at a festival. Who knows. What I do know is that producing is largely over for now.”