FilmNation Talks Biggest Ever Sundance Slate, 2020 Production Plans & A New Jonestown Movie From A Park City Regular

Sundance Film Festival

EXCLUSIVE: Glen Basner’s FilmNation has made waves at recent Sundance Film Festivals with mega sales for The Big Sick and Late Night. This year the indie stalwart is in Park City with its biggest ever production presence at a festival.

The lineup comprises Benedict Cumberbatch Cold War drama Ironbark, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene follow-up The Nest starring Jude Law, and Carey Mulligan thriller Promising Young Woman from Killing Eve season 2 show-runner Emerald Fennell. Also playing is Julianne Moore-fronted Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias, which is a sales title.

Staying alive as an ambitious independent film company is something of a high-wire act these days. So to thrive for as long as FilmNation has sets them apart from many. In a wide-ranging interview, we sat down with President of Production Ben Browning to discuss the company’s growing production ambitions, their green-lighting process and what’s coming up in 2020. We’ve also got some exclusive behind-the-scenes images from the Sundance movies.

Deadline: In recent years a couple of your broader comedies have dominated the headlines in Park City. This year the slate looks quite different. Is that by design?

L to R: Ironbark producers Ben Browning & Ben Pugh with co-producer Donald Sabourin FilmNation

 Ben Browning: I think it’s a coincidence insofar as these three films are the culmination of many years of work. We didn’t make them thinking that they would all land on the same weekend at the same Sundance. It’s a testament not just to the eclectic nature of the films that we’re excited about but also the platform that Sundance represents to the independent film business and what Kim [Yutani] and John [Cooper] have done to make a place where it makes sense for these movies to be seen by distributors, media and the public.

Deadline: Last year was a wild one for you guys with the record $13M U.S. sale to Amazon. Is it unrealistic to expect a similar splash this year…

Browning: I don’t think we ever go into festivals with that type of expectation or thinking so much about numbers. Clearly, you hope that things happen. The experience of selling Late Night last year and the reception that that movie got is a great moment in anyone’s personal and professional life, but I don’t think you go rolling back in thinking you can duplicate things like that or other successes we’ve had with the likes of The Big Sick. Every movie is different. But we are certainly confident in the quality of our movies and feel like this is an environment where they get their best chance to reach an enthusiastic audience.

Deadline: Let’s talk about a few of these movies. Sean Durkin has produced quite a bit since his brilliant debut Martha Marcy May Marlene launched here almost a decade ago. Why do you think it has taken that long to see Sean’s second film as a director?

Sean Durkin & Jude Law on the set of The Nest FilmNation

 Browning: I too was one of the many admirers of Martha Marcy May Marlene and was one of the many people trying to convince him to make another one. We have briefly talked to him about his Janis Joplin biopic. He developed The Nest with BBC Films and our friends at Element and they knew how we felt about him. This felt like a tremendously personal story, dialing into a type of storytelling that we rarely see, a story about the inside of a family. The Ice Storm In The Bedroom are among my favourite movies. This is a grown-up, sophisticated piece with genre elements.

Deadline: I think some people were expecting to see Ironbark at an autumn festival last year…

Browning: We haven’t submitted it to any other festival. There was a blip in terms of its production schedule, which not everyone knows. There’s a section of the film where Benedict Cumberbatch goes through a significant body transformation and that shoot actually happened three-and-a-half months later. That affected the production schedule. We were aspiring for this to be a classical drama like The Imitation Game and The King’s Speech. Getting that exactly right and knowing where to debut it was really important to us. It’s true that the film’s language isn’t necessarily what people might think of as a Sundance movie but it felt to us that this launch would give the film the space to announce itself as something quite different.

Deadline: How much weight did Benedict lose? [We hear it was at least 30-35 pounds]

Browning: I can’t recall exactly but it’s one of those great thespian transformations. You feel it and when you watch the movie with an audience you feel their response to it. I think it conveys very effectively, in simple images, what this guy went through. Benedict’s commitment is immense. He really went for it.

Deadline: How does the movie’s tone relate to that of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? On the surface they look to be in the same ballpark…

Benedict Cumberbatch filming Ironbark FilmNation

 Ben Browning: I don’t know that they are quite the same. Clearly, there’s something about the mid-20th Century world of espionage that connotes something similar to Tinker Tailor or Le Carré’s language. Equally, the idea of inscrutable characters with inscrutable motives. What I think is different about Ironbark is that it’s very much an emotionally driven, character driven story of two men who, through collaboration with each other, achieve something amazing.

It’s very much one of those films that is trying to engage with classical storytelling, and I think the audience is absolutely along for the ride.

Deadline: Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell has had an interesting career. She is a multi-hyphenate making her feature debut after a span as an actress and as the show-runner on series two of Killing Eve

Browning: Yes, she has a broad experience. She’s also an author and has written novels. She was full of conviction from day one. This is a very playful, provocative script. It pulls no punches. It knows what it’s trying to say and I think that’s what audiences want from filmmakers. She delivers in spades.

Deadline: It’s starry for a first film…

Browning: That’s one of the great things about shooting in LA, sometimes you’re only asking for a day or two commitment. And sometimes people rally around filmmakers and material like this in a way that you can’t plan for, only hope for. We had to cast it with the most likeable, accessible people to try and draw people into what is a dark, complex, different type of story.

Carey Mulligan filming Promising Young Woman FilmNation

People like Adam Brody, Chris Mintz-Plasse, Alison Brie, Connie Britton. They’re amazing. Bo Burnham, who is the sort of romantic lead opposite Carey Mulligan, and who was great in The Big Sick and Eighth Grade, is a revelation. This is quite a different type of part for Carey Mulligan, too.

Deadline: FilmNation’s production activities have been ramping up. Can you walk me through the production greenlighting process at the company…

Browning: I run the production sourcing side of things out of LA, but it’s completely collaborative with everyone that’s in New York on the sales, marketing, publicity and legal side. There is a constant dialogue between all sides of the company. We’re looking at the financial profile of a film, the sales profile of a film, the distribution life of a film, and we’re trying to make responsible business decisions because most important to all of us is not that this company is thriving now but that it’s still thriving in 10 years.

The real distinction point of any creative company is knowing where and when to take risks. The process here is that it starts with one person who works here thinking something is absolutely exceptional and not shutting up about it and conveying that to other people who work here.

We don’t have IP that we’re sequeling or franchising, and we know what an audience expects from a FilmNation movie. It’s not middle of the road. It has to feel like it’s a little left of center or a little representative of what is about to come in a cultural conversation. There’s a small group, including Glen, myself, and a few others that tend to advocate for the ones that we think could really have that life, cut through, be part of an immediate cultural conversation.

We have a board that has a say in the green-lighting. None of these are tiny films. Some of our movies are a much larger scale. When we read a script we’re not always thinking about budget, but we are definitely thinking about audience and what the project’s life is. I think that’s one of the advantages of being an international sales company. We do begin with the end in mind. We see the entire lifecycle of films that we work on. We nurture them from pitch stage to library title. I think some of that clarity and engagement throughout the process and knowledge about audiences helps refine decision-making.

Deadline: Who is on the board?

Browning: Glen, Milan Popelka and Alison Cohen for FilmNation, Steve Samuels, Anthoni Visconsi II, Dominic Visconsi, and Joel Pearlman and Carole Brownlee from Roadshow Films.

Deadline: And Aaron Ryder is a key part of the production team…

Hugh Jackman Rebecca Ferguson

 Browning: Yes. Aaron has been at FilmNation from the start and is integral to the leadership. Around a year and a half ago he transitioned to become an in-house producer running some of our biggest productions. He’s full-time with us. He’s been working on movies including Reminiscence and The Good House. He’s going into Misanthrope and The Map Of Tiny Perfect Things soon.

Deadline: There is so much content out there. How do you ensure quality?

Browning: It’s different on every film. It’s about knowing how a film runs and how creative people work together. It’s very much an art not a science. I think as well, our definition of quality is quite broad, which is to say, given the eclectic nature of the films we have, we’re trying to make the ‘best in class’ version of each of them. The most important thing has always been trying to support and push the artistic vision of our collaborators and have them make the version of the film that was in their head at the beginning, but which is also the one that has the maximum cultural life.

Deadline: You haven’t produced a movie with a streamer yet, right?

Browning: No, we haven’t. I’m sure we will. In such a busy entertainment landscape we need to focus on our fundamentals and just keep making films that we love and that we think can find audiences. I’m sure in time all these new platforms will become more significant parts of our regular business but we’ve been largely focused on theatrical filmmaking. That’s still the majority of what the film teams do here.

Deadline: It’s tricky given the long-standing relationships the company has with international film distributors…

Browning: We’ve met the streamers many times, looking at ways to work together. And we will. We know people at Netflix really well. Of course some companies want global rights and that can be an impediment but our films have mostly been core theatrical movies.

Deadline: Two years ago you announced a new investment deal worth up to $120m. As you look to grow the production footprint do you need more investment?

Browning: We’ve always had more money than specialty films we thought needed to be made and could work. In the last decade, it has felt like money is easier to find than great projects that need to exist. We are growing and have ambitions to grow further. Impediments to that are not financial, it’s more about knowing how to navigate an environment in which talent is very heavily solicited and great filmmakers have so many options.

Deadline: What’s coming up on the production side?

Browning: We’re about to shoot The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which is a YA romance written by Lev Grossman based on his own short story. It’s a very clever subversion of film tropes we all know well. It’s a time-travel story, which is terrific. Then we’re shooting the Damián Szifron film The Misanthrope.

I can also tell you about a previously unannounced project called White Night which we’re aiming to shoot this year. Anne Sewitsky, who won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2011 for Happy Happy and has been back to the festival multiple times since, is attached to direct. It’s a drama based on Deborah Layton’s true story of her involvement in Jonestown. We’re co-producing with Anne Carey and Amy Nauiokas from Archer Gray. Bill Wheeler is writing the script.

Deadline: Sounds good. You’re also into TV production now…

Mark Ruffalo
Mark Ruffalo Matt Baron/Shutterstock

 Browning: We have our first TV production airing in April on HBO. It’s called I Know This Much is True. It’s based on a Wally Lamb novel that we optioned with Mark Ruffalo a number of years ago. Derek Cianfrance wrote and directed six hours of it. It’s a multigenerational family drama that we’re frantically wrapping up now to be ready for April.

I hope it will be representative of the type of things people might expect from us in this format. It’s beautifully made with an amazing cast. It’s highly emotional but is sprawling and provocative. We’ve been active for a couple of years in this space and have set up shows all over the place. In LA, we have as many executives in TV now as in film.

I head up TV production as well but Stefanie Berk, who came over from Fremantle, is our EVP of TV and she has been running a lot of the development. But I Know This Much is True is something that actually goes back quite a while at FilmNation.

Deadline: You’re probably not going to tell me, but are there any directors you’d particularly like to work with?

Browning: [Laughter] The last idea I think I’m about to hear is the one we suddenly want to do…We’re often tracking the same great filmmakers as everyone else in a highly competitive environment. The thing that gets people to work with us is always something surprising: a piece of material we happen to control, an idea that doesn’t seem obvious to others but is obvious to us…Armando Iannucci pitching Copperfield over a coffee as the thing he’s always wanted to do, for example. That wasn’t the most obvious thing and yet it’s the thing he really wanted to do and we wanted to support that.

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