Toronto Spotlight: Relativity’s Tucker Tooley On Launching Faith-Based Label And Playing Niche Game

toronto badgeRyan Kavanaugh and Tucker Tooley at Relativity Media have been through different manifestations through the years that involved grand enterprises like slate financing half of the movies in Hollywood at one time, and plotting an IPO in the near future. The story of this festival has been the number of upstart companies that bought films as they re-brand themselves into indie distribution players. They include the soon-to-be-renamed Millennium buying Madame Bovary, EuropaCorp buying Big Game for its new domestic distribution pipeline Red, and RLJ/Image acquiring the Thomas McCarthy-directed Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler.

Relativity has also been honing its own identity, and it made the first two deals of the festival, buying the completed picture The Woman in Black 2, and Kidnap, a thriller that Halle Berry will star in. Relativity chased the Chris Rock film Top Five and premiered two films here, Beyond The Lights and Hector And The Search For Happiness. Where is Relativity going? Deadline asked Tooley, Relativity’s longtime president. He starts with a scoop, that Relativity is forming a dedicated label to focus on faith-based films, which has proven to be an eye-opening audience segment, from films like Son Of God and Heaven Is For Real.

DEADLINE: You’ve added a multi-cultural division, and a prestige picture division in R2, and I’ve heard you are going to form a faith-based division to nurture those films tapping an under-served audience. Can you confirm the faith-based division, and explain where Relativity is going with these recent moves?
TOOLEY: We are working on forming the faith-based division, and we’re trying to find the right person to run it. We have several projects in that space already; we just need the right person to run the dedicated division.

DEADLINE: You came in to Toronto gangbusters, closing the festival’s first deals on films not playing here, The Woman In Black 2 and the Halle Berry-starrer Kidnap. And you were right there in the mix on the festival’s biggest deal, the Chris Rock-directed Top Five.
TOOLEY: Both the projects we bought happened here but we had been working on for a bit so it would be wrong to say we came here with buying fever. But those films are important in serving our underlying philosophy. We’re smaller than the big studios and we’re never going to compete against them in making tentpole movies. It’s not in our plan, unless something drastic happened and an opportunity presented itself. We don’t have corporate parents who give us tons of money to make movies, so we have to be very focused and specific. Our strategy is to segment the audience; locate groups that are definable and under-served, and make and market movies for them. That was the strategy behind 3 Days To Kill, November Man and The Family. All those movies skew older female and older male. That audience doesn’t show up gangbusters opening weekend, but if the movie plays, they will come and they will drive you to a decent number. When the rest of the movie world is a big gamble as you ask will they come or won’t they come, and you see these big bets sometimes not paying off, that older audience has become an increasingly important target for us. They’ve proven they will come, the female audiences for the Nicholas Sparks-type romantic films that play well with older and younger women, and older males come for these thrillers, whether it’s Kidnap, November Man or 3 Days To Kill. It’s a really defined place we’d like to go.

hectoraDEADLINE: So if you could have The Equalizer, that would constitute the perfect film for the new Relativity?
TOOLEY: I would have loved to make The Equalizer. For us, hitting singles and doubles consistently and at some point hitting a home run, that’s a good year for us, as long as we are making money and not losing it. All of the movies I mentioned will be or have been profitable for us. Profitability is the measure for us and not total box office, though we’d love to have some movies do $250 million-$300 million in global box office. We’ve had some big ones, like Limitless, The Fighter, Act Of Valor. But programming for older male and females, that’s a good space. When we acquired Act Of Valor for $12 million or $13 million, there were people who said, well, that’s the end of Relativity. How could they pay so much for a movie with no actors in it and nobody to put on the TV talks shows. But that film was a unique proposition and the audience understood and liked that and found it satisfying. We did around $72 million domestic there.

DEADLINE: Was there a costly failure that made you stop swinging for the fences in favor of the singles, doubles strategy where you’re not trying to compete with the studios?
TOOLEY: The only two bigger films we made were Immortals and Mirror Mirror, and both did pretty well. Immortals did $240 million worldwide, $83 million domestic. So we made money on that movie. Here’s the problem: When a company our size and with our resources takes a bet on a movie that big, you leverage a lot to do it. You put yourself in the big studio game and to move the needle, you have to put up an incredible amount of P&A. It was ultimately a fine result for us, but it also cost a lot of agita, getting there. We decided to let other people play in that space and that we would look for more moderately budgeted stuff.

DEADLINE: How much of your slate do you need to fill at Toronto?
TOOLEY: It’s not that simple. Generally, 25%-40% of our slate comes from acquisitions. It depends on where we are with the cycle and in the year, and how much we’ve acquired so far. But we’re always looking for a good opportunity and something that fits our model. If it’s available and right for us, we’re going to go after it hard.

DEADLINE: You share a distribution pipeline with Luc Besson and Christophe Lambert’s EuropaCorp. How many slots do you fill and how many do they?
immortalsTOOLEY: There is no number. We have an unlimited number of slots and the people to work them. They’re our partners in the pipeline, and their plan is to slowly build up to seven or eight movies a year. Right now we’re about 10 to 12 and we plan to get up to 15.

DEADLINE: So the strategy is come up with seven-figure minimum guarantees, and supply the P&A to release through this pipeline.
TOOLEY: That’s the strategy, and it has been a good business, especially on movies where we feel like we know the audience and that they’ll show up. We’re not looking to cover four quadrants, we are more focused on two quadrants that maybe skew a bit older. We love the Nick Sparks business, we are solidly in that and want to continue, on the production side. Our third, The Best Of Me, comes out in November. The first two were Dear John and Safe Haven, and both were huge successes for us. Dear John did over $80 million, Safe Haven did $70 million. Of the top-grossing Nick Sparks movies, I think they’re number one and two.

DEADLINE: If this works, what will Relativity be known as, a niche factory?
TOOLEY: At some point in time, we’d love to find a franchise. You’ve seen companies like Lionsgate and Summit transformed by one single successful franchise that I don’t think either realized they had until Twilight and The Hunger Games hit. You do this, and if you’re lucky, it just happens and then your company is defined in a different way. We want that, but for now, our focus, and what we’ll be known for, is finding smart movies in the audience segments we’re good at marketing for, and for making profitable films. We do tons of TV also; we’ve got 37 reality shows on the air and four or five scripted shows starting.

DEADLINE: In the overall picture, does TV drive the train?
TOOLEY: The biggest revenue driver is still film. Our sports business is growing tremendously; we’re the number two sports agency right now. There, the money is representing athletes in endorsements, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, but it’s more strategic than that. The businesses are complementary. Nobody knows what distribution will look like in 10 years, but what is consistent is that if you are an engine in the creation of good content in TV, reality, movies or digital, that is what is important. All our businesses create content. Sports, for instance, has incredible value. It’s the only programming people don’t fast forward through. They are watching these events live, and advertisers love it. These guys we represent who are part of these events are very valuable. They all see their career time horizon as 10 to 12 years and they want to figure out what they’ll do beyond that. And they are very interested in being involved in content. Amare is up here, we have a movie in the festival called Beyond The Lights that he produced and invested in. We created that opportunity for him.

amareDEADLINE: He’s broken the hearts of New Yorkers like me with his injuries, but he seems like a real renaissance man.
TOOLEY: He’s smart and aggressive, and for us this is a business that fits well with our other businesses. Every time we release a movie, as long as it’s applicable to the audience these athletes speak to, they tweet for us to probably a combined Twitter audience of 50 million. They help us promote our films and we help them. If he likes it, Amare will tell everybody, see this movie.

DEADLINE: The big question from this long-suffering Knicks fan about Amare is, how are his knees?
TOOLEY: They’re good. Yeah.

DEADLINE: Would you tell me if they weren’t?
TOOLEY: No. I wouldn’t. But they’re good. His knees looked just fine at the Beyond The Lights premiere.

DEADLINE: What will make this a successful Toronto?
TOOLEY: Hopefully we come out of this with a movie, but it has already been a success. We closed these two acquisitions…

beyondDEADLINE: Each of which has wide release potential.
TOOLEY: They will both be wide releases. Hopefully, we’ll get another movie here, but like any film market, there are benefits to being out there, looking. Even if you don’t find one, you’ve done advance research for the next one. My acquisition team is here, talking to everybody and looking at promos for pre-buys. Robbie Brenner is here, looking for the next strong filmmakers for our own productions, talking to talent. And we’re building toward the next market.

DEADLINE: Harvey Weinstein has always credited the growth of his company to breaking and growing with Quentin Tarantino. How important is hitching your wagon to emerging talent?
TOOLEY: There’s only one Quentin, and Harvey had the foresight to recognize and cultivate that relationship. We’d love the next one. We are working with a lot of talented filmmakers, many on the early side of their careers with tons of potential. We did The Fighter with David O Russell and we’re working on another film with him, while also developing a sequel to The Fighter with the same cast. Mark Wahlberg has been an engine behind a movie about the trilogy of fights and the relationship between Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. Round Nine of that first fight is maybe the best round of championship fighting I’ve ever seen. We’re working with Jim Sheridan again; Lee Daniels, whom I worked with as a producer; Tarsem. This is a priority.

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