International Disruptors: Bankside Films Co-Founder Stephen Kelliher On Propelling Breakout Horror Hit ‘Talk To Me’ & Importance Of “Building Films From The Ground Up”

Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. Today we’re talking to Stephen Kelliher, co-founder and MD of established London-based sales and film finance outfit Bankside Films. The company played a key role in getting Australian horror hit Talk to Me off the ground and Kelliher walks us through how that project came together as well as Bankside’s hefty EFM slate this year.

Stephen Kelliher is in a good mood. The Bankside Films co-founder and managing director is coming off of the back of a banner 12 months with his London-based sales and film finance outfit, a company that not only repped worldwide sales on Irish-language Oscar nominee The Quiet Girl but also played an integral role in getting Aussie breakout supernatural horror hit Talk to Me off the ground.

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The latter project, which was budgeted at $4.5M, kickstarted last year with a buzzy Sundance premiere leading to a bidding war between Universal and A24. A24 ultimately won the project in a high-seven figure deal. The film went on to take nearly $43.8M at the U.S. box office, becoming A24’s second-highest grossing film, and $93M worldwide.

“It’s monumental for us but also for the independent sector,” says Kelliher of the title, which also marks the highest-grossing film that Bankside has worked across. “When a movie takes off like that and makes that kind of money at the global box office, I think it’s a boost for everybody because it shows that the independent model can still work, and independent films can compete against studio films in a really significant way.”

It’s an encouraging case study in what is still a shaky independent film climate. Talk to Me was ultimately born out of Bankside’s longstanding relationship with Australian production company Causeway Films. Since 2017, the company has repped either worldwide or international sales on a number Causeway productions, including Martin Freeman starrer CargoYou Won’t Be Alone with Noomi Rapace, Of An Age, The Moogai and upcoming Went Up The Hill.

“They have been tremendous creative partners and have played an important role in growing Bankside to what it is today,” says Kelliher of the Aussie outfit.

When he first read the Talk to Me script, which sees a group of friends discover how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand, Kelliher says it felt like something “completely original and unique.” It marked the directorial debut from Australian YouTube stars Danny and Michael Philippou and based on the strength of the script, Bankside boarded worldwide sales. Phil Hunt and Compton Ross’ Head Gear Films (which backed and co-founded Bankside) then put in some gap finance for the film to get it made. In Cannes 2022, Bankside unveiled a promo reel to buyers, and it quickly became one of the most buzzed about projects on the Croisette that year. The project sold out worldwide, territory by territory, and it was then that Kelliher “started to get an inkling that this was a film that could go onto perform.”

The rest, they say, is history and Talk to Me, which A24 cleverly counter-programmed during Oppenheimer and Barbie release dates last summer, became a beacon of hope for the indie sector. “There’s a familiarity in the concept in terms of the fact that it’s a possession movie but the way Danny and Michael told the story is completely unexpected and I think that’s why it worked so well.”

TALK TO ME, Sophie Wilde, 2022
TALK TO ME, Sophie Wilde, 2022

Bankside beginnings

Kelliher admits that he never set out to work in the film business and was fortunate enough to walk into a job agency at the age of 19 and be offered an opportunity to be an assistant to the CEO of Vine International Pictures.

“I went from knowing nothing about film distribution to being at the Cannes Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and the American Film Market and I very quickly realized that this was a very special area in which to work,” he says. “It was really getting that job that sparked my love of film because, while it wasn’t something that I grew up with, I discovered the beauty whilst working on it, which I’m incredibly thankful for because most people don’t get those kinds of opportunities.”

After three years at Vine, Kelliher moved to the London office of Australian outfit Beyond Films, an iconic company back in the day that worked across films such as Strictly BallroomChopper and Lantana. He spent 15 years at that company as a sales and marketing executive working alongside sales veteran Hilary Davis before Hunt approached Kelliher and Davis to set up Bankside Films in 2007 with backing from Hunt’s Head Gear Films.

“We wanted to have more control over the types of movies we could be involved with,” Kelliher says. “Working for a bigger company, there’s often other kinds of remits at play and this was an opportunity to build something where the films that we were doing were representative of us as people and to create a brand that was built around our taste.”

Like most start-ups, the first years were more challenging than they expected. “It was hard to enter what is now a very crowded market and build a reputation for yourself,” he says. “You can do it instantly if you can heavily invest in films, otherwise you’re reliant on your reputation and your previous successes. I’ve always believed that success breeds success.”

In 2011 things began to change when British producer Damian Jones brought them Belle, a project from director Amma Asante about the illegitimate bi-racial girl (who would later be played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) of a British admiral in the 1780s who plays an important role in the campaign to abolish slavery in England. It was a story, says Kelliher, that “immediately spoke to us.”

“Looking back on that film, I firmly believe it was ahead of its time,” he says. “It was written and directed by a woman, and it was about a mixed-race woman in British upper-class society and all of the prejudice and challenges that come with that. Now, we live in a world where those stories are so important.”

Belle marked the first film Bankside sold globally, including a U.S. and UK sale to Fox Searchlight, and was a major springboard for the company in terms of enabling it to attract higher-profile films down the road. For Kelliher, it’s a film that is personally very special to him and is “definitely a career highlight.”

THE QUIET GIRL, (aka AN CAILIN CIUIN), from left: Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Catherine Clinch, 2022
THE QUIET GIRL, (aka AN CAILIN CIUIN), from left: Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Catherine Clinch, 2022

Next steps

Since then, Bankside has become a significant sales, production and finance entity in the independent marketplace having worked across titles such as The Quiet Girl, which was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars last year, and Jim Archer comedy Brian and Charles, which premiered in Sundance in 2022 before selling worldwide to Focus Features.

When it comes to selecting titles, Kelliher says Bankside is open to any genre but notes that it’s important that they feel like they are offering “something new or different to the marketplace.”

At this week’s European Film Market, Bankside is in town with a hefty slate. It’s repping international sales to Aisling Walsh’s Ethel, starring Unorthodox’s Shira Haas as pioneering conductor Ethel Stark who led the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra. Sarah Paulson also stars. It’s also repping Naomi Harris, Joel Fry and Jameela Jamil romantic comedy Lola and Freddie, billed as a British reimagining of 2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever.

Additionally, it’s repping worldwide sales for Ulga Hauksdóttir’s volcano thriller The Fires, about a volcanologist in Iceland who is responsible for predicting volcanic activity and ensuring public safety in a story that ultimately sees her caught between a love affair that may destroy her family and an eruption that threatens the capital city.

Bankside has also boarded international sales rights to Caroline Lindy’s Sundance Midnight movie Your Monster, starring Melissa Barrera. It follows the soft-spoken actress Laura Franco (Barrera) who, after her life falls apart, finds her voice again when she meets a terrifying, yet weirdly charming monster living in her closet.

It’s a slate that Kelliher feels is very reflective of Bankside’s eclectic tastes. “It’s tough to compete with eyeballs out there at the moment and if we’re not giving people a reason to seek out our film and leave their sofa to go to the cinema, then what’s the point?”

The company often acts as an executive producer on “most films” that it is involved with and it often steps in at a very early stage. “We want to be able to build films from the ground up rather than that slightly old-fashioned way of coming in once the producers have done all of the work. That way we can work with them to get the script to where it needs to be, work out a budget, work out which directors work and what costs work. We can then also speak to Head Gear but it also might mean speaking to other financiers in the marketplace as well.”

Indeed, having a sister company in Head Gear has been beneficial to Bankside over the years and has assisted in its growth but Kelliher points out that while there is a “shortcut between the two companies”, it’s by no means an exclusive situation.

“With each film, it’s really about finding the best fit for the project and then the best fit for the company,” he says.

From a company standpoint, theatrical releases are always key to Bankside. “We’ve always set out with theatrical ambition – that’s where we want our films to go and that’s played out very well for us in the last few years.”

He adds: “It’s the sales company’s job to be able to marry the creative with the commercial – that’s our single most important role and that’s what we try to do in every case. It’s a passion-based business and we want to do films that we care about and feel passionate about. We always say we’ll never do a film for the sake of doing a film – there has to be real belief in it and a belief that we can make a difference to the filmmakers.”

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