EXCLUSIVE: Marc Butan, Kim Fox and Vincent Maraval are at the American Film Market this week with their newly rebranded company MadRiver International, the sales outfit formerly known as IMR (Insiders MadRiver).
The firm is a partnership between Butan’s production house MadRiver Pictures and Maraval’s Wild Bunch International, with Fox overseeing the joint venture. But there’s been some confusion over the rebrand, so on the eve of AFM we sat down with the trio at their new rental digs on the Santa Monica beachfront to give them a platform to clarify where the company is at. In a wide-reaching interview, we also talk through the health of the international biz and what’s working in the market right now.
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The company’s AFM slate features the market debuts of King of the Jungle, the Zac Efron-starring comedy from the directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love, the Gerard Butler action flick The Plane, and Joe Carnahan’s thriller Leo From Toledo with Mel Gibson and Frank Grillo.
DEADLINE: What’s the thinking behind the rebrand?
MARC BUTAN: Let me give some background. Kim and I started MadRiver three years ago and we were staffing the company up at the exact time that Vincent Maraval was building up Insiders. We’re friends, first of all, and we found ourselves putting the same lists of people together to build up a sales company infrastructure.
It was Roeg [Sutherland, co-head of CAA Media Finance] who suggested it. He said, ‘Why are you competing? Why don’t you join forces and do it together?’ With Vincent being in France, the relationships were very complimentary. Instead of going and reinventing the wheel, we told our investors we’d create a joint-venture sales company under IMR (Insiders MadRiver) and we’ve done that for three years.
The biggest issue is that, because Vincent still has Wild Bunch, and Kim was also representing Annapurna’s films for a while, we had all these company names swimming around. People were confused about who did what, so we decided to get rid of the IMR brand and focus on MadRiver, which is a more American independent film brand, and then Vincent has Wild Bunch International, which is a traditional European, foreign-language film brand. It was done for clarity.
KIM FOX: I was getting some questions about what we were doing, whether we’d split with Vincent, so we wanted it to be very clear. First of all, if anyone leaves it’s going to be me [laughs]. Speaking seriously, everything is remaining the same, it’s the same team doing the same thing.
DEADLINE: So no more Insiders?
VINCENT MARAVAL: When we started the operation, the idea was to develop two labels, but we ended up doing everything together. Insiders was not really working as a production company, while MadRiver was [through its production wing MadRiver Pictures]. Insiders is closed now. It doesn’t exist anymore. We wanted to save us time, to stop clients asking us every time to explain the structure.
BUTAN: MadRiver Pictures owned 50% of IMR and Insiders owned the other 50%. Insiders is now being absorbed into Wild Bunch, for all intents and purposes.
DEADLINE: And the wider structure of MadRiver remains the same?
BUTAN: The same.
DEADLINE: How does Wild Bunch fit into this?
MARAVAL: The Wild Bunch Group was refinanced by the original shareholder last year. In May this year we carved out the international division and that became an independent company, operating on its own and focusing on art house, foreign language, festival films. The only real change is the department becoming a company.
DEADLINE: So an easy way to put it is, with Insiders gone, the primary focus for MadRiver is English-language projects while for Wild Bunch its foreign language?
MARAVAL: It’s not that strict but it’s basically that. There are exceptions, like if Claire Denis is doing High Life in English language. Wild Bunch also does some British films.
DEADLINE: Vincent, how are you personally splitting your time between those two companies now?
MARAVAL: I make each of them believe that I am spending time with the other one [laughs].
BUTAN: I put Vincent at 5% Wild Bunch, 5% MadRiver International and 90% other stuff [laughs].
MARAVAL: I took care of the Wild Bunch restructuring which took me a lot of time. Now I am taking care more of the acquisitions, I don’t do any sales there, I am selling at MadRiver International.
DEADLINE: Do the company changes reflect changes in the market?
BUTAN: The market has changed a lot in the last 3-4 years. What used to work isn’t working anymore. We used to develop a script, put the elements together, and then go to the international market and that would be the backbone of your financing. Everything has turned on its head right now. On a lot of pictures, you need to understand what your domestic strategy is first.
There’s still a lot of cross-pollination between MadRiver Pictures and MadRiver International, several of our pictures at this market have both involved, but at the Pictures level we are also setting films up at distributors for worldwide, or television at networks. At the beginning Pictures and International were very integrated, but we’re trying to be responsive to the markets.
DEADLINE: Is pre-selling still a viable way to do business?
BUTAN: It is for certain titles.
FOX: For some titles it’s as robust as ever. But it is changing. There just aren’t as many $30 million-plus packages — that hasn’t changed the opportunity to sell them when you do have one.
BUTAN: It has bifurcated. There’s the $30 million and over, or maybe $20 million and over, bracket — those movies people understand and if there’s a domestic theatrical strategy in place, it can still sell to distributors worldwide. It’s hard to sell a $30 million movie into major territories without domestic already in place, or at least promised. The other market is the $12 million and under, the more traditional independent film market, more specialty films or genre films, that buyers can still come onto at a level without the domestic strategy being in place.
DEADLINE: What kind of projects are working in the market right now?
FOX: Honestly, it’s the stuff that always has worked. The larger-budget, more commercial action, fun, popcorn-type movies.
BUTAN: You still need a good script and a director.
MARAVAL: And a good concept.
FOX: Absolutely. Sh*t doesn’t work. That is 100% true. Maybe the marker used to be a bit lower, it’s certainly higher now. On the more specialty stuff, really specialized, interesting material that we see pop up in the fourth quarter every year — there’s always a market for that.
BUTAN: Two examples: we have the Gerard Butler movie [The Plane] in this market which is going bonkers, we have everybody offering on it everywhere. It’s an expensive movie but it’s a high-concept action movie that works in every territory around the world. When that happens, you think, ‘Why aren’t we doing this all the time?’ But they’re hard to put together. The flip side is we have this movie in post-production called What Is Life Worth. It’s a sub-$15 million Michael Keaton drama with a brilliant Black List script that has sold pretty widely with no domestic in place. People read it and thought it was a special one. Those are two areas that really work.
FOX: One thing that’s very different, there’s no such thing as a ‘piece of business” anymore. There used to be such a strong ancillary business but that doesn’t exist anymore. Nobody says [a movie] is just a “piece of business.”
BUTAN: Vincent has also had movies with the likes of Jacques Audiard, those special directors always break through.
MARAVAL: At one stage people needed quantity, they would take the middle range just to fill their lineup. Now they just want exceptional projects.
DEADLINE: Are there any territories that are working particularly well at the moment for sales?
MARAVAL: Asia is good. China is in a weird moment, it’s hard to say. The structure of that market is not so solid, a lot of people were paying expensive prices for films and now they are wondering what to do next.
DEADLINE: What about foreign-language films? Capernaum, which Wild Bunch sold to China [to local distrib Road Pictures], was a phenomenal success in the territory this year.
MARAVAL: China has become a very big territory for international films, the number one for some. That’s the other side of the trade war, as they were buying fewer U.S. films they were buying more international films. We have been lucky at Wild Bunch to have Capernaum and Shoplifters, it was a great year. Does it mean it will become a rule? I’m not sure.
DEADLINE: Where’s the Euro business at right now?
MARAVAL: The main issue today is that we moved from a local pay-TV model to a worldwide streaming model. Most European distributors were relying on pay-TV, that value was the key to proposing an MG, and as that business is suffering from the competition of the platforms we are now in a period of transition and reorganization. There’s still a theatrical market, admissions are not going down, it’s stable.
So far, it doesn’t look like the European market has found the right business model [for the future]. Europe is looking for a way, quotas on the streaming services will create a business inside Europe, if Disney+ is required to get 20% of its content from Europe, that’s good news. Netflix is investing a lot in foreign language. But it’s science fiction to try to know what will happen.
DEADLINE: How’s AFM shaping up?
FOX: It certainly feels more robust than the last couple of years, it seems like there are interesting things, but we’ll see in a week.
DEADLINE: What’s your take on how the AFM has changed in recent years?
BUTAN: The way this market has been for the last few years is, Kim will send a script out worldwide, and within 36 hours I know, deep down in my soul, if we’re screwed or not [laughs]. On the ones that are going to work, offers start coming in pretty quickly.
FOX: That started happening a fair amount of time ago. When I started out, you’d go to a market, meet everyone in the first four days, and start closing deals after. It’s been close to a decade now where you start closing deals immediately.
BUTAN: It’s smartphones.
FOX: I think buyers are panicked now if they get on a plane and they haven’t already bought a couple of things.
FOX: Markets are still important because both ourselves and distributors look at it as ‘a month.” They have a budget, they know they’re going to buy some movies and fill part of their slate. If we didn’t have markets, we wouldn’t have that drive where everyone is competing at the same time and it would become lackadaisical.
DEADLINE: Do we think the big deals will come back this year?
FOX: Honestly, I do. We just handled a film for Miramax [The Gentlemen] over the last year and the sales have been fantastic over the course of three markets — you can point to that and say that there’s still a dynamic business here.
BUTAN: If distributors believe in a film’s theatrical potential, the business is very good. The problem is if they’re worried about theatrical it’s very bad. That film Kim is referring to didn’t pre-sell, but then we showed up at Berlin with a promo reel and the world sold out within a day or two. From our point of view, the biggest challenge on the right projects is figuring out how to get them made. With the pre-sales business not as strong as it used to be, getting them to that place is harder than it has been in the past.
DEADLINE: Any plans to expand the company?
BUTAN: We’ve just been through a pretty big expansion. We brought Adapted Studios in May [the LA-based film and TV production outfit behind HBO’s Project Greenlight], they had raised a lot of money over the last few years, bought and developed a ton of IP, so we acquired that library. We’re now putting a lot more effort and focus into developing projects, and we also hired a TV person [Scott Emmer, formerly of AT&T’s Audience Network] to focus on that, we have a show with Hulu, and another one we’re in negotiations on now.
DEADLINE: Is TV a planned growth area?
BUTAN: Yeah. So many of the stories we like to tell have now migrated to television. Outside of the $12 million-and-under and the $30 million-and-over spaces, that stuff in between is more being told in hourly formats now.
DEADLINE: You work on quite a lot of agency packages. Do you have any formal tie-ups?
BUTAN: There’s nothing exclusive. We’re all friends with each other and it comes down to who you trust, and if you’re an agent who do you trust to execute and be honest about a project’s potential?
MARAVAL: We work with most of the agencies.
DEADLINE: Has the WGA dispute impacted you?
BUTAN: A little bit. It’s been challenging mostly on the TV stuff. Television is 100% driven by writers — you call up the agents we have relationships with looking for writers, you forget that they’re not doing their business right now so you have to go to their managers instead.
DEADLINE: Is MadRiver able to draw on funds to finance?
BUTAN: In a limited way we do.
DEADLINE: Is that MGs or do you have the capacity to take equity?
BUTAN: It’s case-specific, it’s not our primary business, but we can plug holes [in budgets].